Aposiopesis: The Broken Figure of Speech

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Aposiopesis is a rhetorical term for an unfinished thought or broken sentence. Also known as interruptio and interpellatio.

In writing, aposiopesis is commonly signaled by a dash or ellipsis points.

Like paralepsis and apophasis, aposiopesis is one of the classical figures of silence.

From the Greek, "becoming silent"

Examples and Observations

  • "Almira Gulch, just because you own half the county doesn't mean that you have the power to run the rest of us. For 23 years I've been dying to tell you what I thought of you! And now--well, being a Christian woman, I can't say it!"
    (Auntie Em in The Wizard of Oz, 1939)
  • "Sir Richard hurled a match, which for some moments he had been applying without noticeable effect to the bowl of his pipe. 'It remains a mystery to me,' he said, his face expressing suitable if momentary mystification 'how the girl was murdered. Could she have been shot from outside, do you suppose, and the window--?' He indicated his lack of confidence in the suggestion by resorting to aposiopesis."
    (Edmund Crispin, The Case of the Gilded Fly, 1944)
  • "I will have such revenges on you both
    That all the world shall--I will do things--
    What they are yet, I know not; but they shall be
    The terrors of the earth!"
    (William Shakespeare, King Lear)
  • "I won't sleep in the same bed with a woman who thinks I'm lazy! I'm going right downstairs, unfold the couch, unroll the sleeping ba--uh, goodnight."
    (Homer Simpson in The Simpsons)
  • "Dear Ketel One Drinker--There comes a time in everyone's life when they just want to stop what they're doing and . . ."
    (print ad for Ketel One vodka, 2007)
  • "[Aposiopesis] can simulate the impression of a speaker so overwhelmed by emotions that he or she is unable to continue speaking. . . . It can also convey a certain pretended shyness toward obscene expressions or even an everyday casualness."
    (Andrea Grun-Oesterreich, "Aposiopesis." Encyclopedia of Rhetoric, ed. by Thomas O. Sloane. Oxford University. Press, 2001)
  • "All quiet on Howth now. The distant hills seem. Where we. The rhododendrons. I am a fool perhaps."
    (James Joyce, Ulysses)
  • "She looked perplexed for a moment, and then said, not fiercely, but still loud enough for the furniture to hear:
    "'Well, I lay if I get hold of you I'll--'
    "She did not finish, for by this time she was bending down and punching under the bed with the broom . . .."
    (Aunt Polly in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, 1876)
  • "And there’s Bernie layin’
    On the couch, drinkin’ a beer
    And chewin’--no, not chewin’--poppin’.
    So I said to him,
    I said, 'Bernie, you pop that
    Gum one more time . . .'
    And he did.
    So I took the shotgun off the wall
    And I fired two warning shots . . .
    Into his head."
    ("Cell Block Tango," from Chicago, 2002)

Types of Aposiopesis

  • "The emotive aposiopesis is brought about by a conflict--real or represented as real--between an increasing outburst of emotion on the part of the speaker and the (material or personal) environment which does not react at all to the outburst of emotion. The speaker's isolation from the concrete environment, caused by the emotion, borders on the comical. In painful awareness of this situation the speaker breaks off this outburst of emotion in mid-sentence . . ..
    "The calculated aposiopesis is based on a conflict between the content of the omitted utterance and an opposing force which rejects the content of this utterance. . . . The utterance is therefore omitted, which is generally explicitly confirmed afterwards. . . .
    "Audience-respecting aposiopesis . . . comprises the omission of utterances which are disagreeable to the audience and of contents which generally offend the sense of shame. . . .
    "The transitio-aposiopesis seeks to spare the audience from having to listen to the contents of the section of the speech that is about to end, in order to gain immediately their all the stronger interest in the new section. . . .
    "The emphatic aposiopesis . . . exploits the avoidance of the full utterance through aposiopesis in order to represent the object as greater, more terrible, indeed inexpressible . . .."
    (Heinrich Lausberg, Handbook of Literary Rhetoric: A Foundation for Literary Study, 1960/1973. Trans. by Matthew T. Bliss et al.; ed. by David E. Orton and R. Dean Anderson. Brill, 1998)

Variations on Aposiopesis in Films

  • "A sentence may be split between two people, with continuity no longer of timbre and pitch, but only of grammar and meaning. To Robert Dudley, seated under a river boat's curtained canopy, a messenger announces, 'Lady Dudley was found dead . . .' ' . . . Of a broken neck,' Lord Burleigh adds, informing the queen at business in her palace (Mary Queen of Scots, television, Charles Jarrott). When Citizen Kane runs for governor, Leland is telling an audience, 'Kane, who entered on this campaign' (and Kane, speaking from another platform, continues the sentence) 'with one purpose only: to point out the corruption of Boss Geddes's political machine. . . .' The two fragments form, and are spoken as, a grammatical whole, through the change of place, time, and person (Citizen Kane, Orson Welles)."
    (N. Roy Clifton, The Figure in Film. Associated University Presses, 1983)

Pronunciation: AP-uh-SI-uh-PEE-sis

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Aposiopesis: The Broken Figure of Speech." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/what-is-aposiopesis-rhetoric-1689117. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Aposiopesis: The Broken Figure of Speech. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-aposiopesis-rhetoric-1689117 Nordquist, Richard. "Aposiopesis: The Broken Figure of Speech." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-aposiopesis-rhetoric-1689117 (accessed June 2, 2023).