The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Aposiopesis: A rhetorical figure involving individual sentences left suggestively incomplete or otherwise involving a dramatic breaking off of discourse, often suggesting that a speaker has been rendered speechless by a flood of emotions. In written texts, aposiopesis is usually indicated by ellipses (…) or a dash ( — ).

EXAMPLES: A famous speech by Demogorgon in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (1820) employs aposiopesis:

If the abysm

Could vomit forth its secrets… . But a voice

Is wanting, the deep truth is imageless.

The following line from Thomas Hardy’s “The Temporary the All” (1898) also uses aposiopesis: “Thus I … but lo, me!”

Novelist Henry James, who employed this device regularly, often followed aposiopeses with the three-word sentence “She hung fire,” a nineteenth-century idiom meaning that a person is overcome by strong feelings. Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000) uses aposiopesis to convey the gap between Londoners from different cultural backgrounds. Offered an “Indian sweet” that’s “half-white, half-pink,” a young office staffer named Noel responds to what for him is an “unwelcoming odor” by stammering “that’s very … But it’s really not my cup of …”