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Thursday Tip: Repeating a key term

March 29, 2012

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 variation ever could. This week’€s Tip is on repeating a word.

Repeating a word increases its power in the sentence by forcing the reader to reconsider its meaning and that of the words it frames or modifies. Consider this example, from Henry Luce’s The American Century:

In this whole matter of War and Peace especially, we have been at various times and in various ways false to ourselves, false to each other, false to the facts of history, and false to the future.

The string of falses hammers the point and instills rhythm.

This edit counteracts the tendency of some writers to prefer synonyms over repetition. Perhaps intended to show a commend of language, this approach can confuse:

A delightful fairy tale has taken hold lately in some economic policy circles: the economy is poised for a glorious burst of sustained, 1960s-style growth without inflation. It’s a story told by a spectrum of influential figures, from conservatives to liberal luminaries. Like most good fables, this one features a horrible monster who is blocking the path to eternal happiness. That would be the chairman of the Fed, who cannot see that the economic terrain has shifted.

The three terms–€”tale, story, fable–€”force the reader to figure out whether the three are different or the same. The example is doctored slightly from the original. Sticking with fairy tale, tale, and tales, as Paul Krugman did in The New York Times Magazine, makes the passage more coherent–€”with the repeated terms binding the sentences:

A delightful fairy tale has taken hold lately in some economic policy circles: the economy is poised for a glorious burst of sustained, 1960s-style growth without inflation. It’€s a tale told by a spectrum of influential figures, from conservatives to liberal luminaries. Like most good tales, this one features a horrible monster who is blocking the path to eternal happiness. That would be the chairman of the Fed, who cannot see that the economic terrain has shifted.

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