February 17, 2019

Repetition of Phrasing

“REPETITION—far too often avoided—can be a powerful rhetorical device. It can bring order and balance to a sentence’s parts. And it can rivet a word to the reader’s frontal lobe with more impact than elegant variations ever could.”[1]

I. Types of Repetitive Phrases

If you thought repetition was only repeating the same point again, prepare yourself. Repetition is a class of rhetorical devices. Brigham Young University’s Silva Rhetoricae database describes an arsenal of rhetorical devices involving repetition.[2]

One class within this arsenal is repetition of letters, syllables, and sounds. You probably already know alliteration, which is repetition of the same sound at the beginning of words.[3] Is there a name for when you get so excited about alliteration that you work it in wherever you can? Thankfully, yes. In the X Games of Rhetoric, the event known as paroemion is “alliteration taken to an extreme” — think tongue twister (Peter Piper picked a peck . . . ).[4] A variation is repetition of word endings (running, biking, swimming).[5]

Another class is repetition of words or phrases. One type repeats the same word or words at the beginning of phrases, sentences, or paragraphs (I have a dream . . . ;[6] We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas . . . [7]).[8] You can flip that strategy to repeat words at the end (a government of the people, by the people, for the people [9]).[10]

Searching for these unique “turns of phrases” is very difficult. Every now and then they pop out if you are looking for them: “Outlaw to outcast [repetition of prefixes] may be a step forward, but it does not achieve the full promise of liberty.”[11] Nonetheless, it is worth keeping an eye out for them to give yourself ideas.

II. Common Critiques

Any discussion of repetition of phrasing has at least two common criticisms. First, such repetition is showy and ornamental, or is more well-suited for oral than written communication. Second, such repetition is far too time consuming to work into a legal brief, especially given the small payoff. Both criticisms are true, sometimes.

Like any rhetorical device, repetition of phrasing becomes showy and ornamental when it draws the reader’s attention to it—“it” being your choice to repeat phrasing. Readers tend to notice a writing technique only when that technique does not fit; it stands out for one reason or another. In these cases, any technique can become showy, ornamental, and have little payoff. In fact, it probably hurts your brief by being distracting. Even if you get credit for being a wordsmith, your argument suffers as your reader admires you and not your position. But when used selectively and seamlessly, repetition of phrasing is a worthwhile technique.

III. Superfluous Phrases

Sometimes we inadvertently combine two terms that mean the same thing, yielding superfluous repetition: “absolutely certain,” “added bonus,” “difficult dilemma.” Some books list dozens of such commonly used phrases.[12] It’s unlikely any writer has the time to review these lists while proofreading a brief. But skimming these lists and keeping an eye out for such phrases is worthwhile.

IV. Use Repetitive Phrasing to Make a Point

Sometimes repetition is part of a larger technique. Here are some ways to weave repetition and paragraph structure together to make a powerful point.

Repeat a paragraph structure to emphasize a reappearing (and helpful) fact.

As he turned the first corner, he heard the radio announcement about I-70 closing due to bad weather. Tractor trailers were flipping. But the Plaintiff continued on anyway.

As he turned the second corner, he saw skid marks and two cars crashed into the guard rail. But the Plaintiff continued on anyway.

As he turned the third corner, he skidded and regained control just in time to barely avoid crashing into another car. But the Plaintiff continued on anyway.

And then he came to the corner where the accident occurred.

Here, the repeated phrase and its location emphasize a key fact for the defense: the Plaintiff repeatedly rejected signs to turn around and instead chose to continue into bad conditions. Unlike the tedious repetition of a particular fact, here the same fact keeps reappearing. The repetition of phrasing helps draw the reader’s attention to it.

Use repetition to establish a pattern and then break the pattern.

We often think of repetition as a way to draw the reader’s attention to what is being repeated. But you can use it for the opposite effect too—to draw attention to the only thing not being repeated.

Here is one way to make a point: “In every other training of 2018 the safety instructor identified a radio channel. The only time the instructor did not was the training that injured Firefighter Smith.” Here’s another way:

The Department’s Safety protocols revised in January require that before any live fire training the safety instructor (1) take all trainees through the building to identify all exits, (2) assign teams, and (3) identify the radio channel.

At the February live fire training, the safety instructor began by taking trainees throughout the building to identify all exits. Then the instructor assigned teams. And then the instructor identified the radio channel.

At the March live fire training, the safety instructor began by taking trainees through the building to identify all exits. Then the instructor assigned teams. And then the instructor identified the radio channel.

At the April live fire training, the safety instructor began by taking trainees through the building to identify all exits. Then the instructor assigned teams. And then, training started.

No one identified a radio channel.

Combining repetitive language and structure can establish a pattern—here a routine or procedure. The repetition blends together, establishing a cadence for the reader. The break in that pattern draws attention to the only thing not repeated: a key fact. Here, the repetition both draws attention to a key fact and highlights how that fact is inconsistent with a trend.

V. Conclusion

Don’t dismiss repetition of phrasing as too showy or too difficult. Call upon this tool when you need to.


[1] Bruce Ross-Larson, Stunning Sentences: The Effective Writing Series 40 (1st ed. 1999).

[2] Silva Rhetoricae, Figures of Repetition, http://rhetoric.byu.edu/Figures/Groupings/of%20Repetition.htm (last visited Dec. 27, 2018).

[3] Silva Rhetoricae, Alliteration, http://rhetoric.byu.edu/Figures/A/alliteration.htm (last visited Dec. 27, 2018). Bruce Ross-Larson, supra note 1 at 42 (repetition of prefixes and suffixes).

[4] Silva Rhetoricae, Paroemion, http://rhetoric.byu.edu/Figures/P/paroemion.htm (last visited Dec. 27, 2018).

[5] Known as homoioteleuton or homoioptoton. Silva Rhetoricae, Homoioteleuton, http://rhetoric.byu.edu/Figures/H/homoioteleuton.htm (last visited Dec. 27, 2018); Silva Rhetoricae, Homoioptoton, http://rhetoric.byu.edu/Figures/H/homoioptoton.htm (last visited Dec. 27, 2018). See also Bruce Ross-Larson, supra note 1 at 42-44.

[6] Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have a Dream” (August 28, 1963).

[7] Winston Churchill, “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” (June 4, 1940).

[8] Silva Rhetoricae, Anaphora, http://rhetoric.byu.edu/Figures/A/anaphora.htm (last visited Dec. 27, 2018).

[9] Abraham Lincoln, “Gettysburg Address” (November 19, 1863).

[10] Silva Rhetoricae, Epistrophe, http://rhetoric.byu.edu/Figures/E/epistrophe.htm (last visited Dec. 27, 2018).

[11] Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S.Ct. 2584, 2600 (2015).

[12] Mark Nichol, 50 Redundant Phrases to Avoid, https://www.dailywritingtips.com/50-redundant-phrases-to-avoid/ (last visited Dec. 27, 2018). See also Bruce Ross-Larson, Edit Yourself: A Manual For Everyone Who Works With Words 1-6 (1996); Robert Harwell Fiske, The Dictionary of Concise Writing 47-396 (2d ed. 2006).

Michael Blasie graduated from the New York University School of Law. He began his career as a commercial litigator and criminal defense attorney in the New York City office of Cooley LLP where he practiced in state and federal trial and appellate courts. After five years he moved to Denver where he worked as a law clerk to the Honorable David J. Richman of the Colorado Court of Appeals before becoming Staff Counsel at Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell, LLP. Michael also serves as a volunteer firefighter for the City of Golden.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Speak Your Mind

*