Types of repetition and why you should teach them – part 2

‘Repetition is based on body rhythms, so we identify with the heartbeat, or with walking, or with breathing.’  Karlheinz Stockhausen

In part 1 of this blog, I listed various types of repetition that will be familiar to you and others that may not be. In this offering, I’ll be looking at examples of how you might get your pupils to use some of these complex terms, and will explain why I think it’s a good idea to do so.

Let’s start by looking at a famous passage, from Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh, that contains repetition:

‘Choose a life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a big fucking television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers… Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, sticking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away in the end of it all, pishing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourself. Choose your future. Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that?’


A pupil well drilled in the AFOREST mnemonic will be able to easily spot the language feature of ‘repetition’. They’ll notice that the word ‘choose’ is repeated throughout the passage and will probably be able to write that ‘Welsh uses repetition to suggest the narrator’s feelings of frustration with modern life’.  Lots of English teachers will argue that that’s enough, that there’s no need to complicate matters by introducing obscure terminology. I disagree. Apart from naturally sounding more sophisticated, I contend that the different terms outlined in the previous blog allow a) greater understanding of the nature of any given repetition in a text and b) more chance of insight into the context.

And context is key with language features. How many times have you been asked by a pupil about the purpose of a rhetorical question or alliteration? I used to be guilty of waffling on vaguely on about ‘making the reader think’ or ‘speeding up the rhythm’ but now I just explain that it is totally dependent on the context of the example. This can be explained to some extent by the background skills vs knowledge debate: we can all stick up posters that tell our pupils what a metaphor is and teach the generic skill of spotting them, but only when we get them to truly understand the specific usage in a text can they usefully analyse the use of that device.  So, let’s have a go at applying something more complex and teasing out the context a bit further:

The use of anaphora places emphasis on the opening to sentences. Therefore, the writer is encouraging the reader to pay particular attention to the beginning of each sentence/clause/line. This is a deliberate choice, of course. Rather than just repeat the word (or group of words), as the label ‘repetition’ would imply, they are very much accentuating the initial lexical choice. In this instance, Welsh chooses to place the verb ‘choose’ at the start for the following reasons:

  1. It highlights the fact that, before anything – big or small – can be achieved, first we have to make a decision
  2. It conveys the unrelenting pressure to make those decisions
  3. It makes each sentence an imperative; there is the paradox that we are being instructed to choose
  4. The options that follow the choice become increasingly less appealing. Yet, the primacy of the verb leaves us hammered into still feeling like we must select something
  5. The continual use of anaphora reflects the desire to choose ‘objects’ to possess. This gets to the heart of Welsh’s anti-consumerist, anti-capitalist, anti-conformist message. For the author/narrator, our choices are anything but: we have been brainwashed into automatically – the anaphora illustrating it is literally the first thing we think of – into yearning to choose something to have
  6. ‘Choose life’ was a 1980s anti-drug slogan. Welsh subverts it by using the initial verb as a springboard for each other decision about our existence.

You’ll also notice that the extract uses anaphora in a circular manner. In this case, it’s an example of commoratio (returning to the strongest argument). Switching the initially optimistic imperative into a nihilistic rhetorical question nails down the existential angst of the narrator. This rhetorical question isn’t just making the reader think, it’s making the reader question their worldview and ultimately the futility of our existence.

Let’s look at another example, from Othello, of where using the specific term – epizeuxis this time – makes the analysis more precise:

‘Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise!’

Shakespeare’s use of epizeuxis  ‘now, now, very now’ could be interpreted in the following ways:

  • the use of successive ‘now’s emphasises the terrible immediacy of the situation (Othello seemingly taking advantage of Brabantio’s daughter): it is literally happening as we speak
  • By placing these words next to each other it also (apologies for the indelicacy here but Shakespeare wouldn’t mind) implies the penetrative nature of the words going into Brabantio’s head and mirroring the sexual act – Stockhausen’s ‘body rhythms’ taking place.
  • The third ‘now’ is actually diacopic, adding emotional intensity and prolonging the telling of the awful rumour. The intervening adverb ‘very’ amplifies the sense of urgency and futility that the father feels.
  • The epizeuxis of ‘arise, arise!’ acts as an imploring coda, a passionate call to action that wouldn’t have the same affect if spaced out.

I hope by now that you’re starting to feel that there may be something in this. I fancy the challenge, you’re thinking, but how should I teach these terms practically? My advice:

  1. Don’t try and introduce them all in one go. Giving them a long list and getting them to find examples of each in passages is a bad idea. They’ll be overwhelmed and likely to start saying ‘this is the one where it’s at the end and the beginning but I don;t know what it’s called’. Do no more than three at a time, and go back to test that they’ve stuck. I’ve been teaching my Year 10s for two terms now and we’ve only covered four or five of the more complex ones.
  2. Choose the ones that will feature prominently in the literature texts you will study, preferably in your key quotes. There’s little point spending ages on obscure terms and not giving pupils the chance to apply them in context.
  3. Tell pupils not to panic if they can’t remember the term, or the correct spelling, during assessments. If in doubt, ‘repetition’ will suffice.
  4. Don’t reward pupils for merely using the term. Ideas are only sophisticated if clearly expressed. If they spot the use of symploce, say ‘so what?’ until they can explain why it’s been used in that example.
  5. Think structure as well as language analysis.  Is there a pattern, like in the Trainspotting example?
  6. Link to evaluation where possible. Is the commoratio effective or are we drifitng into homiologia?
  7. Get them to use these rhetorical devices in their own writing. That’s bloody obvious isn’t it. Isn’t it?

Thanks for reading,


Types of repetition and why you should teach them – part 1

‘Happiness is the longing for repetition.’ Milan Kundera

There are lots of different, complicated names for types of repetition. Why should English teachers bother to teach them? After all, pupils have got enough to remember in the new exams without overburdening them with other unnecessary, fancy-sounding, difficult-to-spell terms.


I’ve written before about why I think it is important to teach complex terminology.  With repetition, I  think it’s really worth the effort to go beyond using the basic idea of ‘repetition’ as a catch-all term for something that happens more than once.

In part 2 of this blog I’ll explain why, by looking at specific examples. To begin with, let’s have a look in detail at why ‘repetition’ is an unhelpfully amorphous term:

Selected types of repetition (definitions from Dr. Gideon Burton, Brigham Young University)

Repetition of words

Anaphora – Repetition of the same word or group of words at the beginning of successive clauses, sentences, or lines. (‘O night with hue so black! O night, which ever art when day is not! O night, O night, alack, alack, alack!’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

Anadiplosis – The repetition of the last word of one clause or sentence at the beginning of the next. (‘The general who became a slave. The slave who became a gladiator. The gladiator who defied an emperor.’ Tagline for the movie Gladiator)

Diacope – Repetition of a word with one or more between, usually to express deep feeling. (‘She wondered whether, if her chances had been different, she might have met a different man.’ Madame Bovary)

Epistrophe (also called epiphora) – Ending a series of lines, phrases, clauses, or sentences with the same word or words – the opposite of anaphora. (‘If you’re so funny/
Then why are you on your own tonight?/And if you’re so clever/Then why are you on your own tonight?/If you’re so very entertaining/Then why are you on your own tonight?’ The Smiths ‘I Know it’s over’)

Epizeuxis – Repetition of words with no others between, for vehemence or emphasis. (‘Education, education, education’ Speech by Tony Blair)

Polysyndeton (also known as syndetic listing) – Employing many conjunctions between clauses. (‘He pulled the blue plastic tarp off of him and folded it and carried it out to the grocery cart and packed it and came back with their plates and some cornmeal cakes in a plastic bag and a plastic bottle of syrup.’ The Road)

Symploce – A combination of anaphora and epistrophe. (‘Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. Where there is despair, may we bring hope’.) Mendacious speech by Thatcher.

Repetition of clauses, phrases

Isocolon – A series of similarly structured elements having the same length. A kind of parallelism. (‘What the hammer?/what the chain?/In what furnace was thy brain?’ William Blake ‘The Tyger’)

Repetition of ideas

Commoratio – Dwelling on or returning to one’s strongest argument. (‘This parrot is no more. It has ceased to be. It’s expired and gone to see its maker! This is a late parrot. It’s a stiff! Bereft of life! It rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed it to the perch it would be pushing up the daisies! It’s run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible! This is an ex-parrot!’ Monty Python Sketch)

Homiologia – Tedious and inane repetition. (‘Today you are you! That is truer than true! There is no one alive who is you-er than you!’ Dr Seuss)

Pleonasm – Use of more words than is necessary semantically. Rhetorical repetition that is grammatically superfluous. (‘Naan bread’: ‘naan’ already means ‘bread’. We also use CIT Teams at my school, which when expanded means ‘College Improvement Team Teams’)

Repetition of letters, syllables, sounds

Alliteration – Repetition of the same sound at the beginning of two or more stressed syllables. (‘Gawain,’ said the green knight,/’By God, I’m glad/the favour I’ve called for will/fall from your fist.’ Sir Gawain and the Green Knight)

Assonance – Repetition of similar vowel sounds, preceded and followed by different consonants, in the stressed syllables of adjacent words. (‘…viddy him swim in his blood.’ A Clockwork Orange)

Consonance – The repetition of consonants in words stressed in the same place, but whose vowels differ. (‘…glazzies tight shut…’ A Clockwork Orange)

Sibilance – A more specific type of alliteration that relies on the repetition of soft consonant sounds in words to create a whooshing or hissing sound in the writing. (‘…some shivering starry grey-haired ptitsa in a shop and go smecking off with the till’s guts.’ A Clockwork Orange)

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