When you saw repetition listed here as a rhetorical device, you might have wondered why. Probably you've noticed that the repetition of words can make writing boring or produce sentences that have no rhythm or are just badly constructed. You wouldn't want to write: “It was a great day when we went to visit our Aunt Roberta, because she was a great pianist and we had a great time when we went to see her.”
But repetition, when used well, can actually emphasize a point, heighten drama, and tie elements together. Words, sounds, phrases, syllables, allusions, stanzas, metrical patterns, and ideas can all be repeated in poetry and prose. Be aware, though, that repeating words or elements should be added carefully to your writing and for a specific purpose.
Repetition can be used to great effect in song lyrics. The repeated sounds or words can set up a rhythm that adds to the language's musical quality, focuses the message, and supports or draws attention to the melody. One excellent example is found in Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's “Blue Room,” from the 1926 musical The Girl Friend. The word room is repeatedly used: “We'll have a blue room, / A new room, / For two room …,” setting up a rhythm that works with the melody. According to Rodgers, “All the rhymes and inner rhymes occur on the same note, C. Every time you are going to hear the half note which is the center of the melody, it is preceded by the repetition of C and the rhyme. And this half note is always the note which carries …the word room, the most important word in the song …both words and music are used to underscore the note which gives the song its individuality.”
Many hymns use repetition by having singers repeat the chorus after each verse. This often helped church and choir members memorize songs.
Repeating words in speeches can add great dramatic intensity. A famous and brilliant use of repetition is found in a speech Winston Churchill delivered in 1940, when Nazi Germany was threatening to conquer England: “We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence …we shall defend our island…. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields …we shall fight in the hills …We shall never surrender.”
Churchill's repeated use of the phrase “we shall fight” gave both rhythm and power to his words. Using the phrase he describes how Britain will fight in every place and in every way, and will never give up. The phrase also worked as a rallying call to Churchill's countrymen to take up the fight and to join him in his determination never to surrender.
Dramatize and Emphasize
In poetry, many writers, past and present, have used repetition to good effect. For instance, in his poem “The Bells,” Edgar Allan Poe repeats the subject word several times in each stanza. The repetition of the word unifies the stanzas while drawing attention to the different emotions bells invoke. Poe speaks of silver bells, mellow wedding bells, loud “alarum” bells, the anger of the bells, the throbbing of the bells, the moaning and the groaning of the bells. The poem gains momentum and strength through the continuing and strategic use of the word bells. Other poems by Poe, including “Annabel Lee” and “The Raven,” also exhibit moving use of repetition.
Repeated nonsense words and simple words also beguile children and encourage a love of language. Just think of the Dr. Seuss classics, Margaret Wise Brown's Good Night Moon, Russell Hoban's Bread and Jam for Frances, and Robert Munsch's Love You Forever.
Repetition can also be used to great effect in children's books. Recurring words, phrases, and sounds can keep children fascinated and encourage prereaders to participate in story time. In Pierre: A Cautionary Tale in Five Chapters and a Prologue, Maurice Sendak writes of “a boy named Pierre who would only say, ‘I don't care!’” Pierre says “I don't care” again and again, and nearly every child who listens to this story will soon be saying it right along with him.