Anaphora

Definition of Anaphora

Anaphora is a rhetorical device that features repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive sentences, phrases, or clauses. Anaphora works as a literary device to allow writers to convey, emphasize, and reinforce meaning. This word repetition at the beginning of each phrase in a group of sentences or clauses is a stylized technique that can be very effective in speeches, lyrics, poetry, and prose.

One of the most famous uses of anaphora is the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness” Through repetition of the phrase “it was,” Dickens reinforces to the reader that the time he is describing is a past filled with oppositions and extremes.  In addition, the anaphora creates the effect for a current reader that, while reading, it is that way in the present as well. As a result, this allows the reader to engage immediately with the story.

Conversational Anaphora Examples

Anaphora is used in a conversational way to express emotion and as a means of emphasizing or affirming a point or idea. Here are some examples of conversational anaphora:

  • “Go big or go home.”
  • “Be bold. Be brief. Be gone.”
  • “Get busy living or get busy dying.”
  • “Give me liberty or give me death.”
  • “You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.”
  • “Stay safe. Stay well. Stay happy.”
  • “So many places, so little time.”
  • “I wish I may; I wish I might.”
  • Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”
  • “Give much, give often, give freely.”
  • “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
  • “Run far, run fast.”
  • “Monkey see, monkey do.”
  • “Open heart, open mind.”
  • “Great haste makes great waste.”

Examples of Anaphora in Speech and Writing

When it comes to speech and writing, anaphora can provide a rhythm to words and phrases. This can have a strong effect on an audience by appealing to emotions, inspiration, motivation, and even memory. Such a pattern of repetition at the beginning of phrases or sentences is particularly useful in political speech and writing as a means of engaging an audience. Anaphora holds their attention, and creates a lasting impression.

Here are some examples of anaphora from well-known speeches and writings:

  • “We came, we saw, we conquered.” (translated from Latin, attributed to Julius Caesar in letter to Roman senate)
  • “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” (Mark Twain)
  • “Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.” (Martin Luther King Jr.)
  • “Indifference elicits no response. Indifference is not a response. Indifference is not a beginning; it is an end. And, therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor–never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten.” (Elie Wiesel)
  • “Do you realize that when you ask women to take their cause to state referendum you compel them . . . to beg men who cannot read for their political freedom? Do you realize that such anomalies as a college president asking her janitor to give her a vote are overstraining the patience and driving women to desperation? Do you realize that women in increasing numbers indignantly resent the long delay in their enfranchisement?” (Carrie Chapman Catt)

Famous Anaphora Examples

Here are some well-known examples of anaphora from music lyrics that you might recognize:

  1. Turn, Turn, Turn” lyrics by Pete Seeger

There is a season – turn, turn, turn

And a time to every purpose under heaven

A time to be born, a time to die

A time to plant, a time to reap

A time to kill, a time to heal

A time to laugh, a time to weep

2. “All You Need Is Love” lyrics by John Lennon and Paul McCartney

There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done

Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung

Nothing you can say, but you can learn how to play the game

It’s easy

3. “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” lyrics by Haven Gillespie

You better watch out,

You better not cry,

You better not pout

I’m telling you why

Difference Between Anaphora and Repetition

In a general sense, anaphora is repetition. However, anaphora is specific in its intent to repeat. Nonspecific repetition of words or phrases can take place anywhere in writing. With anaphora, the repetition is of a word or phrase at the beginning of consecutive sentences, phrases, or clauses. Therefore, this repetition is intentional for literary or rhetorical effect.

Writing Anaphora

Overall, as a literary device, anaphora functions as a means of emphasizing words and ideas. Also, it can also provide a lyrical and artistic effect when used properly. Readers often remember passages that feature anaphora in the way that they might remember refrains in music. This not only enhances a reader’s experience and enjoyment of language, but also expands the writer’s ability to convey and reinforce meaning in their work.

Unfortunately, when used poorly, anaphora can be alienating for a reader. It can appear too distracting, forced, or emphatic. Writing anaphora is a balance between deliberate usage as a literary device and the natural flow of wording. Therefore, it’s essential for writers to carefully consider when and how to use anaphora to avoid overwhelming or disengaging the reader.

Here are instances in which it’s effective to use anaphora in writing:

Evoke Emotion

Anaphora is often utilized by writers to evoke emotion. This is powerfully demonstrated in the passage from Elie Wiesel’s speech above (see #4) in which he begins his statements with “indifference.” Though, as a term, indifference denotes an absence of emotion, Wiesel’s repetition of the word has the opposite effect on the reader/listener. Therefore, indifference as anaphora in this case evokes emotions of empathy and sadness. A rhetorical device that evokes emotion in a reader/listener is valuable to a writer as a means of creating meaning.

Reinforce or Emphasize a Concept

Anaphora is also an excellent rhetorical device for writers to reinforce or emphasize a concept. By repeating a word or phrase at the beginning of successive sentences or phrases, the concept represented by that word or phrase is highlighted and brought to the foreground for the reader. Mark Twain utilizes this reinforcement and emphasis in his famous quote relating the size of a dog in a fight to the size of fight in a dog (see #2 above). By emphasizing the impact of size through anaphora, Mark Twain is able to reinforce the concept that external, physical size is less influential to an outcome than intrinsic passion and motivation.

Create Urgency or Call to Action

By repeating a word or phrase at the beginning of successive sentences, a writer can create a sense of urgency or call to action for the reader. For example, in Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech above (see #3), he invokes the phrase “go back” as a means of calling his readers/listeners to action. In addition, the repetition of this phrase makes for effective anaphora in that it creates a sense of urgency for the reader/listener to both consider and comply with the directive. Therefore, for political or motivational writing, anaphora is a powerful rhetorical device.

Examples of Anaphora in Literature

Anaphora is an effective literary device. Here are some examples of anaphora in well-known works of literature, along with how they add to interpretation and literary expression:

Example 1: If you want the moon (Rumi)

If you want the moon, do not hide from the night.

If you want a rose, do not run from the thorns.

If you want love, do not hide from yourself.

Rumi’s poetic words utilize anaphora with the phrase “if you want,” presenting a choice directly to the reader. This phrase repetition appears as if the choice is conditional, in the sense that the reader must decide whether they want what the poet is suggesting. However, as a literary device, the anaphora here induces a call to action as each repetition is followed by an instruction. Therefore, this has a powerful effect for the reader in creating a sense of urgency in making a choice.

Example 2: The Help (Kathryn Stockett)

You is kind. You is smart. You is important.

In Stockett’s novel, these words are spoken to a white child by her black caretaker. Stockett’s use of anaphora in this dialogue reinforces the relationship between these characters. However, it simultaneously reveals the dichotomy between their circumstances. The child in the novel is loved unconditionally by her caretaker, who reminds her that she is kind, smart, and important.

By repeating “you,” the caretaker is reinforcing these qualities specifically for the child. In addition, this is ironic considering the racial divide between the characters. As a black woman, the caretaker is not treated by the child’s family as if she is kind, smart, or important. Therefore, the caretaker is instilling qualities in a white child who, unfortunately, may grow up to be prejudiced against the very woman she knew to possess these traits. In turn, this literary device creates an emotional response for the reader in reaction to the black woman’s words to the white child.

Example 3: We Real Cool (Gwendolyn Brooks)

We real cool. We

Left school. We

Lurk late. We

Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We

Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We

Die soon.

In this poem, Brooks makes clever and dramatic use of anaphora with repetition of “we.” However, the placement of this pronoun at the end of each line creates a visual as well as lyrical effect for the reader. The subject, “we,” seems an afterthought, though it is grammatically the first word of each sentence in the poem.

By making the subject secondary to the action, the reader’s focus is drawn towards the rhythm and pattern of the words describing what the subject is doing. This creates a dramatic effect for the last line, “die soon.” The anaphora, “we,” is absent in the last line. Therefore, the poem concludes with the figurative death of the subject and the literal death of the literary device.