Good repetition, bad repetition

The ancient Greeks and Romans certainly knew a nice turn of phrase when they saw one. In the first in a series of posts on rhetoric, Doris and Bertie’s resident classicist, David Pollack, invites you to experiment with the age-old technique of anaphora.

Most of us remember being told at school to avoid repeating words unnecessarily. After all, why else would the thesaurus have been invented?

There are clearly times when repetition is unwelcome. But there are also times when it is very welcome indeed – that is, when repetition is used intentionally.

Unintentional repetition is painful, jarring and clumsy. Intentional repetition is courageous, moving and rhythmic.

In fact, intentional repetition is such a powerful linguistic tool that ancient rhetoricians gave it a fancy name: anaphora.

Here’s an example of a modern orator using anaphora to great effect:

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.

The repetition here emphasises the dogged determination of the plucky Brits. And what could be more flattering – not to mention inspiring – than to see yourself depicted in such terms?

In other words, Churchill knew precisely what he was doing when he chose to repeat “we shall fight” 10 times. Educated in classics at school, he would have been well aware of the rhetorical convention of anaphora.

Indeed, he probably learned the technique from Cicero, a Roman senator and lawyer who was known as a master of rhetoric:

Soon all provinces, soon all kingdoms, soon all free states, soon the entire globe, which had always remained open to our fellows, will be off limits to Roman citizens.

You don’t have to be a Churchill or a Cicero to use anaphora. You can use it in any of your communications. Either to write more persuasively or to deliver speeches that persuade – the very purpose of rhetoric.

Advertisers use it all the time:

The future’s bright, the future’s Orange.

Buy it, sell it, love it. (Ebay)

And my favourite from the 70s:

Du pain, du vin, du boursin

Now you know what anaphora is, you’ll probably see it all over the place. If you find any nice examples please share them here.

Leave a Reply