I am helping a friend who is preparing for their GRE (Graduate Record Examinations).

In the "reading comprehension" section, there is a passage and then there are some questions. While I can easily understand the passage and answer the questions correctly, I don't particularly understand how some of the sentences are constructed.

Most of Werner's metaphorical moments were painterly - the juxtaposing of the wild bird and the tame tree, the shimmer of the periwinkle, the splurt of titanium white that fell from it onto the pavement. He loved New York for its simple surprises, although in truth, Oregon and Iowa and Arizona and everywhere else had simple surprises as well. Cantaloupe-colored sunrises, banded cows, Dairy Queens, all kinds of things that didn't include black plastic mountains of trash and the smell of dog urine.

First, why are there three "and"s like that - so close to each other? They don't seem to be serving a purpose that commas cant.

Second, the bold sentence has me really confused - it is not idiomatic (In fact, I suspect it is not syntactically valid).

Question: How is the bold sentence idiomatic or even logical? There seems to be something missing from it. To me, it seems incomplete - like a sentence fragment.

This seems to be from a famous "creative nonfiction" essay published in "Best American Essays 2007". The essay is called “Werner”, written by Jo Ann Beard. I can't find the full essay, but here is the paragraph I am talking about (passage 2): GRE Reading Comprehension "Werner".

2 Answers 2


The use of more ands than customary is a figure of speech called polysyndeton.* Its purpose is to…make the sentence longer. In this case, the extra ands in place of commas emphasize that the list of states is haphazard and incomplete.

You are right that the following sentence is a fragment. Properly, it's part of the previous sentence, in apposition with "simple surprises". It's a haphazard, incomplete list of simple surprises not found in New York. Making an appositive into a separate sentence with no verb is another figure of speech. It suggests a longer pause than normal after the first sentence, so the reader understands the first sentence as a complete thought in itself—which the author then amends by providing some specific examples of the simple surprises.

Sentence fragments for rhetorical effect are especially common in advertising copy. For example, here's a famous advertisement for Cider Jack:

It's like mom used to make.
Just before she was arrested.

By the way, the sentence fragment in your example, as well as the first sentence of the paragraph, also have the opposite figure of speech from polysyndeton: asyndeton, the omission of the and that would normally go at the end of the list.* In this case, it also emphasizes that the list is haphazard and incomplete.

Perhaps the best way to understand the purpose of these figures of speech is to rewrite the sentences without them and compare the result. A prosaic rewrite might go like this:

He loved New York for its simple surprises but everywhere else has simple surprises, too, including Oregon, Iowa, and Arizona. New York's simple surprises include large piles of black garbage bags and the smell of dog urine. The simple surprises of other places include cantaloupes, banded cows, and Dairy Queens, as well as those of New York.

It's hard to explain the effect of the difference in style; it needs to be felt, on the basis of long experience with the language. To me, the prosaic version feels incongruous. It gives way too much emphasis to the specific examples, suggesting that they should be memorized for an exam or they're important facts for a legal case. The original version has the character of a montage: it gives you a general impression of what kinds of thing tended to attract Werner's attention. It conveys the general impression through carefully chosen examples without getting sidetracked by those examples.

* Note that "polysyndeton" and "asyndeton" are obscure words; hardly anyone knows them.

  • This is an incredible answer Ben Kovitz. The detail really helps, thanks. I guess it felt more unusual (and incorrect) to me because I am more used to reading academic publications, government and think tank reports, and news articles - all of which mostly follow expository or persuasive writing styles with traditional syntactic constructions. It seems to be a lacking in my exposure to this kind of usage.
    – AIQ
    Oct 18, 2019 at 23:29
  • @AIQ From the writing in your answers, I thought you were a native speaker! Welcome to the "special effects" of English. :)
    – Ben Kovitz
    Oct 18, 2019 at 23:40

What you are looking at is prose written as it might be spoken extemporaneously, what is sometimes called a "stream of consciousness" - as thoughts occur to someone. When people are speaking in everyday life, they don't always plan out their sentences. You might begin speaking and have a broad idea of what you want to say, but you may not have thought about every single word you are going to use. Rules of thumb, such as how many "ands" you use are not always obeyed. Much creative writing tries to imitate this style of speech.

  1. Using "and" multiple times in one sentence without punctuation, as a list of things, is generally considered bad practice - but there are exceptions. Again, if you were speaking, and not fully aware of how many items may come to your mind as you begin a list, you may not strictly obey this rule of thumb.

  2. This is also a list - items that the first person in the text is seeing:

Cantaloupe-colored sunrises, banded cows, Dairy Queens, all kinds of things that didn't include black plastic mountains of trash and the smell of dog urine.

All the items seem perfectly understandable in isolation:

  • Cantaloupe-colored sunrises (sunrises the colour of a cantaloupe melon)
  • banded cows (cows with a black/white stripe)
  • Dairy Queens (an American chain of soft serve ice cream and fast-food restaurants)
  • all kinds of things that didn't include black plastic mountains of trash and the smell of dog urine (self-explanatory)

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