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What Is Repetition in Writing?
Repetition is a literary device that involves using the same word or phrase over and over again in a piece of writing or speech. Writers of all kinds use repetition, but it is particularly popular in oration and spoken word, where a listener’s attention might be more limited. In such circumstances, it can add emphasis and catchiness.
What Is the Function of Repetition?
Repetition is a favored tool among orators because it can help to emphasize a point and make a speech easier to follow. It also adds to the powers of persuasion—studies show that repetition of a phrase can convince people of its truth.
Writers and speakers also use repetition to give words rhythm. As with other devices such as rhyme, consonance, and assonance, repetition adds musicality to a piece of text and makes it more pleasing to listen to.
7 Types of Repetition
There are many different types of repetition—and most have their own unique term, usually of Greek origin. Here are a few key types of repetition:
- Anaphora. Anaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of several successive clauses that have different endings. This is such a popular tactic in oration that it appears in two of history’s most famous speeches—Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech and Winston Churchill’s “We Shall Fight on These Beaches” address.
- Epistrophe. The counterpart to anaphora, this involves repetition of the last word or phrase across successive phrases, clauses or sentences. There is a good example in 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. That means one word or phrase is repeated at the beginning of a line and another at the end. Bill Clinton once used in this example: “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.”
- Antanaclasis. From the Greek for “bending back,” this is the repetition of a word but using a different meaning each time. Benjamin Franklin used it once when he said: “Your argument is sound, nothing but sound.” In the first instance, he implies the argument is solid; in the second, that it’s just noise.
- Antistasis. When antanaclasis goes so far as to incorporate opposite meanings, it is antistasis. It’s visible in another example attributed to Franklin: “We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” Here the two meanings—unity and victory on the one hand and defeat and death on the other—could not be more contrary.
- Negative-positive restatement. Another useful formula for oratory, this involves making a similar statement twice—first negatively, then with a positive twist. A famous example comes from John F. Kennedy, who implored: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
- Epizeuxis, a.k.a. “palilogia.” This is the simple repetition of a single word or phrase in immediate succession. Take this example from Macduff in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “O horror, horror, horror!”
What Is the Difference Between Repetition and Repetition of Sounds?
The above categories are all figures of speech where a word or phrase is repeated. However, there is another type of repetition in writing—the repetition of sounds. This type of repetition includes:
- Consonance, where a consonant sound repeats in a string of words.
- Assonance, or the repetition of vowel sounds
- Alliteration, where initial letter sounds repeat.
While these literary terms all involve repetition, in literary analysis, experts usually use the term “repetition” to refer only to the use of recurring words and phrases.
Example of Repetition in Literature and Poetry
The power of repetition becomes clear when looking at examples in poetry and literature. Take this example of repetition from one of Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous poems, “The Bells” (1849):
To the tintinabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells—
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.
The chief kind of repetition Poe has used is epizeuxis, with the word “bells” repeating in direct succession. One of the effects of this repetition is that it creates onomatopoeia, eventually approximating something like clanging metal. Poe repeats the word “bells” 62 times in the poem.