Rhetoric 101: Anaphora? I Hardly Know Her

It’s one of the oldest literary devices we’ve got, sprinkled liberally through the Biblical Psalms. It was used heavily by Elizabethan and Romantic writers. It has been used to start civil rights movements, win elections, and to demonstrate the futility of hiding from Sting.

Simply put, anaphora is repetition. Specifically, it’s what happens when you repeat the first part of a sentence at the beginning of successive clauses, and it adds a lot of emphasis to what you’re saying.

Therefore, insanely useful if you’re trying to make a point (so any time we want to communicate with somebody else, really.)

For those of you interested in etymology, ‘anaphora’ comes from Greek: ana (meaning ‘back) + pherein (meaning ‘to carry’)

What’s It Used For?

Well, at the most basic level, anaphora is a great way to put a spotlight on the most important aspect of what you’re saying. It can also be used to break up information that might otherwise be confusing, providing the listener with a framework they can use to understand your point.

Repeating words or phrases creates a sense of rhythm, which makes it a pleasure to read, a joy to listen to, and a breeze to memorise. It’s no wonder that politicians use it so frequently, and for good reason; anaphora is a fantastic way to persuade, inspire and motivate.

Moving beyond function, anaphora serves an artistic purpose – creating a dramatic effect when it’s applied to poetry or song lyrics. It works because it appeals to the pathos (that’s feelings) of the audience. But how can simply repeating something create an emotional reaction other than irritation?

By creating a pattern in your language, listeners are encouraged to anticipate the next line – they’re invited to participate in what you’re saying, and because they’re actively engaged, they’re much more likely to relate to your point. As a writer (or speaker), we want to evoke feelings in other people; anger, fear, nostalgia, support. Anaphora allows us to do that: it can be dangerous in the wrong hands, but it can also be wonderful.

A Brief Note on Epistrophe

Anaphora happens when you repeat the beginning of a sentence, but if you do it to the end of successive clauses, it’s called epistrophe. An example of this you’ll all be familiar with:

“Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?”

You can use both at once, too – and that’s called symploce. It’s not as popular, but it’s very pretty:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.”

Who Did It Best?

Steve Jobs used many powerful verbal tricks in his speeches, and repeating sound bites was a well-thumbed tool in his arsenal:

We’ve got the iPod, best music player in the world. We’ve got the iPod Nanos, brand new models, colours are back. We’ve got the amazing new iPod shuffle.”

Steve Jobs, Macworld 2007 iPhone Launch

He’s using rhetoric here to build excitement and tension, the staccato rhythm of these sentences feels like a drumroll; he’s teasing us as he builds up to the reveal of the newest bit of Apple tech. By repeating the word ‘We’ and pairing it with blockbuster products, he’s creating a feeling of community and solidarity in his audience.

Martin Luther King Jr. used anaphora beautifully in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech – repeating that phrase eight times throughout the address as a method of reaching out to the audience, calling them to be the change.

Winston Churchill, famous for his grasp of rhetoric, used anaphora as a rallying cry in one of his WWII iconic speeches. His duty was to warn the nation that Britain might be invaded by German soldiers, but he turned horrific news into a call to arms:

We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

Winston Churchill, 1940

This is an example of anaphora being used to break up a list of confusing ideas – it gives us time to slow down and fully consider every point he’s making.

As for poetic examples, William Blake could run a master-class:

 “What the hammer? What the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread gasp?
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?”

William Blake, The Tyger

“In every cry of every man,
In every infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.”

William Blake, London

Here, Blake uses subtle variations to increase anaphora’s effect. By shortening the format in third line, he accelerates the poem’s pace, and drives home the message that nobody in London is immune to the prison of “mind-forg’d manacles”.

Dickens also did beautiful things with anaphora, famously beginning A Tale of Two Cities with the following sentence:

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, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

He captures a feeling of uncertainty, batting the reader between clauses in the same way the characters of the books are tossed between events. He’s drawing the reader into the novel, making us participants; making us care. It’s genius.