Definition of Repetition
Repetition is a literary device that involves intentionally using a word or phrase for effect, two or more times in a speech or written work. For repetition to be noticeable, the words or phrases should be repeated within close proximity of each other. Repeating the same words or phrases in a literary work of poetry or prose can bring clarity to an idea and/or make it memorable for the reader.
For example, in the statement “What you own ends up owning you,” own is repeated in two different ways. This repetition gives greater clarity to the meaning of the statement as a whole. Consumers often believe that they have power over what they acquire since they own it. However, the power of ownership over things is misleading in that often our things have power over us. What we acquire can limit and influence our lives in negative ways, such that our things are owning us. Therefore, repetition in this statement creates a clear meaning of the concept as well as making it memorable for the reader.
Common Examples of Repetition
Many common phrases in conversation and writing contain repetition. Here are some familiar examples of repetition:
- Time after time
- Heart to heart
- Boys will be boys
- Hand in hand
- Get ready; get set; go
- Hour to hour
- Sorry, not sorry
- Over and over
- Home sweet home
- Smile, smile, smile at your mind as often as possible.
- Alone, alone at last
- Now you see me; now you don’t
- Rain, rain go away
- All for one and one for all
- It is what it is
Examples of Repetition in Movie Lines
Many of the most famous quotes from movies contain repetition as a device. Here are some examples of repetition in movie lines:
- “Hey! I’m walking here! I’m walking here!” (Midnight Cowboy)
- “You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Then who the hell else are you talkin’ to? You talkin’ to me? Well, I’m the only one here.” (Taxi Driver)
- “You don’t understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I could’ve been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.” (On the Waterfront)
- “Bond. James Bond.” (James Bond films)
- “Wax on. Wax off.” (The Karate Kid)
- “You is smart. You is kind. You is important.” (The Help)
- “Stupid is as stupid does.” (Forrest Gump)
- “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” (Back to the Future)
- “The first rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club.” (Fight Club)
- “You’re out of order! You’re out of order! The whole trial is out of order! They’re out of order!” (And Justice for All)
Famous Examples of Repetition
Think you haven’t heard of any famous examples of repetition? Here are some instances of repetition in famous speeches, writings, and quotations:
- Ashes To Ashes, dust to dust (English Book of Common Prayer)
- The sad truth is that the truth is sad. (Lemony Snicket)
- The horror! The horror! (Heart of Darkness)
- And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting (The Raven)
- And that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth (Gettysburg Address)
- O Captain! my Captain! (O Captain! My Captain!)
- Think and wonder, wonder and think (Dr. Seuss)
- Water, water everywhere, / Nor any drop to drink (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner)
- Words, words, words (Hamlet)
Differences Between Repetition of Sounds
In addition to using repeating words and phrases as a literary device, writers may use repetition of sounds as well. Overall, the repetition of sound can provide rhythm, pacing, and musicality to a work of poetry or prose. These types of repeated sounds are consonance, assonance, and alliteration.
Consonance is the repetition of a consonant sound in a group of words, such as there is little butter in the bottle. Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds, such as this lake takes the cake. Alliteration is the repetition of sound in the initial letter of a group of words, such as selling sails is somewhat silly.
Though repetitions of sounds are also effective literary devices, in general the literary term repetition refers to intentional use of recurring words and phrases in poetry or prose. However, in a broad sense, repetition as a literary device includes repeating sounds through consonance, assonance, and alliteration as well.
Repetition, as a literary device, functions as a means of reinforcing a concept, thought, or idea for a reader by repeating certain words or phrases. Writers that utilize repetition call attention to what is being repeated. This can generate greater focus on a particular subject and intensify its meaning.
It’s essential that writers bear in mind that their audience may experience fatigue if repetition is overused. As a literary device, repetition should be used deliberately and not just for the sake of repeating a word or phrase. However, when used properly, repetition can be an influential device in writing.
Here are some ways that writers benefit from incorporating repetition into their work:
Sense of Rhythm
Repetition of sounds, words, or phrases allows for a sense of rhythm in a literary work. This is particularly effective when it comes to poetry and speeches. Rhythm affects the pacing and musicality of wording and phrasing. Therefore, repetition creates a sense of rhythm that can change the experience a reader and/or listener has with a literary work.
Repeating a word or phrase in a work of poetry or prose calls attention to it on behalf of the reader. This creates emphasis by highlighting the importance of the word or phrase. Therefore, the reader is more likely to consider the meaning of the word or phrase in a deeper way. Additionally, such emphasis on a concept, thought, or idea can be persuasive on behalf of the reader by underscoring its significance.
Examples of Repetition in Literature
Repetition is a commonly used literary device. Here are some examples of repetition and how it adds to the value of well-known literary works:
Example 1: Macbeth (William Shakespeare)
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.
In this Shakespearean soliloquy, Macbeth is lamenting the death of his wife and repeats the word “tomorrow” three times. Macbeth’s repetition of this word calls attention to the fact that his wife no longer has any tomorrow, and that the tomorrows Macbeth has remaining will be a repetition of life without her.
The rhythm established by the repetition of tomorrow also serves to highlight a sense of futility and mundanity in a word that typically connotes expectation of change or something new. Instead, the repetition of the word renders it meaningless and without promise of hope. Therefore, just as Macbeth has accumulated nothing in the play, his accumulation of tomorrows also represents nothing.
Example 2: A Dog Has Died (Pablo Neruda; translated by Alfred Yankauer)
My dog has died.
I buried him in the garden
next to a rusted old machine.
Some day I’ll join him right there,
but now he’s gone with his shaggy coat,
his bad manners and his cold nose,
and I, the materialist, who never believed
in any promised heaven in the sky
for any human being,
I believe in a heaven I’ll never enter.
Yes, I believe in a heaven for all dogdom
where my dog waits for my arrival
waving his fan-like tail in friendship.
In this poem, Neruda uses repetition of the word “heaven,” both as a place and a concept. This demonstrates the grief the poet feels for how death has separated him from the friendship of his dog. This is an interesting use of repetition as a literary device in that it is the separation of the poet from his dog through death that is emphasized, more than the dog’s actual death.
Neruda achieves this through the poet stating that he does not believe in heaven for humans, but he does believe in heaven for dogs. The fact that the poet will “never enter” this heaven for “dogdom” indicates his realization that the dog’s death means a permanent separation of their friendship. Through this repetition of heaven as a concept for dogs but not humans, the reader gains an even greater sense of the grief the poet must be experiencing. The image of the dog waiting for his human’s arrival in heaven is therefore even more heartbreaking.
The only way the poet can “join” his dog again is by dying and being buried in the same garden. However, this juxtaposition in burial is as meaningless as the “rusted old machine” next to them; it represents earthly decay rather than the promised afterlife of heaven and togetherness.
Example 3: The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (Carson McCullers)
But the hearts of small children are delicate organs. A cruel beginning in this world can twist them into curious shapes. The heart of a hurt child can shrink so that forever afterward it is hard and pitted as the seed of a peach. Or again, the heart of such a child may fester and swell until it is a misery to carry within the body, easily chafed and hurt by the most ordinary things.
In this passage, McCullers repeats the words “heart” and “child.” This repetition is an effective literary device in that it reinforces for the reader that the heart is both impressionable and vulnerable in children, just as a child is impressionable and vulnerable as well. By linking and repeating these words, McCullers provides clarity for readers that what is done to a child will affect their heart, and therefore affect their capacity for love and emotion for the remainder of their lives. Through repetition, McCullers conveys to the reader that the heart as an “organ” and a child are subject to the same pain and lasting consequences.