In a strict sense, repetition is a matter more of diction than of sentence structure. But since it is one of the most valued means of emphasis we shall include it here.

Repetition is sometimes a virtue and sometimes a fault. Drawing the line is not easy. It depends on what is being repeated. Important ideas can stand repetition; unimportant ones cannot. When you write the same word (or idea) twice, you draw the reader's attention to it. If it is a key idea, fine. But if not, then you have awkwardly implied importance to something that does not matter very much. In the following examples, of course, we are concerned with positive repetition, involving major ideas.

Repetition may take two basic forms: restating the same idea in different terms (called tautología by Greek rhetoricians) and repeating the same exact word (or a variant form of the same word).


In tautologia the synonyms are frequently stronger than the original term:

That's camouflage, that's trickery, that's treachery, window-dressing. Malcolm X

A second term need not be strictly synonymous with the first, and often it is not. Rather than simply restating the idea, the new terms may add shades of meaning:

October 7 began as a commonplace enough day, one of those days that sets the teeth on edge with its tedium, its small frustrations.

Joan Didion

One clings to chimeras, by which one can only be betrayed, and the entire hope—the entire possibility—of freedom disappears.

James Baldwin

In Didion's sentence "frustrations" signifies a worse condition than "tedium," but the ideas relate to the extent that tedium may contribute to frustration. In Baldwin's, "possibility" implies a deeper despair.

Now and then, a writer uses an expression just so he or she can replace it with another:

That consistent stance, repeatedly adopted, must mean one of two—no, three—things. John Gardner

Finally, repetition of an idea may involve simile or metaphor:2

It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom aeroplanes. George Orwell ln [Henry] James nothing is forestalled, nothing is obvious; one is forever turning the curve of the unexpected. James Huneker

The image contained in a simile or metaphor often both clarifies and emphasizes an idea by translating it into more concrete or familiar terms. Consider Orwell's sentence. (Incidentally, he is paraphrasing a view he does not agree with; he believes that abuses of language should be struggled against.) We cannot see a "sentimental archaism" (we may not even know what one is). But, familiar with candles and electric light, we can understand that a preference for candles is somehow perverse. And Huneker, practicing the very quality he praises in the novelist Henry James, startles us by the unexpectedness of his metaphor.

Repeating the Same Word

This is a very effective means of emphasis and susceptible to considerable variation. Greek and Roman rhetoricians distinguished about two dozen varieties of verbal repetition, depending on the positions and forms of the repeated terms. For example, the words may begin successive clauses, or end them, or even end one and begin the next; the words may be repeated side by side, or three or four times, or in variant

2. A simile is a literal comparison commonly introduced by like or as: Robert Burns's famous line "my luv is like a red, red rose" contains a simile. A metaphor is a literal identification, as if Burns had written "my luv is a red, red rose." Sometimes metaphors simply use the second term to mean the first: "my red, red rose" = "my luv."

forms. In ancient rhetoric each pattern had its own learned name. We needn't bother with those here. But you should realize that the patterns themselves are still very much in use. Nor are they used only by writers consciously imitating the classics. They are at home in the prose of men and women who belong to our world and have something to say about it. The patterns of repetition remain vital because we enjoy unusual and clever combinations. Here, then, are some examples of skillful verbal repetition, which not only emphasize important words but also are interesting and entertaining in themselves:

To philosophize is to understand; to understand is to explain oneself; to explain is to relate. Brand Blanshard

I didn't like the swimming pool, I didn't like swimming, and I didn't like the swimming instructor, and after all these years I still don't.

James Thurber

When that son leaves home, he throws himself with an intensity which his children will not know into the American way of life; he eats American, talks American, he will be American or nothing.

Margaret Mead

I am neat, scrupulously neat, in regard to the things I care about; but a book, as a book, is not one of those things. Max Beerbohm

Problem gives rise to problem. Robert Louis Stevenson

Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. James Baldwin

She smiled a little smile and bowed a little bow.

Anthony Trollope

Visitors whom he [Ludovico Sforza, a Renaissance duke] desired to impress were invariably ushered into the del Tesoro, they rubbed their eyes, he rubbed his hands, they returned home blinded, he remained at home blind. Ralph Roeder

(While the literal meanings of "rubbed" are the same, their implications differ. Sforza's guests rubbed their eyes dazzled and amazed by his riches; he rubbed his hands proudly satisfied. Their blindness was a blurring of vision; his, a blindness of spirit.)

The average autochthonous Irishman is close to patriotism because he is close to the earth; he is close to domesticity because he is close to the earth; he is close to doctrinal theology and elaborate ritual because he is close to the earth. G. Chesterton

Mr. and Mrs. Veneering were bran-new people in a bran-new house in a bran-new quarter of London. Everything about the Veneerings was and new. Charles Dickens

If there had never been a danger to our constitution there would never have been a constitution to be in danger.

Herbert Butterfield

(This is a frequent pattern of repetition called chiasmus or antimetable. It involves two terms set in the order X—Yin the first clause and in the order Y-X in the second.)

Mechanical Emphasis

Mechanical emphasis consists of exclamation points and of printing or writing words in an unusual way. Italic type is probably the most common method of calling attention to a word or phrase. (In handwriting or typing, the equivalent to italics is a single underline.)

It is so simple a fact and one that is so hard, apparently, to grasp: Whoever debases others is debasing himself. James Baldwin

Yet this government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way. It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the west. It does not educate.

Henry David Thoreau

Worse yet, he must and solitude.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Other devices of mechanical emphasis include quotation marks, capital letters, boldface and other changes in the style or size of type, different colored links, wider spacing of words or letters, and key words or phrases on separate lines. Advertisements reveal how well all these techniques work.

In composition, however, they work less effectively. An experienced writer does not call upon exclamation points or underlining very often. They quickly lose their value, revealing that one does not know how to create emphasis and so has shouted.

Certainly in the examples above the italics and the exclamation point are effective. But in each case the mechanical device merely strengthens an emphasis already attained by more compositional means. Baldwin's sentence puts the key idea last and carefully prepares its way with a colon. Thoreau draws our attention to "it" not only by using italics but by repeating the word at the beginning of three brief, emphatic sentences. And Emerson stresses "how often" more by isolating it than by the exclamation point.


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