Repeat After Me…
Repetition is a great learning device and a useful literary tool, when used judiciously. Redundancy, on the other hand, is essential in situations where a backup system prevents complete failure, but it should be avoided in your writing.
Careful use of repetition can drive home a point or strengthen your writing. Effective orators like Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and Dr. Martin Luther King used repetition so effectively that their speeches continue to instruct and inspire. In Lincoln’s two-minute Gettysburg Address, he repeatedly used the words dedicate, consecrate, and nation. When he repeats “we cannot” in the sentence: But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground, it emphasizes the sacrifice of the fallen and contributes to a rhythmic, poetic piece.
Winston Churchill used a similar technique in his famous “We Shall Fight” speech to the House of Commons in 1940. In preparing Britons for the battles ahead he enumerated the locations they would be required to fight: in France, on the seas and oceans, on the beaches and landing grounds, in the field, streets, and hills, repeating the phrase, “we shall fight” and climaxing with “we shall never surrender.” It was the sort of inspiration a people who had just faced an embarrassing defeat at Dunkirk needed.
Likewise, Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1963 civil rights speech employed multiple repetitive concepts and phrases, with the most famous being “I have a dream.”
Although your writing may not rise to the level of these master orators, here are a couple of suggestions for using repetition effectively:
- Repeat a word, phrase at the beginning (or end) of successive sentences. Dickens uses this technique in the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities: “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” In the closing lines of the Gettysburg Address Lincoln repeated the simple phrase “of the people, by the people, for the people” at the end of the sentence to greater effect than if he had simply said, of, by, and for the people.
- Repeat the same grammatical structure in several phrases or sentences. John F. Kennedy’s inauguration speech did this effectively with the lines, “We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and success of liberty.” Each phrase follows a pattern of verb – any – noun. Both the repetitious structure and the successive strength of each of the verbs and nouns make this an effective and compelling statement.
Redundancy is unnecessary or superfluous repetition. I doubt many writers would write the same word, phrase, or sentence over and over. But some redundant phrases or expressions can creep into our writing without our thinking. These phrases often use a pair of synonyms to express something that can expressed just as clearly with one word. Recently these caught my eye:
Boost up – Merriam-Webster defines boost as “push or shove up.” So up makes the phrase redundant.
Reflect back – reflect carries the idea of thinking back or meditating; reflecting back says the same thing twice.
In the case of writing, like so many other things in life, less really is more.