Hypotaxis in English Sentences

Structure Defined by Subordination of Phrases, Clauses

This complex sentence illustrates hypotaxis.

Hypotaxis, also called subordinating style, is a grammatical and rhetorical term used to describe an arrangement of phrases or clauses in a dependent or subordinate relationship -- that is, phrases or clauses ordered one under another. In hypotactic constructions, subordinating conjunctions and relative pronouns serve to connect the dependent elements to the main clause. Hypotaxis comes from the Greek work for subjection.

In "The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics,"  John Burt points out that hypotaxis can also "extend beyond the sentence boundary, in which case the term refers to a style in which the logical relationships among sentences are explicitly rendered." 

In "Cohesion in English,"  M.A.K. Halliday and Ruqaiya Hasan identify three primary types of hypotactic relation: "Condition (expressed by clauses of condition, concession, cause, purpose, etc.); addition (expressed by the non-defining relative clause); and report." They also note that hypotactic and paratactic structures "may combine freely in a single clause complex."

Examples and Observations on Hypotaxis

  • "One December morning near the end of the year when snow was falling moist and heavy for miles all around, so that the earth and the sky were indivisible, Mrs. Bridge emerged from her home and spread her umbrella." -- Evan S. Connell, "Mrs. Bridge" (1959)
  • "Let the reader be introduced to Joan Didion, upon whose character and doings much will depend of whatever interest these pages may have, as she sits at her writing table in her own room in her own house on Welbeck Street." -- Joan Didion, "Democracy" (1984)
  • "When I was around nine or ten I wrote a play which was directed by a young, white schoolteacher, a woman, who then took an interest in me, and gave me books to read, and, in order to corroborate my theatrical bent, decided to take me to see what she somewhat tactlessly referred to as 'real' plays." -- James Baldwin, "Notes of a Native Son" (1955)
  • Samuel Johnson's Hypotactic Style
    "Among the innumerable practices by which interest or envy have taught those who live upon literary fame to disturb each other at their airy banquets, one of the most common is the charge of plagiarism. When the excellence of a new composition can no longer be contested, and malice is compelled to give way to the unanimity of applause, there is yet this one expedient to be tried, by which the author may be degraded, though his work be reverenced; and the excellence which we cannot obscure, may be set at such a distance as not to overpower our fainter lustre. This accusation is dangerous, because, even when it is false, it may be sometimes urged with probability. " -- Samuel Johnson, "The Rambler" (July 1751)
  • Virginia Woolf's Hypotactic Style
    "Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s arm-chair and confuse his 'Rinse the mouth -- rinse the mouth' with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us -- when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature." Virginia Woolf, "On Being Ill," New Criterion (January 1926)
  • Oliver Wendell Holmes' Use of Hypotaxis
    "If you have advanced in line and have seen ahead of you the spot you must pass where the rifle bullets are striking; if you have ridden at night at a walk toward the blue line of fire at the dead angle of Spottsylvania, where for twenty-four hours the soldiers were fighting on the two sides of an earthwork, and in the morning the dead and dying lay piled in a row six deep, and as you rode you heard the bullets splashing in the mud and earth about you; if you have been in the picket-line at night in a black and unknown wood, have heard the splat of the bullets upon the trees, and as you moved have felt your foot slip upon a dead man's body; if you have had a blind fierce gallop against the enemy, with your blood up and a pace that left no time for fear -- if, in short, as some, I hope many, who hear me, have known, you have known the vicissitudes of terror and triumph in war; you know that there is such a thing as the faith I spoke of." -- Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., "The Soldier's Faith" (May 1895)

    "Holmes, a thrice-wounded officer of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteers, knew whereof he spoke, certainly. The passage [above] is drawn up like lines of battle, 'if' clauses (the protasis) that one has to pass one-by-one before reaching the 'then' clause (the apodosis). The 'syntax' is, in the literal sense of the Greek, a line of battle. The sentence ... seems to map a series of Civil War skirmish lines. This is hypotactic arrangement for certain." -- Richard A. Lanham, "Analyzing Prose" (2003)
  • Parataxis and Hypotaxis
    "There's nothing wrong with parataxis. It's good, simple, plain, clean-living, hard-working, up-bright-and-early English. Wham. Bam. Thank you, ma'am. 

    "[George] Orwell liked it. [Ernest] Hemingway liked it. Almost no English writer between 1650 and 1850 liked it.

    "The alternative, should you, or any writer of English, choose to employ it (and who is to stop you?) is, by use of subordinate clause upon subordinate clause, which itself may be subordinated to those clauses that have gone before or after, to construct a sentence of such labyrinthine grammatical complexity that, like Theseus before you when he searched the dark Minoan mazes for that monstrous monster, half bull and half man, or rather half woman for it had been conceived from, or in, Pasiphae, herself within a Daedalian contraption of perverted invention, you must unravel a ball of grammatical yarn lest you wander for ever, amazed in the maze, searching through dark eternity for a full stop.

    "That's hypotaxis, and it used to be everywhere. It's hard to say who started it, but the best candidate was a chap called Sir Thomas Browne." -- Mark Forsyth, "The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase" (2013)

    "Classical and 18th-century hypotaxis suggests the virtues of balance and order; biblical and 20th-century parataxis (Hemingway, Salinger, McCarthy) suggest a democratic leveling and an inversion of natural power relations (the voice of the expatriate, the disillusioned, the outlaw). Hypotaxis is the structure of sober refinement and discrimination; parataxis the structure of intoxication and divinely inspired utterance." -- Timothy Michael, "British Romanticism and the Critique of Political Reason"  (2016)
  • Characteristics of Hypotactic Prose
    "Hypotactic style allows syntax and structure to supply useful information. Instead of simple juxtaposition of elements by way of simple and compound sentences, hypotactic structures rely more on complex sentences to establish relationships among elements. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1969) observed, 'The hypotactic construction is the argumentative construction par excellence. Hypotaxis creates frameworks [and] constitutes the adoption of a position'." -- James Jasinski, "Sourcebook on Rhetoric: Key Concepts in Contemporary Rhetorical Studies" (2001)

    "The subordinating style orders its components in relationships of causality (one event or state is caused by another), temporality (events and states are prior or subsequent to one another), and precedence (events and states are arranged in hierarchies of importance). 'It was the books I read in high school rather than those I was assigned in college that influenced the choices I find myself making today' -- two actions, one of which is prior to the other and has more significant effects that continue into the present." Stanley Fish, "How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One" (2011)