Definition of Repetition

Repetition consists of repeating a word, phrase, or sentence, and is common in both poetry and prose. It is a rhetorical technique to add emphasis, unity, and/or power. Due to this definition of repetition, it is a common technique for orators to use. There have been examples of repetition throughout the course of human history, as it is a good way to help remember a story, particular lines of a story, or a story in song form. Thus, repetition has been an essential part of oral storytelling and can be found in legends, folk tales, and religious texts.

Different Types of Repetition

There are unique terms for many different types of repetition, most of them from Greek origin.

  • Anaphora: Repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of several subsequent lines. Martin Luther King Junior’s speech “I Have a Dream” is a famous example, as he repeats “I have a dream” at the beginning of several lines.
  • Mesodiplosis: Repetition of a word in the middle of every line of clause. For example: “we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed.”
  • Epistrophe: Repetition of a word at the end of every line or clause. For example: “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny compared to what lies within us.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
  • Symploce: A combination of anaphora and epistrophe, symploce is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of a line and the repetition of another phrase at the end of the line. For example, symploce occurs in the following statement from Bill Clinton: “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 repetition of the same word, but with different denotations or connotations, often as a type of pun. For example, “Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who wants to live in an institution?” (Groucho Marx)
  • Antistasis: More extreme than antanaclasis, this is the repetition of words in opposite senses. For example: “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” (Benjamin Franklin)
  • Negative-Positive Restatement: Repetition of an idea in a negative way first, and then in a positive way. An example is JFK’s famous line “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
  • Epizeuxis or palilogia: Repetition of the same word or phrase without any words in between. For example, the first three words of the folk song “Row, row, row your boat.”
  • Diacope: Similar to epizeuxis, this is the repetition of a word or phrase with only one or two words between the repeated words. “Diacope” comes from the Greek for “to cut in two.” The famous line from Shakespeare’s rendition of the St. Crispin’s Day speech in Henry V is an example: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”
  • Conduplicatio: Repetition of one word in different places throughout a line or paragraph. Elie Weisel used this technique in his The Perils of Indifference: “I am filled with a profound and abiding gratitude to the American people. Gratitude is a word that I cherish. Gratitude is what defines the humanity of the human being.”
  • Anadiplosis or gradatio: Repetition of the last word of one line as the first word of the next. For example, the proverb “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
  • Epanalepsis: Repetition of the first word or words of a line also at the end of that line. For example, “Nothing can be created out of nothing.” (Lucretius)
  • Diaphora: Repetition of a name to refer to the person and then to the meaning of the name. The colloquialism “Boys will be boys” is an example of diaphora.
  • Epimone: Repetition of a phrase question for emphasis or to dwell on a point. From the Greek for “delay.” An example of epimone is Sojourner Truth’s speech from the Women’s Convention in 1851 where she repeated the rhetorical question “And ain’t I a woman?” several times over.
  • Polyptoton: Repetition of words with the same root but different forms. For example, “With eager feeding, food doth choke the feeder.” (William Shakespeare, Richard II)

Poetic Forms that Use Repetition

The following poetic forms include repetition as necessary to their structure:

  • Villanelle: A nineteen-line poem in which two lines four times each in a specific pattern. See this example of repetition below (Example #3).
  • Sestina: A complex thirty-nine line poem broken into six stanzas of six lines each and one final stanza with three lines. Each line ends with one of six words, and these six words rotate in order. The final stanza includes all six words (with only three of them acting as the final words of the lines). Therefore, each word is repeated a minimum of seven times throughout the poem.
  • Triolet: An eight-line poem wherein the first, fourth, and seventh lines are identical, as are the second and eighth. Therefore, the first two lines and final two lines are identical couplets.
  • Ghazal: Originating in 6th-century Arabic verse, a ghazal is made up of five or more couplets where the final word of every couplet is the same.

Repetition Examples from Literature

Example #1

But for now Anders can still make time. Time for the shadows to lengthen on the grass, time for the tethered dog to bark at the flying ball, time for the boy in right field to smack his sweat-blackened mitt and softly chant, They is, They is, They is.

(“Bullet to the Brain” by Tobias Wolff)

This excerpt of Wolff’s “Bullet to the Brain” contains the final two lines of the short story. The types of repetition represented here are anadiplosis, anaphora, and epizeuxis. The protagonist of the story has been reflecting on a grammatical error he heard as a young boy, and now in the last few moments of his life the phrase keeps repeating itself in his head. The effect in the story is to mimic the protagonist’s thought pattern as his brain starts to shut down.

Example #2

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

(“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes)

Hughes uses different types of repetition here, including anaphora and conduplicatio. The effect of repetition in this poem is to make the poem sound as though it’s coming from a storyteller.

Example #3

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

(“Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas)

Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” is one of the most famous villanelles ever written. The repeated lines “Do not go gentle into that good night” and “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” continue to build intensity throughout the poem until the power of the final couplet.

Example #4

How the danger sinks and swells,
By the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells,
Of the bells,
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells—
In the clamor and the clangor of the bells!

(“The Bells” by Edgar Allen Poe)

This famous poem by Edgar Allen Poe features many different repetition examples, including epizeuxis, conduplicatio, and polyptoton. The word “bells” is repeated 62 times throughout the poem, often without words in between (epizeuxis). This particular type of repetition helps to make the poem sound much like the tolling of bells.

Test Your Knowledge in Repetition

1. Which repetition definition fits most aptly with the term anaphora?
A. A repeated word or phrase at the beginning of several lines.
B. A repeated word in the middle of every line or clause.
C. A repeated word at the end of every line or clause.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: A is correct.[/spoiler]

2. Consider the following line from “The Bells”:

How the danger sinks and swells,—
By the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells

What definition of repetition is this an example of?

A. Epizeuxis
B. Conduplicatio
C. Polyptoton
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: C is correct. The repeated words here are “sinks” to “sinking” and “swells” to “swelling.” These have the same roots but different endings. A and B can be found elsewhere in the poem, but not in these two lines.[/spoiler]

3. Look again at Dylan Thomas’s villanelle “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” Using that poem as a guide, which of the following structures is correct for the villanelle form? (Note: capital letters are used to note the repeated lines and lowercase letters to express the rhymes).

A. A b C / d e F / g h I / j k L / m n O / p q R S
B. A1 b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 A2
C. A1 b C1 / d e A2 / f g C2 / h i A3 / j k C3 / l m A4 C4
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: B is correct. A and C don’t accurately express the rhyme structure.[/spoiler]