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Understanding Polyptoton: Definition and Examples of Polyptoton

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 1 min read

Learn about polyptoton and find out how to recognize and use this stylistic scheme with examples from literature.



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What Is a Polyptoton?

Polyptoton is a stylistic device that consists of the repetition of a root word in different inflections or different cases for rhetorical effect. Placing different forms of the same word in close proximity can create irony, emphasize an argument, or build a rhythm.

3 Examples of Polyptoton

Polyptoton seems like an obscure literary term, but once you recognize it, you’ll see examples of polyptoton everywhere. Get started with a few classics:

  1. Old English proverbs: “Better often loaded than overloaded.” A translation of an Old English proverb, this example of polyptoton makes the saying more memorable by repeating the root word “load.” It’s a practical maxim, suggesting that it’s sometimes better to make two trips than to carry something that’s too heavy for you.
  2. Richard II by William Shakespeare: “With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder.” This line, spoken by John of Gaunt in Act 2 Scene 1 of Richard II by William Shakespeare, features three different forms of the word “food,” which comes from the Old English “fōda.”
  3. “Sonnet 116” by William Shakespeare: “Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds, / Or bends with the remover to remove.” These three lines from “Sonnet 116” by William Shakespeare feature two examples of polyptoton: alter/alteration and remover/remove. The repetition of a word in various forms enhances the poem’s rhythm. It also creates internal rhyme and alliteration.
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What Is the Difference Between Polyptoton and Antanaclasis?

Polyptoton is sometimes confused with a related literary device, antanaclasis. In antanaclasis, the same word is repeated in a sentence, but with different meanings. For example, “Put out the light, then put out the light,” from Shakespeare’s Othello is antanaclasis. If the words aren’t exactly the same—they might be in different parts of speech, or cognates—you’re probably dealing with polyptoton.

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