Anaphora and Epistrophe: Two Rhetorical Devices

by Sue Weems and Liz Bureman | 2 comments

Anaphora and epistrophe are rhetorical devices that have a few things in common. You've probably heard both types used without even knowing it! Let's take a look.

Anaphora and Epistrophe

Quick Definitions: Anaphora and Epistrophe

Anaphora is a rhetorical device that involves repeating the same word or phrase at the beginning of successive sentences or clauses. 

Epistrophe, on the other hand, repeats the same word or phrase at the end of successive sentences or clauses.

What Is Anaphora? How is it used?

Let's look a little deeper. Anaphora is when the first word or series of words in a phrase, sentence, or clause repeats for emphasis.

Examples of anaphora as a word:

Go big or go home (the repetition of “go” creates a punchy aphorism meaning to give your all or don't try at all)

Examples of anaphora as a phrase:

In Chris Stapleton's song “Devil Always Made Me Think Twice,” he opens with a repeated phrase.

Take a little smoke in the evening
Take a little whiskey on ice

Examples of anaphora as a clause:

One famous example of anaphora comes from the opening lines of Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities. 

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 theepoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was thespring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

Martin Luther King Jr. also used anaphora in his “I Have a Dream” speech, with the repetition of that famous phrase.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

Songs often use this structure as well, as in Taylor Swift's song, “Should've Said No”:

You should've said no
You should've gone home
You should've thought twice before you let it all go

Once you start looking for it, you'll notice anaphora everywhere from songs to ads and iconic speeches. Now you'll know the term anaphora and be able to identify it. Go on, amaze your family and friends! 

Why use anaphora?

The repetition can be used for a number of reasons. The rhythm of repetition creates a structure for the ideas expressed. It can also be used to emphasize or build an idea in succession, such as Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech where his ideas build into a larger vision of full equality. 

Anaphora can also be used to compare or contrast ideas. A good example of this is in Taylor Swift's song:

You should've known that word ‘bout what you did with her/ Would get back to me (get back to me)
And I should've been there/ In the back of your mind
I shouldn't be asking myself why
You shouldn't be beggin' for forgiveness at my feet
You should've said no
Baby, and you might still have me

Notice how the lines and repetition contrast what is and what should have been, in addition to the difference between their individual actions and reflection on what happened in their relationship. 

What is epistrophe? How is it used?

But what if the repetition happens at the end of successive phrases, sentences, or clauses? Is there a term for that? Yes! There are actually three terms:

Epistrophe, or epiphora, or antistrophe.

Take your pick; they're all correct.

Examples of epistrophe appear in Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

…and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

You can also see them in Lyndon B. Johnson's “We Shall Overcome” speech.

There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.

Why use epistrophe? 

Writers use epistrophe for the same reasons they use anaphora. The rhythm is pleasing to the ear, it drives home specific ideas with emphasis, and it's memorable. 

Depending on the example, epistrophe can also create emotional impact, such as the example here in John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, where Tom Joad tries to reassure Ma Joad that he's a man in his own right and will continue to work for justice whether in life or in death. 

I'll be ever'where – wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry n’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there.

And (fun fact) what happens when anaphora and epistrophe combine? You get symploce, which is when phrases/sentences/clauses have words at both the beginning and end repeating themselves.

Isn't that neat? Now go looking for examples of epistrophy on your own!

Repetition: A winning device

Repetition is a stylistic device used most often in poems, songs, and speeches, but as we've seen, anaphora and epistrophe can be used effectively in almost any type of writing. Watch and listen for the examples in your everyday life and try out a few in your own writing. 

PRACTICE

For today's practice, open your manuscript or start a new scene or speech. Think about an issue that you're passionate about. How can you distill your message to a quick phrase that can be repeated in some way? Set your timer for 15 minutes and write out your scene or speech using anaphora or epistrophe. 

When finished, share your practice in the Pro Practice Workshop, and leave feedback for a few other writers. Not a member? Join us.

 

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Sue Weems is a writer, teacher, and traveler with an advanced degree in (mostly fictional) revenge. When she’s not rationalizing her love for parentheses (and dramatic asides), she follows a sailor around the globe with their four children, two dogs, and an impossibly tall stack of books to read. You can read more of her writing tips on her website.

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

2 Comments

  1. Gahe

    Glad to visit your blog. Thanks for this great post that you share to us.

    Reply
  2. Birgitte Rasine

    Wow, Liz, the Northern Lights! Something I have always wanted to see. I had a stunning dream about them once… but have not yet seen them for real. Are they as stunning as photos suggest? Are they as breathtaking as we imagine? Are they as ephemeral as first snow?

    (a little sprinkle of anaphora there…. 🙂 )

    Love this post. It’s wonderful to be reminded of the technical terms of this art that we practice. I use anaphora all the time in my writing, much more so than epistrophe. One of my readers suggested once that it slows down the tempo, and I wrote back to her saying, Yes, exactly! when you want your readers to slow down, and really take in what you’re saying, that’s the perfect time for anaphora.

    Reply

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