A guide to the literary device anaphora – for professional wordsmiths

As part of our stylistic toolbox for copywriters, students, and other writers who want to sharpen their writing techniques, this blog post discusses the literary device known as anaphora. We’re going to discuss its definition and origin, we’re going to discuss its effects and advantages, and most importantly, we’re going to give examples of the device from different genres.

A guide to the literary device anaphora

      What is anaphora?

      Anaphora is a form of repetition that needs to meet a few basic criteria: one or more words must be repeated at the start of two or more structures (sentences, clauses, parts of sentences, lines, etc.).

      The word can be traced all the way back to Ancient Greek, where it had several different meanings. The meaning that lives on in the device’s name today, though, is the act of bringing back, referring to, or having recourse to, since it’s a device consisting of words that recur and thereby refer to each other.

      What is anaphora good for?

      Literary devices are used to create stylistic effects, meaning to evoke certain impressions, emotions, or experiences in the listener, reader, or recipient, depending on the medium within which it is used.

      When it comes to anaphora, the effect can often be to create a sense of increasing intensity or of a rhythmic flow. An advantage of using repetitions is that it allows the repeated message to embed itself deeply into the memory, with anaphora being one of the more efficient tricks of repetition, as it consists of initial repetitions that become easier to remember simply because they’re heard or read at the start of each sentence, clause, or other structure.

      The difficulty with the effects of literary devices, including anaphora, is of course that they are hard to measure and evaluate, in addition to the fact that different recipients might interpret and experience the effects of literary devices in different ways. However, it is obvious that literary devices do affect us, and that they, despite interpretation variables, are an effective method of captivating readers or listeners. This is instantly visible when looking closer at examples where anaphora is used.

      Examples of anaphora in rhetoric

      In rhetoric, examples of anaphora are abundant. Anaphora is not only a way to capture the attention and concentration of your listeners or to get them to remember what you’ve said, but is also an excellent way for public speakers to remember what they’re going to say themselves.

      One of the greatest orators of the 20th century was Martin Luther King. The celebrated speech “I have a dream” is in fact named after its use of anaphora (the repetition of “I have a dream” at the start of several sentences and passages), which could be called the most famous example of anaphora in the English language. But the speech contains many other examples of anaphora as well, as can be seen below:

      With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

      “With this faith” constitutes the anaphora in this excerpt and is repeated three times to emphasise the political goal of equal rights and the road to achieve it. The speech contains even more examples of the device, which can be read in full here.

      Another great rhetorician during the 20th century was Winston Churchill. In a speech before the House of Commons after the evacuation of Dunkirk, Churchill gives a lengthy account of the events that led to the deliverance and of how it came to be successful. To conclude, however, he tries to ignite the listeners’ fighting spirits, instil the impression that the war is far from over and that capitulation is not an option:

      […] we shall not flag or fail. 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 and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender […]

      The anaphora that is recurrent throughout the quoted passage is “we shall” (occurs eleven times), which is prolonged and specified in the anaphora “we shall fight” (occurs seven times). The effect of the device is an increase in intensity, which in itself creates a kind of climax.

      Back in 1908, the fight for gender equality saw the use of the device, delivered by Emmeline Pankhurst:

      It is a symbol of freedom, a symbol of citizenship, a symbol of liberty.

      In this case, the anaphora doesn’t introduce several sentences, but several parts of a sentence, to help further the suffragette cause.

      The device has not been limited to the 20th century, but is common in the 21st as well. Greta Thunberg frequently opts for the device when wanting to get her point across:

      Instead, I will ask the media to start treating the crisis as a crisis. Instead, I will ask the people around the world to realize that our political leaders have failed us.

      As we have seen across several examples, when used as a rhetorical device, anaphora tends to create a sense of rhythm, emphasis, and intensity. It also tends to work as a memory hack, for both speaker and listener.

      Examples of anaphora in literature and poetry

      The device is used in poetry as well as literature to create similar effects as in rhetoric. In the modernist novel Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf uses anaphora regularly:

      That was her self – pointed; dartlike; definite. That was her self when some effort, some call on her to be her self, drew the parts together […].

      A short anaphora is used on page 27 to describe the main character – “That was her self”, but longer ones also occur in the novel:

      Look,’, she implored him […]
      Look,’, she implored him […]
      Look,’, she repeated.
      Look the unseen bade him […]
      Look,’, she repeated, for he must not talk aloud to himself out of doors.
      ‘Oh look,’ she implored him.

      On page 19, Woolf lets six paragraphs in a row start with the same imperative, creating an anaphora that stretches over a full page. Another example is visible on page 49, where the word “Still” introduces four whole sentences and a clause within the fourth, occurring five times in total:

      Still, the sun was hot. Still, one got over things. Still, life had a way of adding day to day. Still, he thought, yawning and beginning to take notice – Regent’s Park had changed very little since he was a boy, except for the squirrels – still, presumably there were compensations […].

      The three examples of anaphora included here show how the device can contribute to the rhythm in prose, giving the text a flow and a sense of continuance.

      Woolf is not the only novelist who has employed the tool to her advantage. With all his stylistic tools and fine eloquence, Charles Dickens also had recourse to the device in question. In combination with hypotaxis, asyndeton, assonance, alliteration, and personification, we encounter the following example on page 420 of Oliver Twist:

      Of all bad deeds that, under cover of the darkness, had been committed within wide London’s bounds since night hung over it, that was the worst. Of all the horrors that rose with an ill scent upon the morning air, that was the foulest and most cruel.

      There is even a hidden anaphora in there, that introduces the main clauses of the two sentences – “that was”, followed by different superlatives.

      However, it’s not only in prose that anaphora is put to use – the tool often gets to introduce several lines in poetry, where it is usually quite easy to identify. In the poem “Because I could not stop for Death – 479”, an anaphora gets to describe the surroundings seen during a carriage ride:

      We passed the School, where Children strove
      At Recess – in the Ring –
      We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
      We passed the Setting Sun –

      Emily Dickinson intertwines her anaphora with alliteration and personification in this excerpt. The anaphora is instantly visible, as the lines are separated, advancing the poetic description.

      Examples of anaphora in advertising

      The device is regularly used in marketing campaigns: the device has proved highly efficient as it roots itself in the memory of potential customers with its repetitive rhythm and its elegant style.

      The efficiency of anaphora is not unknown to one of the world’s largest soft drink companies, Pepsi:

      Zero sugar. Zero compromise.

      In a campaign that has been said to direct itself to men in their 30’s and 40’s, the anaphora and the clear and direct choice of words is meant to give the product an air of decisiveness.

      Another company that has employed anaphora to market their brand is Costa Express, who portray their coffee to go in the following way:

      Real milk.
      Real beans.
      Real quick.

      By highlighting the quality as well as the speed of their services, the anaphora does its job.

      Volkswagen have also put the effects of anaphora to the test for the promotion of their model Tiguan:

      So much tech, so easy to use.

      In this example, the anaphora helps contrast the complexity of the car model’s technical system with the effortlessness of operating it.

      Within advertising, we see that introductory repetitions serve to make slogans or other types of copy stick in the recipient’s mind, but also to attract attention or to emphasise a message.

      AI and anaphora

      In a world that becomes more technological by the day, literary devices are now one of the tools that computers can whip up from their storage spaces. We asked ChatGPT to author a few examples of anaphora for us. Take a look at what your rival can do:

      She danced with grace, she danced with passion, she danced with a heart full of fire.
      Through the tears, through the pain, through the darkest of nights, we find our way to the light.
      With each sunrise, with each new day, with each opportunity that beckons, we have the chance to begin anew.
      In the garden of life, we plant the seeds of hope. In the garden of love, we nurture the blossoms of affection. In the garden of dreams, we watch as aspirations take flight.

      These sentences might be some of the most obvious clichés and platitudes ever written by an AI tool, but ChatGPT is able to deliver examples of anaphora upon order, faster than human hands can type them (or come up with them in the first place). For now, human writers have come up with better examples than their robot friend, but ChatGPT is also able to quote them, if you ask it to.

      You came, you saw, you conquered anaphora

      At this point, you’re hopefully an expert on anaphora and are able to identify the device in this section’s heading. The repetition of ‘you’ is an example of anaphora, but the heading is also an allusion to a quote by Julius Caesar: ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’ (which by the way also contains the devices alliteration, asyndeton, parallelism, and climax).

      As a writer, this tool can help you get your message to burrow itself in a deeply buried bunker in your readers’ minds – to get them to remember what you want to convey, while at the same time adding the stylistic bonus of conveying it in a dashing way. To conclude: with anaphora you can make your texts more creative, your expressions more striking, and your recipients more interested.

      Similar devices

      Epiphora – the repetition of the final element of a structure. For example, Duracell: ‘Keeps going. And going. And going.’

      Isocolon – a sentence composed of two or more phrases of similar structure and length that mean the same thing. There are three types of isocolon. A bicolon has two phrases; a tricolon has three phrases; a tetracolon has four phrases. This description is an example of a tricolon! 

      Alliteration – repetition of the same initial consonant sound throughout a sentence, phrase or verse. Alliteration is popular in marketing text. For example, Jaguar’s ‘Don’t dream it. Drive it.’ 

      Anadiplosis – the repetition of a word that ends one sentence, phrase or verse at the beginning of the next sentence, phrase or verse. For example, ‘Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.’ – Yoda, Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (1999) 

      Antimetabole – the repetition of words from the first half of the sentence or phrase in the second half, but in reverse order. For example, ‘I know what I like, and I like what I know.’

      Antanaclasis – a single word or phrase is repeated, but with two different meanings. For example, Coca Cola’s ‘People on the go, go for coke.’

      Assonance – the repetition of vowel sounds in words that are close to each other in a sentence, phrase or verse. For example, ‘Oh no, this is so slow.’

      Conduplicatio – the repetition of an important word from anywhere in one sentence, phrase or verse at the beginning of the next sentence, phrase or verse. For example, ‘I am filled with a profound and abiding gratitude to the American people. Gratitude is a word that I cherish. Gratitude is what defines the humanity of the human being.’ – used by Elie Weisel in his ‘The Perils of Indifference’ speech. 

      Diaphora – the repetition of a name, firstly as a proper noun to signify the person and then as a noun to signify its meaning. For example, the biblical quote, ‘For your Gods are not gods but man-made idols.’

      Diocope – repetition broken up by one or more intervening words. For example, ‘I want a meal, a beautiful, lavish meal.’

      Epanalepsis – the repetition of the first part of a sentence, phrase or verse at the end of the sentence, phrase or verse. For example, ‘Nothing is worse than doing nothing.’

      Epimone – the continual repetition of a phrase or question. For example, in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, Mr Dick says, ‘No beggar, no beggar, no beggar, sir!’

      Epizeuxis – the repetition of one word or phrase in immediate succession. For example, ‘Come here, come here, come here!’

      Mesodiplosis – the repetition of a word or phrase in the middle of every sentence, phrase or verse. For example, “Me, but not you; us, but not them; you, but not him.” 

      Polyptoton – the repetition of words derived from the same root but used to mean different things. For example, John Lennon’s lyrics ‘Please please me’. 

      Tautology – saying or writing the same thing twice using different words. For example, ‘I’m getting colder and colder.’ The repetition is unnecessary, so the tautology is unintentional. However, tautology can also be used to add emphasis: ‘It was so hot, it was scorching.’

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      Dig deeper into writing with style

      Are you interested in learning more about stylistics or how to become a more eloquent writer? Check out our reading recommendations.

      • Abrams, M. H. 1999 (1957). A Glossary of Literary Terms.
      • Cushman, Stephen, et al. (red.). 2012. Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics.
      • Forsyth, Mark. 2016. The Elements of Eloquence – How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase.
      • Joseph, Miriam. 2013 (1947). Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language.

      Check our sources

      Curious about how we know all of this? Take a look at our sources below.