Needless repetition is deadly. It's the kind of clutter that bores readers and buries main ideas. But not all repetition is bad. Used strategically, a repeated word or phrase can keep our readers interested and help them focus on the key points in our writing.
When it came to practicing effective strategies of repetition, rhetoricians in ancient Greece and Rome had a bag full of tricks, each with a fancy name. See if you can match the names of these ten repetitive figures of speech with the appropriate definitions and examples that follow. You'll find the answers on page two.
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Definitions and Examples of the Figures of Repetition
- Repetition of a word or phrase at the start of successive clauses.
I'm not afraid to die. . . . I'm not afraid to live. I'm not afraid to fail. I'm not afraid to succeed. I'm not afraid to fall in love. I'm not afraid to be alone. I'm just afraid I might have to stop talking about myself for five minutes.
(Kinky Friedman, When the Cat's Away, 1988)
- Repetition of a word or phrase at the end of successive clauses.
Take whatever idiot they have at the top of whatever agency and give me a better idiot. Give me a caring idiot. Give me a sensitive idiot. Just don’t give me the same idiot.
(Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, speaking about FEMA Chief Michael Brown, Sep. 6, 2005)
- Repetition of an initial consonant sound.
Good men are gruff and grumpy, cranky, crabbed, and cross.
(Sir Clement Freud)
- Repetition of words derived from the same root but with different endings.
Love is an irresistible desire to be irresistibly desired.
- Repetition at the end of a clause or sentence of the word or phrase with which it began.
Next time there won't be a next time.
(Phil Leotardo in The Sopranos)
- Repetition of the last word of one line or clause to begin the next.
The general who became a slave. The slave who became a gladiator. The gladiator who defied an emperor. Striking story!
(Commodus in the movie Gladiator)
- Repetition broken up by one or more intervening words.
Someone ate the baby,
It's rather sad to say.
Someone ate the baby
So she won't be out to play.
We'll never hear her whiny cry
Or have to feel if she is dry.
We'll never hear her asking, "Why?"
Someone ate the baby.
(Shel Silverstein, "Dreadful")
- Repetition of a word or phrase for emphasis, usually with no words in between.
I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.
(Captain Renault in Casablanca)
- Emphasizing a point by repeating it several times in different words.
He's passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! He's expired and gone to meet his maker! He's a stiff! Bereft of life, he rests in peace! If you hadn't nailed him to the perch he'd be pushing up the daisies! His metabolic processes are now history! He's off the twig! He's kicked the bucket, he's shuffled off his mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisible! This is an ex-parrot!
(John Cleese in Monty Python's Flying Circus, "The Dead Parrot Sketch")
- Repetition of a word or a name with a new or more specific sense.
Cats like Felix like Felix.
(advertising slogan for Felix cat food)