How to use repetition as a literary device

The repeated use of sounds, words, syllables, clauses and phrases, and ideas can be a really effective literary technique because our brains like patterns and it’s a great way to engage a reader.

This can be as simple as children’s books that use repetition to support young readers with a level of predictability that help make concepts stick to the repeat use of phrases or clauses in some of the great speeches of our age like “I have a dream” (Martin Luther King) or “We shall fight on the beaches” (Winston Churchill) to convince the listener of the idea.

What is repetition?

Repetition uses a word or phrase multiple times, and effectively uses emphasis and rhythm to help the audience understand a point, believe in a cause, follow an idea, or simply savour the language on offer thanks to the musicality it adds through its rhyme or form.

While it works particularly well in oration (speeches) thanks to its catchiness, it’s also effective as a literary device.

Function of repetition

Studies have shown that repetition helps people accept an idea or truth, particularly in speeches where it has excellent powers of persuasion.

The repeat of an idea makes sure readers won’t overlook it and it will register in their mind. It also engages readers more thanks to its predictability or rhythmic qualities.

Types of repetition

There are many types of repetition. Here are just a few of them.

Alliteration: This is the repetition of letters, syllables, or sounds. The sounds are usually the initial consonant in two or more neighbouring words of syllables. Children’s rhymes like “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers” are great examples of alliteration.

Anaphora: Is the repeat of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive phrases, clauses, or sentences. Speeches use this form of repetition to great effect, such as Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech that keeps repeating this same phrase. Anaphora is often used in children’s literature to help create familiarity.

Epistrophe: This is the repetition of the last word or phrase in successive phrases, clauses, or sentences. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address is often cited as an example: “…that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Symploce: Is repetition of words or phrases at both the beginning and end of successive phrases, so a combination of epistrophe and anaphora. This is a great way of convincing the reader of something.

Antanaclasis: Repetition of a word using a different meaning each time. It often relies on puns or plays on words where a word is repeated, each time with a different definition. Jay-Z famously rapped, “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man,” and William Shakespeare wrote in Henry V: “To England will I steal, and there I’ll steal.”

Antistasis: Repetition of the same word or phrase with two contrary meanings such as “working hard or hardly working?” or “We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately” (Benjamin Franklin).

Negative-positive restatement: A repetition technique in which the same statement is made twice, first negatively, then with a positive twist. John F. Kennedy gave a famous example when he asked, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

Epizeuxis: Repetition of a single word or phrase in immediate succession. The nursery rhyme “Row, row, row your boat” is a great example, as is William Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “O horror, horror, horror!”

Diacope: The repeat of a statement with a new word or words in between. “To be or not to be” is perhaps the most famous example of this Shakespeare’s Hamlet, with the words “or not” between repeat use of the phrase “to be”.

Gradatio: When the ending of one sentence and the beginning of the next sentence use the same word or phrase.


Anaphora examples:

Winston Churchill

“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;”

A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

“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.”

Epistrophe example:

1 Corinthians 13:11

“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

Diacope example:

William Shakespeare, Hamlet

“To be or not to be.”

Symploce examples:

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.”

William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar:

“Who is here so base that would be a bondman? If any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman? If any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so vile that will not love his country? If any, speak; for him have I offended …”

Gradatio example:

William Shakespeare, As You Like It:

“Your brother and my sister no sooner met but they looked; no sooner looked but they loved; no sooner loved but they sighed; no sooner sighed but they asked one another the reason; no sooner knew the reason but they sought the remedy.”

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