Definition of Anaphora

Anaphora is a literary and rhetorical device in which a word or group of words is repeated at the beginning of two or more successive clauses or sentences. This technique adds emphasis and unity to the clauses. For example, look at the function of the words “if only” in the following sentence: “If only I hadn’t gone to the market that day, if only I hadn’t dropped my bag, if only we hadn’t met.”

Also sometimes called epanaphora, the word anaphora comes from the Greek for “carrying back”.

Difference Between Anaphora and Epiphora

Anaphora and epiphora (also known as epistrophe) are related concepts in that they both are techniques involving repetition. While the definition of anaphora is that the repetition comes at the beginning of adjacent clauses, repetition in epiphora comes at the end of clauses. If these two devices are used together, the effect is called symploce.

Common Examples of Anaphora

Many orators and politicians use anaphora in their speeches to reinforce certain ideas and to make them stand out to the audience. One of the most famous examples of anaphora in a speech is from Martin Luther King Jr.’s address at the 1963 March on Washington. In fact, the anaphora is so famous that it has retroactively become the name of the speech: I have a dream. After a gospel singer called out “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”, Martin Luther King Jr. departed from his typed-up speech and began to extemporize, repeating the phrase “I have a dream” many times over.

Other famous anaphora examples in speeches include:

  • We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender. — Winston Churchill
  • With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right,…— Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address
  • To raise a happy, healthy, and hopeful child, it takes a family; it takes teachers; it takes clergy; it takes business people; it takes community leaders; it takes those who protect our health and safety. It takes all of us. —Hillary Clinton, 1996 DNC

Anaphora also is prevalent in other forms of media, like songs, television shows and movies:

  • WALTER WHITE: I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot and you think that of me? No. I am the one who knocks!(Breaking Bad)
  • HOMER SIMPSON: I want to shake off the dust of this one-horse town. I want to explore the world. I want to watch TV in a different time zone. I want to visit strange, exotic malls. I’m sick of eating hoagies! I want a grinder, a sub, a foot-long hero! I want to live, Marge! Won’t you let me live? Won’t you, please? (The Simpsons)
  • SEAN: So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written…. If I ask you about women, you’d probably give me a syllabus about your personal favorites…. And I’d ask you about war, you’d probably throw Shakespeare at me, right, “once more unto the breach dear friends.”…. I’d ask you about love, you’d probably quote me a sonnet. (Good Will Hunting)

Significance of Anaphora in Literature

Anaphora is one of the oldest literary devices, and dates back to religious texts such as the Psalms of the Bible. Anaphora is most commonly found in poetry, though it can be found in prose as well. Since anaphora uses redundancy to dramatic effect, editors of academic writing and journalism would not approve of it. Thus, anaphora works against these more formal styles of writing and is used to create rhythm and emphasis in a poetic fashion.

Examples of Anaphora in Literature

Example #1

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…

(A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens)

This opening sentence from Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities is one of the most famous examples of anaphora in literature. In this case, the repetition of the phrase “it was” provides several examples of contrast. The sentence creates wonder in the reader to find out how these are both and best and worst of times, the age of wisdom and foolishness, and so on. The anaphora propels the reader forward into the narrative and the world that Dickens is setting up.

Example #2

Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d the earth much?
Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?



Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

(“Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman)

Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” contains many examples of anaphora all the way through poem. These two adjacent stanzas contain different repeating phrase: first “have you” and then “you shall.” With these two examples of anaphora, Whitman seems to be ascertaining the reader’s readiness for personal growth, and then making a promise to the reader that good things will come to pass.

Example #3

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

(“Acquainted with the Night” by Robert Frost)

Robert Frost’s use of anaphora in his poem “Acquainted with the Night” adds a sense of weariness and age. The repetition of the phrase “I have” to begin these different lines creates the image of someone with a vast amount of life experience. The poem is dark and despairing, and this example of anaphora reinforces the desolate mood.

Example #4

And the places on her body have no names.
And she is what’s immense about the night.
And their clothes on the floor are arranged
for forgetfulness.

(“Dwelling” by Li-Young Lee)

This relatively recent poem from Li-Young Lee shows that anaphora can be as simple as the repetition of the word “and”. Grammaticians teach us never to begin sentences with the word “and”, which makes the repetition here stand out even more. There is a sense of mystery in the way the poet has grouped these three lines, with their three similar yet competing images. The anaphora encourages readers to make connections between these different images.

Test Your Knowledge of Anaphora

1. Choose the correct anaphora definition:
A. Repetition of a word or group of words at the beginning of adjacent clauses.
B. Repetition of a word or group of words at the end of adjacent clauses.
C. Repetition of a word at both the beginning and end of adjacent clauses.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: A is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

2. Which of the following excerpts from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” contains anaphora?

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.


Twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore,
Twenty-eight young men and all so friendly;
Twenty-eight years of womanly life and all so lonesome.


The city sleeps and the country sleeps,
The living sleep for their time, the dead sleep for their time,

[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: B is an example of anaphora. While both A and C contain repetition, this repetition comes at the middle or end of lines instead of at the beginning.[/spoiler]

3. Which words are an example of anaphora in this quote from Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech?

Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

A. Slums and ghettos
B. Mississippi…Alabama…South Carolina…Georgia…Louisiana
C. Go back to
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: C is the correct answer, as this phrase is repeated six times to begin each of six clauses in a single sentence.[/spoiler]