What’s ‘hypotaxis’?

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Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: hypotaxis.

I’ve watched the upcoming American election with more than my usual interest (I have an undergrad degree in political science), as a result of the bizarre performance of Donald Trump. Also, as a high school debate coach, I’m also particularly invested in seeing debaters in action, so last week’s 2016 presidential debate, moderated by Lester Holt, kept me glued to my television set for the full 90 minutes.

Recently, I came across a post on Vox — website of an American digital media company — that not only offered interesting speculation from linguists about Donald Trump’s speaking style, but that also gave me my word of the week, hypotaxis. Here is how linguist Geoffrey Pullum used it:

[Trump’s] speech suggests a man with scattered thoughts, a short span of attention, and a lack of intellectual discipline and analytical skills. [He cannot seem to use ] hypotaxis — that is, [the] embedding of clauses within clauses.

I’d never heard this word before, so here is Pullum explaining it further:

When you say something like ‘While Congress shows no interest in doing X, I feel that the American people believe it is essential,’ the clause ‘it is essential’ is inside the clause ‘the American people believe it is essential’ which is inside the clause ‘I feel that the American people believe it is essential,’ and so on. You get no such organized thoughts from Trump. It’s bursts of noun phrases, self-interruptions, sudden departures from the theme, flashes of memory, odd side remarks. … It’s the disordered language of a person with a concentration problem.

The etymology of the word comes from the Greek hypo, meaning  “under, beneath; up from under; toward and under (i.e. into),”and from the Greek taxis, meaning an “arrangement, an arranging, the order or disposition of an army, battle array; order, regularity.”

If a discussion about Trump’s speaking style interests you, be sure to check out the Vox post in its entirety.

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