I. What is Repetition?
Quite simply, repetition is the repeating of a word or phrase. It is a common rhetorical device used to add emphasis and stress in writing and speech. Repetition is widely used in both poetry and prose; throughout all genres and forms of literature and oral tradition. Aside from helping stress or highlight important thoughts and points, repetition can be a key tool for authors and speakers in developing style, tone, and rhythm.
II. Common Types of Repetition
There are many types of repetition in rhetoric, but below are some of the most common.
Epizeuxis is the repetition of a word in sequence. For example, “Why, why, why?!”
Anaphora is the repetition of a word at the beginning of each phrase or clause. For example, “She looked to the left, she looked to the right, she looked straight ahead.”
Mesodiplosis is the repetition of a word in the middle of each phrase or clause. For example, “One, but not two; three, but not four; five, but not six.”
Epistrophe is the repetition of a word at the end of each phrase or clause. For example, “Every day I’m happy because you love me, I’m more fulfilled because you love me, I have everything because you love me.”
III. Example of Repetition
Read the short passage below:
The big stairs led up to a big house with a big front door. Breathe, breathe, breathe, I told myself. I only have to stay for one second, be afraid for one second, not scream for one second. I can do it. I can win the bet. I can prove I’m brave.
The passage above uses several different styles of repetition to show the narrator’s anxiety. By repeating what the character thinks and sees, the author makes the situation more interesting.
IV. Importance of Repetition
Repetition is an important literary device because it allows a writer or speaker to place emphasis on things they choose as significant. It tells the reader or audience that the words being used are central enough to be repeated, and lets them know when to pay special attention to the language. Furthermore, repetition has historically been an important technique for oral tradition, as it helped storytellers remember details and lines that may have otherwise been difficult to repeat.
V. Examples in Literature
Celebrated classic children’s author Dr. Seuss frequently uses repetition in his quirky and eccentric stories. Below is a selection from One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish that demonstrates Dr. Seuss’s well-known, one-of-a-kind style:
One fish, Two fish, Red fish, Blue fish,
Black fish, Blue fish, Old fish, New fish.
This one has a little car.
This one has a little star.
Say! What a lot of fish there are.
Yes. Some are red, and some are blue.
Some are old and some are new.
Some are sad, and some are glad,
And some are very, very bad.
Dr. Seuss uses a combination of repetition and rhyming to craft this catchy story that everyone knows. One of the reasons his books are so unique is that he makes use of several types of repetition, which together create a whimsical, silly sounding style.
In the famous opening to A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens utilizes repetition to add stress and emphasis to the positives and negatives of the time.
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,
we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—
Dickens’ famous words “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” remain some of the most celebrated lines in literature to this day. The way he repeats the phrase “it was” makes his words stronger, more memorable, more effective, and more convincing.
VI. Examples of Repetition in Pop Culture
Repetition is a very popular way of adding stress and power when delivering a speech. Throughout history, people have used repetition to make sure that their audiences will remember and repeat their phrases and ideas; from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” to President Barack Obama’s 2008 victory speech, featured in the clip below:
Here, President Obama coins his well-known tagline “Yes We Can” to inspire the American people and kick off his presidency with a positive, can-do approach. By repeating “yes we can” throughout his speech, Obama connects himself to these words and makes them stick in the audience’s minds.
In the classic romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally, Harry uses repetition to strengthen his grand New Year’s Eve speech to Sally:
By repeating the words “I love that…” over and over again, Harry is placing emphasis on the fact that he loves everything about Sally, good and bad. He repeats these words over and over with the hopes that she will realize that what he is saying is real and true, and that she will return his love.
VII. Related Terms
Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds, which creates rhyme. For example, “the black cat had the rat’s bag;” “how now brown cow?” “do you do voodoo?”
Consonance is the repetition of a consonant sound at the middle or end of a word. For example, “the cook broke his back;” “the duck struck some luck.”
Alliteration is the repetition of a consonant sound at the beginning of a word. For example, “Lucy lacked love,” “the sand sizzled under the strong sun;” “the fox fixed the fax.” Alliteration is perhaps the most used form of sound repetition. One of the most popular examples is Mother Goose’s well-known nursery rhyme—
Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers;
A peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked;
If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,
Where’s the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?
Oftentimes, writers use some combination of the three types of sound repetition. For instance, “Splish splash splish splash” uses assonance, consonance, and alliteration all at once.