Stop repeating yourself, start using repetition
"You’re repeating yourself!"
A phrase unlikely to be given, or taken, as positive feedback.
Repetition can imply a low vocabulary. It weakens an argument and erodes the substance behind your words. Repetitious writing seems flimsy. Speeches that repeat themselves seem under-rehearsed.
Repetition is something you should avoid.
Except for when it isn’t. Except for when it’s effective. Except for when it makes your words stand out.
A bit like that.
Where unplanned repetition quickly loses an audience’s attention, conscious repetition can grab it.
Repetition gives words rhythm. Our brains are attuned to rhythm so reading and listening to something rhythmic is enjoyable. Remember all those silly songs and poems from childhood that you can still recite decades later? Think of how repetitive they were.
Conscious repetition enables you to emphasise key points. By actively using repetition techniques – and structuring them in specific ways – you can affect which words people will take away from your writing.
Fighting and dreams
Think of Winston Churchill.
Shall we fight? Yes, we shall. We shall fight seven times. We shall also defend and never surrender. Repetition accounts for one-third of Churchill’s call to arms.
Think of Martin Luther King.
He had a dream. He had nine dreams.
(Or more precisely, one dream from which he quoted nine times.)
Without repetition, there would be little to King’s speech; it contains 4 x ‘Now is the time’s, 6 x ‘Go back to’s, 10 x ‘We can / must not’s and 11 x ‘Let freedom ring’s.
Of all the comment made throughout history on these speeches, they have never been called repetitive, with the negative intent we ascribe to that word.
If it’s worth saying once…
There are around 30 or so common repetition techniques noted in literary studies. (You don’t need to know the names of these, but I will tell you some of them anyway.)
The important thing is to actively consider what you want to achieve through repetition. Then find the best technique to help deliver this.
1) What would The Sun say?
How would you summarise your most important point?
If it was written about in tomorrow’s papers, what would be the headline?
Thinking of this first allows you to work backwards. It gives your repetition a clear goal, a purpose other than to end a paragraph or fill word count.
Say what? Epizeuxis.
From the Greek, meaning ‘fastening together.’
Also known as palilogia.
The simplest approach is to repeat it as one-word or short phrase, without interruption.
Ask me my three main priorities for government and I tell you: education, education and education. – Tony Blair
O horror, horror, horror! – Macbeth
Epizeuxis adds emphasis. It metaphorically underlines your key point. As with these examples, repeating the exact word or phrase three times is common. It’s the smallest number that can be used to create a pattern, and our brains love patterns.
Take a breath. Diacope.
From the Greek meaning ‘to cut in two’.
When the word or phrase repeated is interrupted by one or more words in between.
To be or not to be – Hamlet
He was a good man, a kind man, and a darkly secret man.
Diacope maintains the emphasis of straightforward repetition but adds colour from the adjectives and changes the rhythm with the forced, interrupting pause.
Turn listing into longing. Polysyndeton.
From the Greek for ‘bound together.’
This is part-epizeuxis and part-diacope-in-reverse. The repeated word is interrupted, but the word repeated is a conjunction, like ‘but’ or ‘and’.
This play will run and run and run and run.
For Christmas I would like a book or a bike or a doll or a computer or a horse.
Polysyndeton breaks grammatical convention however you use it. In the first example, you could use “the play will run forever”. In the second, you would expect to see commas.
If unplanned – especially when spoken – this may sound like an actor is forgetting their lines. Or be a challenge for a person with a stammer.
But when used consciously, the subversion of grammar norms makes it an effective tool.
It implies an endless impact of your action. Or gives each listed item equal weight, prominent in their own right, rather than just being a part of the whole.
2) Repeat, reinterpret and redefine
Repetition doesn’t have to be literal.
We know language is a funny old thing. In What’s in a -NYM?, I looked at the terms we use for the words that are the same… but different. We can use some of these in repetition.
From general to specific. Ploce.
From the Greek, meaning ‘complication,’ ‘twisting’ or ‘plaiting’.
This repeats the word or phrase but changes the meaning from the general to the specific.
There’s food and there’s M&S food.
He’s more Irish than the Irish.
I am what I am.
Smart repetition. Antanaclasis.
From the Greek for ‘reflection’.
We’re walking into punny territory now and you will see this often in successful advertising campaigns. The repeated words are homonyms: words that are spelled and sound the same but have different meanings,
To England will I steal, and there I'll steal – Henry V
Don’t be so fast to fast.
Smart-arse repetition. Antistasis.
From the Greek for ‘opposition’.
Also known as antanadasis.
Same approach but the zing here is that the repetition is of antagonyms: words with the same spelling and sound but with opposite meanings.
You’ll quickly dust away the dust.
Go hard or go home.
Kill the parrot. Commoratio.
From the Latin meaning ‘dwelling.’
Also known as synonymia and communio.
It may seem odd to include a technique of repetition that doesn’t require any repetition of words. With commoratio, that’s its point, its raison d’etre, its very purpose in language.
And that was an example of commoratio in practice.
It’s the repetition of the same idea, using different words or synonyms.
You’ll likely know this famous example:
This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! He’s expired (…) He’s a stiff! (…) He’s kicked the bucket; he’s shuffled off his mortal coil (…) This is an ex-parrot! – John Cleese in Monty Python’s Flying Circus
He is simply saying the parrot is dead. In 11 different creative ways.
It should be stressed that without careful thought, commoratio can quickly alienate even more than literal repetition. It can also easily become funny, even if that wasn’t the intention.
Make the positive, positive. Negative-positive restatement.
(No need for etymology here.)
Make your positive point seem even more positive by preceding it with a negative. This isn’t about using opposite or different words, it’s how you frame the topic you’re repeating.
Don’t get mad, get even.
Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.
We don’t cry over what went wrong, we celebrate what we have learnt.
It’s like managing expectations. By reminding your audience of the bad, you increase the belief of the good – and imply how your action will make this so.
It not only provides emphasis for the point being made, it also emphasises the emotion. It strengthens the bond between the head and the heart.
3) Say where?
It’s not just what you say but where you say it that will effectively build emphasis.
There isn’t a huge amount of difference between positioning, but purposeful placement can give your writing variety. And it stops your repetition becoming repetitious in itself.
Say it from the start. Anaphora.
From the Greek for ‘carrying back’.
Consecutive sentences, phrases or clauses all begin with the same word or phrase.
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom. It was the age of foolishness.
Churchill’s speech is also anaphoric.
Say it ends. Epiphora.
From the Greek for ‘return’.
Where the repetition is at the end of the consecutive sentences, phrases, or clauses.
First my mother got Covid. Then my sister got Covid, and my father got Covid. It will have gone out of fashion by the time I get Covid.
Again, if used poorly, anaphora and epiphora can feel forced and alienate the reader or audience.
Say it between ourselves. Mesodiplosis.
Also known as parallelism.
In the middle…
One, but not two; three, but not four; five, but not six.
Say it say it. Anadiplosis.
From the Greek for ‘to be doubled back’.
The word(s) that ends one sentence also begin(s) the sentence that follows. Often used by CEOs and in pitches to drive home a point or vision.
What do I give? I give my whole self.
When anadiplosis runs three or more times over consecutives sentences or phrases, it is known as gradatio.
Don’t be repetitive, be remembered
Knowing what to repeat and why and where
These techniques don’t work in isolation. The definitions also overlap. Count how many this final headline and subhead could sit under.
But that’s for grammar nerds.
Unplanned repetition is still something of which you should be wary. But if you receive this feedback on your writing, you should first ask yourself if there is an objective behind it.
If not, you may be waffling.
But if it is conscious repetition with a clear purpose, I say repeat, repeat, repeat.