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Literary Devices: Anaphora and Epistrophe

Bijgewerkt op: 17 mei

The anaphora and epistrophe are literary devices that use the repetition of words or expressions. With an anaphora, you repeat words at the beginning of the sentences.


An epistrophe is, as you might guess, a repetition of words at the end of the sentences.


Especially the anaphora is a literary device that I personally love to use.


These literary devices add emphasis through repetition, creating a certain emotional effect. Exploring these two devices can help you develop your voice as a writer. That’s why, in this article, we’ll explore the uses of anaphora and epistrophe with examples.


Literary devices: Anaphora

The anaphora

With an anaphora, you can repeat words or phrases within a group of sentences or clauses. While often you’ll repeat the exact word or phrase, you can use variations.


Consider the opening lines of 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 the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…


As you can see, Charles Dickens repeats “it was” with slight variations: “it was the,” “it was the age,” and “it was the epoch.”


When you use this literary device, it’s important to consider which words you’re going to repeat. Let’s look at this example from The Catcher in the Rye:


It rained on his lousy tombstone, and it rained on the grass on his stomach. It rained all over the place.


The repetition of “it rained” amplifies the emotional load of the text, as it emphasizes the dreary image of the rain.


We can see this effect again when looking at this example from Want You Gone by Chris Brookmyre:


I can hear Keisha and Gabrielle’s voices, mocking how I spoke, mocking how I behaved, mocking how I dressed.


By repeating “mocking,” we can feel the distress of the narrator without having to state this.


How different would it be if, instead, we’d write the above examples like this:

It rained on his lousy tombstone and the grass covering his grave. It was as depressing as I felt.


I can hear Keisha and Gabrielle’s voices mocking everything about me. I could still feel the anxiety, the shame.


Has a completely different ring to it, right?


By using anaphora at the right places in your writing, you can enrich your voice and make the reader feel the right emotions at the right time.


The epistrophe

The epistrophe works the same as the anaphora, only the repetition is at the end of the sentence. Like with the anaphora, the repeated words don’t always have to be the exact same.


With the epistrophe, you emphasize the thing you’re repeating, bringing about a certain feeling or making a point. Or both.


A famous example of an epistrophe comes from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice:


If you had known the virtue of the ring,

Or half her worthiness that gave the ring,

If you did know for whom I gave the ring,

And would conceive for what I gave the ring,

And how unwillingly I left the ring,

When nought would be accepted but the ring,

You would abate the strength of your displeasure.


By focusing on “the ring,” the speech gains a certain rhythm and emphasizes the point Bassanio is trying to make.


Another famous example is John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath:

Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beaten’ up a guy, I’ll be there… 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 and they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folk eat the stuff they raise n’live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there.


The repetition of “I’ll be there” emphasizes the reassurance Tom Joad wants to give to his mother.


Note that in a different context—say, in a conversation between a detective and their person of interest—the same words can have an entirely different load. For instance:


Whenever you look over your shoulder, I’ll be there; when you think no one’s watching, I’ll be there; and when you inevitably slip up and make a mistake, I’ll be there.


Within this context, the same words of reassurance become a threat.


The symploce

As a bonus, there’s also the symploce. This is a combination of the epistrophe and anaphora. You won’t see this a lot in literature. But, if you use it well, it can drive a point home even more than just using the epistrophe or anaphora.


Of course, you can always find an example in Shakespeare’s work. For instance, in Measure for Measure:


That Angelo’s forsworn; is it not strange?

That Angelo’s a murderer; is’t not strange?

That Angelo is an adulterous thief,

An hypocrite, a virgin-violator;

Is it not strange and strange?


The repetition draws the attention both to the subject (that Angelo) and the strangeness of it all. Its effect is a bit more balanced than if you were to use only the anaphora or only the epiphora.


Say we were to rewrite it with just the anaphora:


That Angelo’s forsworn,

That Angelo’s a murderer,

That Angelo is an adulterous thief,

An hypocrite, a virgin-violator;

Is it not strange and strange?


This focuses much more on the Angelo and what he is, and not so much on the strangeness.


Whereas if we’d rewrite it with just the epistrophe:


That Angelo’s forsworn; is it not strange?

He’s a murderer; is’t not strange?

An adulterous thief,

An hypocrite, a virgin-violator;

Is it not strange and strange?


This focuses more on the strangeness, while the Angelo seems to matter less.


The differences are subtle but there.


How to use repetition in your writing

As you can see, by repeating words or phrases, you put emphasis on them. This brings about a certain mood and rhythm.


If you find something within your writing that bears repeating, consider using an anaphora, epistrophe, or symploce.


For instance, find a place in your story that can use more emotional impact. What emotion are you trying to evoke within the reader? Then consider how you can bring this about with some well-placed repetitions.


Or if you want to drive home a point, these repetitions will give you the emphasis necessary. That’s why anaphoras and epistrophes are often used in political speeches as well.


Using these literary devices within dialogue also works well. When we talk, we often repeat things to drive home a point. For instance:


“You think I don’t know that? You think I didn’t think it through? You think I really wanted this? I had no choice!”


By repeating the “You think,” you emphasize someone’s assumptions, making it clear that these are wrong.


Have fun with it!

It can be tricky to add these literary devices to your writing when you’re first starting out. It can be especially difficult to see where they might fit for the best effect.


All I can advise is to have fun with it! If you think a sentence or paragraph might benefit from an anaphora, epistrophe, or symploce, just try it out. And perhaps even try out each of these devices to see how the paragraph changes.


Before you know it, you’ll have a solid grasp of these literary devices and, thus, more tools for your writing tool belt!

Would you like to learn more literary devices? Then keep on reading for more info on polysyndeton and asyndeton!


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