Anaphora, Epistrophe, and Symploce

By Maeve Maddox

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Three rhetorical terms that describe a type of repetition are anaphora, epistrophe, and symploce.

Anaphora is the repetition of a word or sequence of words at the beginning of successive clauses, phrases, or sentences.

Martin Luther King Jr. made frequent use of anaphora. In the “I Have a Dream” speech (August 1963), he began a sentence with the title clause eight times.

In his Memphis speech, just before his assassination, he used a phrase referring to an assassination attempt that had occurred ten years previously. The attacker’s knife blade had stopped just short of the aorta artery. Doctors told him that if he had so much as sneezed, he would have been a dead man. In that last speech, he emphasized his civil rights achievements to date by beginning six sentences the words “if I had sneezed.”

Here are two examples of anaphora from political leaders in 2021:

The worst pandemic in a century. The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War. —President Joe Biden, address to Congress, 29 April 2021

This is not about policy. This is not about partisanship. This is about our duty as Americans. —Representative Liz Cheney, speech on the House floor, 21 May 2021

Epistrophe. (also called epiphora) is the opposite of anaphora. Epistrophe is the repetition at the end of successive clauses or sentences.

There are causes as I have said for everything that happens in the world. War is a part of it; education is a part of it; birth is a part of it; money is a part of it. — Clarence Darrow arguing to spare Leopold and Loeb the death penalty, 1924.

I confided all to my aunt when I got home; and in spite of all she could say to me, went to bed despairing. I got up despairing, and went out despairing.” — Dickens, David Copperfield

There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. —Lyndon Baines Johnson, address to Congress, 15 March 1965.

Symploce. (also called complexio) combines anaphora and epistrophe. In symploce, one repetition stands at the beginning of a sentence and another at the end.

But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. Martin Luther King, Jr., Memphis, April 3, 1968.

Advertising also makes effective use of these rhetorical devices.

Since 2009, Google has produced a three-minute video called “Year in Search” that summarizes the most popular searches from the previous year. I watched the one for 2017, in which the search box is shown with words being typed into it. First comes a statement:

This year, more than ever, we were asked how

Then follow dozens of questions, each one introduced with the word how.

Repetition can be an extremely effective rhetorical device in a variety of contexts, not just political harangues.

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