Wilbers: Repeating yourself can be an effective stylistic device

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 16, 2014 - 10:27 AM

If Patrick Henry had said, “I’d give anything for liberty, even my life,” we wouldn’t be quoting him today.

Instead, he proclaimed, “Give me liberty, or give me death,” to which his compatriots are said to have shouted, “To arms! To arms!” thereby responding emphatically to an emphatically rousing statement.

His emphasis came not only from the drama and bravado of the moment, but also from one of the simplest and most useful stylistic devices in language: repetition.

There are many types.

Simple repetition creates the rising intensity of parallel structure, as it did when Martin Luther King declared on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, “I have a dream that one day … I have a dream that one day. …”

Repetition at the beginnings and endings of successive phrases creates a special kind of emphasis, as it did in Henry’s 1775 speech to the Virginia Convention (“Give me … or give me …”) and in Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address (“… government of the people, by the people and for the people”).

When Marcus Tullius Cicero, Marcus Fabius Quintilianus and other classical rhetoricians opened successive phrases with repeated words, they called it anaphora; when they closed successive phrases with the same words, they called it epistrophe.

The opening of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” is a famous example of anaphora: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was … it was … it was. …”

The following verse from Corinthians is a memorable example of epistrophe: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.”

Malcolm X uses both anaphora and epistrophe when he asked, “Why should white people be running all the stores in our community? Why should white people be running the banks of our community?”

Today, we can use these rhetorical schemes to write and speak eloquently or just plain emphatically. Compare “I don’t want extra assignments before, during and after vacation” with “I don’t want extra assignments before vacation. I don’t want extra assignments during vacation. I don’t want extra assignments after vacation.”

How would you rewrite sentence 1 using anaphora and sentence 2 using epistrophe?

1. “Don’t know much about history, biology, a science book or the French I took.”

2. “There’s not a liberal and a conservative U.S.; there’s a United States of America.”

Do your rewrites look like this?

1. “Don’t know much about history. Don’t know much about biology. Don’t know much about a science book. Don’t know much about the French I took” (from Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World”).

2. “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s a United States of America.”

So use anaphora and epistrophe to create rhythm and emphasis.

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