The most effective communication is clear and concise. That’s why our teachers told us to make sure we don’t repeat the same words over and over again, and to think up synonyms instead.
But when you study a piece of powerful writing or speech, you’ll see that it may not adhere to those principles of brevity the whole time; certain phrases, ideas, and images are repeated throughout. Wasn’t the writer supposed to think of other words to use?
For the best writers, that repetition is not accidental. The author has reached into their toolbox and used a literary device called repetition to give emphasis to an idea within a larger text.
Definition of Repetition
As a literary device, repetition is the process of repeating certain words or phrases in order to make an idea more memorable and clear. Repetition is used in speeches, literature, and poetry, and can be applied to a word, a line, a phrase, or even a full sentence.
Repetition signals to readers, “Hey, listen, this is important!” In a way, you are calling attention to the importance of the line and giving it emphasis. Still, you don’t always want this to be obvious to readers, as it may diminish the reading experience if not done effectvely.
Types of Repetition
In hopes of not sounding too repetitive throughout your text, check out these different types of repetition.
Instead of using the same tactic repeatedly (pardon the pun!), remember to mix for the different types throughout your writing.
Repeating the last word or group of words in a clause or a line helps emphasize the connection between two ideas. It is common in different kinds of literature, such as children’s books, famous speeches, and even the Bible.
The repetition results in an emphasis that persuades people by creating a sense of urgency, while also giving the text or speech a pleasing rhythm.
It may also be used to show a logical progression of ideas through three or more clauses. This example from the film Gladiator shows how this works:
“The general who became a slave. The slave who became a gladiator. The gladiator who defied an emperor.”
Anaphora is repeating words at the beginning of verses or clauses. This is common in children’s stories in order to build up a child’s anticipation and encourage participation. For example, the classic children’s book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr. goes:
Brown Bear, Brown Bear, what do you see?
I see a red bird looking at me.
Red Bird, Red Bird, what do you see?
I see a yellow duck looking at me.
Yellow Duck, Yellow Duck, what do you see?
I see a blue horse looking at me.
The repetition of the names in the first line help to draw the child’s attention to the animal, while the repetition of the clause “what do you see?” and the beginning words “I see a…” helps cement the practice of saying what he sees.
Diacope is the repetition of words or phrases with one or more new words in between. The reason for the repetition is simply to draw the reader’s attention to the repeated word. One of the most popular examples of a diacope is the opening line of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina:
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
The repetition of the word “unhappy” helps to focus the reader’s attention on this idea.
Epimone is repeating a phrase, oftentimes a question, in order to emphasize a point.
For example, in the children’s picture book Caps For Sale, when the peddler realizes he’s lost all his caps while he was taking a nap, the story goes:
“He looked to the right of him. No caps. He looked to the left of him. No caps. He looked in back of him. No caps. He looked behind the tree. No caps.”
The constant repetition of the phrase “no caps” emphasizes his dismay at having lost all his caps:
Epiphora is repeating the same word or phrase at the end of each line. Look at this example from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice:
BASSANIO: Sweet Portia,
If you did know to whom I gave the ring,
If you did know for whom I gave the ring
And would conceive for what I gave the ring
And how unwillingly I left the ring,
When naught would be accepted but the ring,
You would abate the strength of your displeasure.
PORTIA: If you had known the virtue of the ring,
Or half her worthiness that gave the ring,
Or your own honor to contain the ring,
You would not then have parted with the ring.
The constant repetition of the word “the ring” at the end of every line helps the reader pay attention to this object throughout the discourse.
This strategy involves repeating a word at the end of every clause or line. This technique helps writers add not just emphasis but also rhythm to their writing.
For example, in the apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he describes this scene:
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.
If we were to shorten this line, we could write, “When I was a child, I talked, thought, and reasoned like one.” But notice that it loses the evocative feel of the original text.
This is a poetry construction in which the last word of one line is used as the first word of the next, and so on.
For example, in this worship song by Kari Jobe, you can find the second phrase in the first line repeated as the beginning of the second line:
The more I seek You, the more I find You. The more I find You, the more I love You.
Mesodiplosis refers to the repetition of a word in the middle of every clause. An example found in the Bible is in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians:
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.
The repetition of the phrase “but not” helps to emphasize that all the lines are meant to show a contrast.
9. Negative-Positive Restatement
This repetition technique states an idea two times: first, it expresses the idea in a negative sense, and then repeats it in a positive sense. This is a common strategy in rhetoric, and makes for memorable lines that we love to quote, such as the following examples:
Martin Luther King, Jr., in Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, says: “Freedom is not given, it is won.”
In Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, there is this line: “The tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one is young.”
And of course, a frequently quoted line from President John Kennedy’s Inaugural Address goes: “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country… My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”
Effects of Repetition in Writing
As you can see, using repetition effectively can make your writing shine. But make sure that the purpose of the repetition is not just to increase your word count in a paper; rather, focus on emphasizing ideas and adding rhythm to your work.
With practice, you will find yourself becoming more comfortable wielding this powerful rhetoric tool.
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