Understanding epistrophe: examples and usage across genres

This guide looks at epistrophe, a rhetorical and literary device that is also known as epiphora or antistrophe. Its name is derived from an ancient Greek word meaning ‘turning back upon’ and describes a particular type of repetition in text or speech. Even if you’ve never heard of epistrophe, chances are you’ve heard or read many examples. The use of epistrophe is common in all sorts of literature, song lyrics, speeches and advertising. It’s often used to add impact and to increase audience engagement. This article is part of Semantix’s copywriters’ toolkit, but it should be useful for students and other professionals as well.


      What is epistrophe?

      Epistrophe is the repetition of the final element of a structure. This could be the repetition of a single word or an entire clause or sentence.

      For example, in the poet Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself (1855), the final three words are repeated at the end of each line. This includes a variation in the final repetition:

      The moth and the fish-eggs are in their place,
      The bright suns I see and the dark suns I cannot see are in their place,
      The palpable is in its place and the impalpable is in its place.

      Epistrophe is so common in modern song writing and in poetry that we hardly notice it. It’s a device that lends itself well to situations in which the writer needs to be economical with words but still emphasise a point or concept.

      This is also what makes epistrophe a very handy tool for marketers who want to focus our attention on their brands, products and ideas.

      Along with those working in marketing, other individuals whose intention it is to influence their audience wield the power of epistrophe with great success. If you’ve ever wondered why politicians repeat themselves, it’s no accident. They’re using epistrophe, and other figures of repetition, to drive home a point, convince their audience and make an impact.

      There are many types of literary devices that are used to create different impacts. Just like a carpenter uses the right tools to do the job, choosing the right rhetorical device can help your written or verbal communications hit the mark and get you the results you want.

      Epistrophe: purpose and effect

      On the one hand, we know that epistrophe can be used to create impact, make a statement memorable or increase the emotional ‘payload’. On the other hand, it’s impossible to say that epistrophe always creates this effect. In the right hands, epistrophe might make a text more memorable, but it can also make it tedious if used without skill.

      Of course, the effect of a rhetorical device varies between individuals and is, in part, influenced by personal preferences and unique life experiences. In fact, that’s what makes epistrophe and other rhetorical devices so interesting to use: their effect is subjective and dependent on the developing interplay between the writer and the audience. Therefore, the writer gets the best results if they’re aware of the intended audience’s preferences and can predict their societal viewpoints to a certain degree.

      What are the rules?

      Epistrophe, in its purest form, is the repetition of the same word or phrase at the end of at least two sentences, phrases or other language structures, such as poetic verses or the chorus of a song. However, there are no hard and fast rules. Many writers bend the rules by changing the repeated word or phrase. What’s important is that the repetition adds emphasis or creates impact of some description.

      Let’s have a look at epistrophe examples. We can guarantee you’ve come across at least some of them before.

      Epistrophe examples in literature and poetry

      Writers use epistrophe in literature and poetry in an attempt to create impact and memorable rhythms, whether the words are spoken or read. However, whether their intention becomes a reality depends on audience interpretation. We all have our own preferences when it comes to language – what might be a memorable piece of writing for one person could be easily forgotten by the next, regardless of the writer’s skill.


      Take a look at this example of epistrophe being used by 19th century writer and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson to create a phrase that is still widely used today. Note how the final part of each clause is repeated with a variation:

      What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.

      Epistrophe often creates a sense of rhythm when it is used in prose, such as in the following excerpts from ‘Mrs Dalloway’ by Virginia Woolf:

      ‘Musing among the vegetables?’ – was that it? – ‘I prefer men to cauliflowers’ – was that it? (p. 3)
      Oh these parties, he thought; Clarissa’s parties. Why does she give these parties, he thought. (p. 36)

      The first use of epistrophe, “was that it?”, helps create the image of someone thinking in a disorganised manner, trying to remember a certain quote. The second use, "he thought”, establishes and emphasises the character’s sense of boredom with regards to another character’s parties.

      To summarise, the use of epistrophe can create different effects depending on the context in which it is used, but often serves to add emphasis and rhythm.


      Here’s an example of epistrophe being put to work in ‘Marina’, a poem by T.S. Eliot. Each line of the verse ends with the words ‘meaning Death’:

      Those who sharpen the tooth of the dog, meaning

      Those who glitter with the glory of the hummingbird, meaning

      Epistrophe in nursery rhyme

      Repetitive nursery rhyme lyrics are used to help children remember the song and sometimes to learn how to do something. Notice how the lyrics use two sets of epistrophe: the end phrase of the first line is repeated twice in the second line and the final line of each verse is repeated throughout the rhyme.

      London Bridge is falling down,
      Falling down
      , falling down.
      London Bridge is
      falling down,
      My fair lady.

      Build it up with wood and clay,
      Wood and clay,
      wood and clay,
      Build it up with wood and clay,
      My fair lady.

      Wood and clay will wash away,
      Wash away, wash away,

      Wood and clay will wash away,
      My fair lady…

      Epistrophe examples in speech and performance


      The oath used in common law systems uses epistrophe. The phrase originated hundreds of years ago. The repetition was likely used to emphasise the importance of compliance and suggest the possible consequences of non-compliance:

      I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

      One of the most famous speeches of all time – the ‘I have a dream’ speech made by Martin Luther King on the 8th of August 1963 in Washington D.C – contains multiple rhetorical devices, including epistrophe:

      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.


      Epistrophe can add emphasis to dramatic performance, build tension and keep an audience enthralled.

      William Shakespeare was the master of words. And he used epistrophe to great effect. Here’s an example from ’The Merchant of Venice’:

      I'll have my bond!
      Speak not against my bond!
      I have sworn an oath that I will have my bond.

      Using epistrophe in marketing

      Marketers are constantly seeking new ways to convince us to buy their services and products. However, most people can detect a sales pitch quite easily and are likely to simply ‘switch off’ if they suspect they’re being sold to.

      That’s why linguistic tools are so valuable and effective in the world of marketing. Words and language structure are commonly used to persuade and influence and aren’t usually obvious to the audience. Rhetorical devices are used in the industry to create memorable advertising or to highlight an important benefit or pain point.

      Savvy business owners, copywriters and other marketing professionals understand that language influences emotions and compels action. A copywriter has a plethora of tools to use when they’re writing advertising copy or scripts. A good copywriter uses rhetorical devices to persuade the audience to act in the desired way, and that’s usually to click the buy button!

      Let’s have a look at some examples of epistrophe being used in successful marketing campaigns:

      This is not just food. This is M&S food. (Marks & Spencer)
      Keeps going. And going. And going. (Duracell)
      Tastes good. Does good. (Honest to Goodness)
      Sleep better. Live better. (Casper)
      Talk more. Play more. (Nokia)
      For people. By People. (Volvo)

      What’s the difference between epistrophe and anaphora?

      There are other rhetorical devices that refer to repetition, like anaphora. Anaphora involves the repetition of words at the beginning of successive phrases, clauses, verses or sentences.

      For example, look at Martin Luther King Jr.'s repetition of the words "let freedom ring" in his ‘I have a dream’ speech. This is anaphora:

      Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
      Let freedom ring
      from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
      Let freedom ring
      from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado.
      Let freedom ring
      from the curvaceous slopes of California.

      Other useful ways to use repetition for impact

      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.

      Anaphora – the repetition of words at the beginning of successive sentences, phrases or verses. See the example provided above from Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech.

      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.

      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.

      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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      Further reading

      • A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms – Richard Lanham, University of California Press, 2013
      • The Elements of Eloquence – Mark Forsyth, Icon Books, 2013
      • The Rhetorical Device: Literary Resources for The Writer Vol. 1 of 2 – Paul F Kisak, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016
      • Writing with Clarity and Style: A Guide to Rhetorical Devices for Contemporary Writers – Robert A Harris, Routledge, 2017
      • The Use of Rhetorical Devices in Selected Speeches by Clinton & Trump: Discourse from the Electoral Campaign 2016 – Larissa Wolf, AV Akademikerverlag, 2018