Writing 101: What Is Anaphora? Learn About the Rhetorical Device With Examples From Literature and Famous Speeches

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Last updated: Oct 9, 2019 • 3 min read

The lyrics of The Police’s hit song “Every Breath You Take” repeats the word “every” to drive home a point and produce a catchy chorus. It’s a good example of anaphora—a kind of repetition beloved by writers and public speakers. This rhetorical device is often at play whenever someone is trying to amp up their powers of persuasion or create a strong rhythm.



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What Is Anaphora?

Anaphora is the repetition of a word or sequence of words at the beginning of successive clauses, phrases, or sentences. It is one of many rhetorical devices used by orators and writers to emphasize their message or to make their words memorable.

What Is the Origin of Anaphora?

The word “anaphora” entered the English language from the Greek, where it means “reference” or “a carrying back.” English speakers have used the present definition of anaphora since the fourteenth century.

What Is the Function of Anaphora?

Writers use anaphora intentionally as a literary device, knowing that they can achieve several effects.

  • Give emphasis. Anaphora draws attention to the repeated words, as well as those directly around them. This makes anaphora a particularly popular tool for public speaking, where the audience might have a more limited attention span and lacks the option to re-read any words they’ve missed.
  • Create a rhythm. Judicious repetition can make a piece of text more musical and lilting, and therefore more pleasant to read or listen to.
  • Link, compare, or contrast ideas. Sometimes the ideas that follow the successive repeated words are quite different. In these cases, anaphora invites the audience to appreciate the contrast more deeply.
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What Is the Difference Between Anaphora, Epistrophe, and Symploce?

There are two literary terms with definitions closely related to anaphora.

  • Epistrophe. Sometimes called epiphora, this direct counterpart to anaphora involves repetition at the end of successive clauses or sentences. A good example comes from the Bible: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
  • Symploce. This is a combination of anaphora and epistrophe, involving one repetition at the beginning of a line and another at the end. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton used symploce in this speech: “When there is talk of hatred, let us stand up and talk against it. When there is talk of violence, let us stand up and talk against it.”

Examples of Anaphora in Public Speaking

Great orators often favor anaphora—so much so that there are examples in two of history’s most famous speeches.

  • Martin Luther King Jr.’s use of anaphora is a big part of why his “I Have a Dream Speech” speech is so powerful and persuasive. He repeats the “I have a dream” phrase eight times throughout the speech.
  • Winston Churchill put anaphora to similar use in his World War II speech, “We Shall Fight on the Beaches,” repeating “we shall” and “we shall fight.”


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An Example of Anaphora in Literature

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Outside of the spoken word, there are anaphora examples throughout written literature. Take the famous opening lines to Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

Here, Dickens combines anaphora with another type of repetition called antithesis, which means placing opposite ideas in the same parallel spot in a sentence. This invites readers to think more deeply about the contrasts and ponder how they can all be true.

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