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Rhetorical devices: Anaphora - definition and examples

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What is Anaphora?

What is anaphora? What is chiasmus? And what is Antithesis? The answer is that they are all rhetorical devices. What if - by using them - your speeches and presentations and homework assignments became more powerful? What if they had more impact? What if they were more memorable?

You may have heard or read the term, but exactly what is Anaphora? Pronounced ah-NAF-oh-rah, it's from the Greek word anaphero (‘I repeat') and is a rhetorical device that deliberately repeats the same word or words at the beginning of successive phrases or sentences, just like I did in the opening sentences of this article. It's one of the most commonly used devices and you'll hear anaphora regularly employed by politicians of all political views. The untrained speaker might think it repetitive, but it's meant to be so; it's repetitiveness is what makes it effective.

For example, when Abraham Lincoln used anaphora to say, "But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground," (note how this is also a TRICOLON) his school English teacher would probably have slapped his wrist and said it was grammatically correct to have said, “We cannot dedicate, consecrate or hallow this ground.”

But rhetoric often sacrifices grammatical correctness in the name of effectiveness.

Similarly, the grammatically correct (anaphora-free) version of Winston Churchill's 'Fight Them On The Beaches' speech would have been:

“We shall fight in France, on the seas and oceans, with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields and in the streets, in the hills... and we will never surrender.

And those words would probably have been forgotten, lost amongst the millions that he uttered in formal speeches over his long and distinguished career. But he asked himself, ‘What’s the point I’m trying to make here?’ And that point (he had four audiences: the British public, the Empire, Hitler and the USA) was that Great Britain  - despite being isolated because Germany had overrun virtually all of Europe – wasn’t going to surrender. It was going to fight. That was the point he wanted to emphasize.

So in line with his own advice - “If you have an important point to make, don't try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time - a tremendous whack”  - he said the following instead, using Anaphora:

“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 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”

To best answer the question 'What is Anaphora?' it's easiest to look at some examples:

Anaphora in politics:

Examples of JFK, Martin Luther King & Barack Obama using Anaphora

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right” – Abraham Lincoln 2nd Inaugural Address

Dr. Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream' speech contains what is probably the most famous and oft quoted example of anaphora. He repeats the phrase at the beginning of six successive paragraphs.

I have a dream that one daythis 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” – Martin Luther King

"But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land" – Martin Luther King

"And so let freedom ring -- from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring -- from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring -- from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring -- from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring -- from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that. Let freedom ring -- from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring -- from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring -- from every hill and molehill of Mississippi, from every mountainside, let freedom ring!" - Martin Luther King

"Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us. Let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms, and bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of all nations. Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce. Let both sides unite to heed, in all corners of the earth, the command of Isaiah--to 'undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free." – JFK, Inaugural Address

What we need in the United States is not division. What we need in the United States is not hatred. What we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness” – Robert Kennedy

We believe in only the government we need, but we insist on all the government we need. We believe in a government characterized by fairness and reasonableness, a reasonableness that goes beyond labels, that doesn’t distort or promise to do what it knows it can’t do …… We believe in encouraging the talented, but we believe that while survival of the fittest may be a good working description of the process of evolution, a government of humans should elevate itself to a higher order” – NY Governor Mario Cumo

Ein volk! Ein reich! Ein Führer!” – Adolf Hitler

Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival” – Winston Churchill

"Last night, Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong. Last night, Japanese forces attacked Guam. Last night, Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands. Last night, the Japanese attacked Wake Island" - FDR

This president can ask us to be patient. This president can tell us it was someone else's fault. This president can tell us that the next four years will get it right. But this president cannot tell us that you're better off today than when he took office” – Mitt Romney

Freedom of religion, freedom to speak their mind, freedom to build a life and, yes, freedom to build a business with their own hands” – Mitt Romney

Biblical Anaphora examples:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for there is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth” – Matt. 5:3

On TV:

I want to shake off the dust of this one-horse town. I want to explore the world. I want to watch TV in a different time zone. I want to visit strange, exotic malls. I’m sick of eating hoagies! I want a grinder, a sub, a foot-long hero! I want to LIVE, Marge!”Homer Simpson (The Simpsons)

Anaphora examples in advertising:

"Brylcreem, a little dab'll do ya, Brylcreem, you'll look so debonair! Brylcreem, the gals'll all pursue ya! They’ll love to get their fingers in your hair!" – jingle for Brylcreem


"And do you now put on your best attire? / And do you now cull out a holiday?  / And do you now strew flowers in his way / That comes in triumph over Pompey's blood? Be gone!" – Julius Caesar

This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,/ This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, / This other Eden, demi-paradise, / This fortress built by Nature for herself … This England” – Richard III

"If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge?" - Merchant of Venice

Other literature:

"I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun" - Raymond Chandler (Farewell, My Lovely)

She was not what you would call refined. She was not what you would call unrefined. She was the kind of person that keeps a parrot” – Mark Twain

"It rained on his lousy tombstone, and it rained on the grass on his stomach. It rained all over the place" - J.D. Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye)

“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 was goosed last night, he was goosed the night before last, he was goosed today" - Charles Dickens (Hard Times)

“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never” – Elie Weasel (Night)

Movie examples:

"And the Germans will not be able to help themselves from imagining the cruelty their brothers endured at our hands, and our boot heels, and the edge of our knives. And the Germans will be sickened by us. And the Germans will talk about us. And the Germans will fear us. And when the Germans close their eyes at night, and their subconscious tortures them for the evil they’ve done, it will be thoughts of us that it tortures them with" - Brad Pitt as Lieutenant Aldo Raine ('Inglorious Basterds')

"I don't like you sucking around, bothering our citizens, Lebowski. I don't like your jerk-off name. I don't like your jerk-off face. I don't like your jerk-off behavior, and I don't like you, jerk-off" - Policeman (The Big Lebowski)

"Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine" - Humphrey Bogart (Casablanca)

"I want her to live. I want her to breathe. I want her to aerobicize" - Horny teenager (Weird Science)

Barack Obama examples of Anaphora:

“That means investments to create new jobs. That means resisting the walls of protectionism that stand in the way of growth. That means a change in our financial system, with new rules to prevent abuse and future crisis. “

"For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and travelled across oceans in search of a new life. For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and ploughed the hard earth. For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.”

“This is the price and the promise of citizenship. This is the source of our confidence - the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny. This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed.”

Now is the time to help families with paid sick days and better family leave ..... Now is the time to change our bankruptcy laws ...... Now is the time to keep the promise of equal pay for an equal day's work.”

How to use Anaphora in presentations or speeches

We've answered 'What is Anaphora?' and looked at some well-known examples of its usage. So how can you use it in your own presentations or speeches? It's one of the easiest devices to use. As I always say, write your speech in ‘normal' English first and then go over it and see where you can introduce a rhetorical technique. For example, you might have originally written: ‘A successful year in which we grew sales by 5% and turned the company around.'

Whilst grammatically correct, this can easily be made more memorable by breaking it into two sentences and using ‘ A successful year in which …' to begin both. Adding a third sentence to use a TRICOLON, it could now read, ‘a successful year in which we grew sales by 5% and retained our position as market leader despite fierce competition. A successful year in which we turned the company around and placed it firmly in the black. A successful year in which we generated profits of £7 million and laid the foundations for future growth'.

If the original read, 'Back then we were losing £25 million per year and there were rumours we were about to be sold' the same approach could easily change it to 'Back then, we were losing £25 million per year. Back then, our sales were in decline. And back then, there were rum ours that we were about to be sold.'

Let's say you originally wrote, 'They say that they will have knocked us from our number one slot within two years. They plan to do this by undercutting us on price, because they have a lower cost base than ourselves. According to them, independent tests show their widgets are just as good as ours, but 15% cheaper.'

This is easily changed to, 'They're saying that they aim to knock us from our number one slot within two years. They're saying they'll do it by undercutting us, because we are bloated, bureaucratic and burdened with high costs. They're saying that independent tests show their widgets are just as good as ours, but 15% cheaper.'

All of these revisions are far more memorable than the original sentences and phrases. So the next time you're giving a presentation, give anaphora a try. And when you're comfortable with it, you can move on to the slightly more difficult ones.

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