What’s an anacoluthon?

Word count: 361 words

Reading time: Just over 1 minute

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: anacoluthon.

When I was in grade 10, an English teacher tortured our class by requiring us to keep a list of “new words” (for marks)! We had to come up with a new word per day (7 days a week — all year) and give its correct definition. But here is the kicker: we also had to reveal the SOURCE of the word — the sentence in which we’d discovered it. That’s the part that drove me crazy. I couldn’t seem to find enough big words in my reading and I always whined to my parents about how much easier my life would be if I could simply pull the words directly from the dictionary.

Yes, that would have been easier but now I understand why my teacher created her rule. She not only wanted to encourage us to read more vigorously, she also wanted us to understand context. After all, what would be the value of learning the word like matelasse (I just pulled that at random from my dictionary) if we were never likely to use it again? By the way, matelasse means having a surface with a raised design.

I tell you this back-story because I don’t have the source for today’s word. It comes from a reader and he can’t recall where he found it. But thank you to John Frieson for suggesting the word anacoluthon.

This is a really terrific word for writers because it’s a rhetorical device. An anacoluthon refers to an abrupt change within a sentence to a second construction inconsistent with the first. Here’s an example: I warned him that if he continues to drink, what will become of him? As you can see, an anacoluthon is a grammatical error; but it’s deliberate and it’s intended to show excitement, confusion, or laziness.

The etymology of anacoluthon is fascinating! It comes from a Latinized form of Greek anakoluthon, meaning “not following.” This refers to how the two parts of the sentence don’t really match up.

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