Repetition is the act of repeating or restating something more than once. In writing, repetition can occur at many levels: with individual letters and sounds, single words, phrases or ideas. Repetition can be problematic in writing if it leads to dull work, but it can also be an effective poetic or rhetorical strategy to strengthen your message.
Choosing words that repeat the same consonant or vowel sounds can help to make your writing more memorable. Many sound repetition techniques were first developed by scops, Old English poets, who memorized lengthy stories and poems to pass down orally in an age when most people were illiterate. Because repetition of sounds serves as a powerful mnemonic device, careful use will help your readers remember your point more easily.
Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds, often at the beginning of a word:
Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.
Alliteration can also occur in the middle of the word, provided it’s on a stressed or accented syllable in normal pronunciation:
Peter Piper’s repasts were unpicked peas.
Consonance is a more general repetition of consonant sounds, where the sounds can occur at any point in the word:
Susie suddenly whistled to call the cats to supper.
Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds, which can occur at any point in the word:
His lips will slip the truth eventually.
Rhyme is a highly specialized repetition of sound in which the sound of the final accented syllable in a word or line, and everything that comes after it, is repeated in another word or group of words:
The crowd was wowed by the Flyin’ Lion.
Repeating the same word several times in writing can serve to emphasize its importance. There are several rhetorical devices that writers use to make their point clearer and more memorable. These devices can be used in both poetry and prose.
Anaphora is the repetition of a word or short phrase at the beginning of several lines of sentences:
We resolve to be brave. We resolve to be good. We resolve to uphold the law according to our oath.
Antistasis is the repetition of a word or phrase in which the second meaning is the opposite — or at least very different — from the first:
We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately. – Benjamin Franklin
Conduplicatio is the repetition of a word in several different places within a paragraph, often to explain a concept's meaning or importance:
So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King ... but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love — a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke. – Robert F. Kennedy
In a diacope, the repeated words are separated by the addition of new words placed between them, which can either alter or enhance the meaning:
To be, or not to be, that is the question. – William Shakespeare
Epanilepsis is the repetition of a word at the beginning and at the end of a line or sentence:
Hungry cats lash out not because they are mean, but because they are hungry.
Epimone is the repetition of a word, phrase or idea to dwell on its larger significance:
We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. – Joan Didion
Epiphora, also known as epistrophe, is the repetition of a word or short phrase at the end of a series of sentences or clauses:
We live for freedom. We love our freedom. Eventually, we are even willing to die for our freedom.
Epizeuxis is the repetition of a word or very short phrase one right after the other:
The day at the beach was fun, fun, fun.
A negative-positive restatement repeats an idea in a similar sentence structure, but changes it to make a contrast. These are often "not this, but that" statements:
The tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one is young. – Oscar Wilde
A polyptoton is the repetition of the same root word but with different endings or forms:
But I'm the decider, and I decide what is best. – George W. Bush
Sometimes repetition in writing is not used intentionally. It may be that the writer has a limited vocabulary or added phrases or clauses that repeat a word or idea without adding to the overall meaning or impact of the piece. In these cases, repetition should be avoided, as they can bog your writing down and make it dull or difficult for your reader to follow. For example:
The man spent a long time finding the right ingredients at the grocery store but was too tired to make dinner after getting home from the grocery store.
In this sentence, it is not necessary to mention the grocery store twice. Either one of the underlined phrases can be eliminated without changing the meaning of the sentence.
When Eleanor learned that her grandmother’s middle name was Eleanor, Eleanor realized why her mother named her Eleanor.
In this sentence, “Eleanor” is used too may times. This excess repetition can be addressed by substituting pronouns or using a short phrase to replace the name as needed.
Careful writers use repetition to enhance their work without overusing words and phrases to the point of boring their readers. Careful writers also know that repeating a strong word is better than replacing it with a weak one that doesn’t work as well. If you’re not sure if your writing is using repetition well, try reading it out loud. You ear will catch too much repetition, and you can re-word your work with pronouns, synonyms or even a whole new sentence to tighten your writing before you share it with others.