Sentence-level Repetition: When It Works, When It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters

“Rep.” It’s a common marking on graded academic papers, and can refer to the repeated use of ideas, sentence structures, or individual words within a small span of text. In college classes we often refer to repetition as a weakness. While this can be true—much repetition is needless—it can also be a powerful tool for writers. When is repetition effective? When is it ineffective? How can we eliminate needless repetition and cultivate productive repetition? How many times is it acceptable to use the word “repetition” in a paragraph?

Writers can repeat whole ideas; they can also repeat at the sentence level, reusing sentence structures and individual words. In this post, we focus on sentence-level repetition, acknowledging that it often goes hand-in-hand with the repetition of ideas. We choose this focus because the recurrence of words and structures is a sentence-level dynamic with global effects. Repetition tends to show up throughout entire works, not just in a handful of sentences. Learning how to reuse and restate more productively can inform the whole piece of writing.

Here are some examples of sentence-level repetition. How is each author using repetition? Is he/she doing so effectively, or not?

1.) “I write as ritual. I write because I am not employable. I write out of my inconsistencies. I write because then I do not have to speak. I write with the colors of memory. I write as a witness to what I have seen.” –Terry Tempest Williams, “Red”

2.) “The nexus where television and fiction converse…is self-conscious irony. Irony is, of course, a turf fictionists have long worked with zeal. And irony is important for understanding TV because T.V…revolves off just the sorts of absurd contradictions irony’s all about exposing.” –David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram”

3.) “We do not usually think about hope (as embedded in contexts) and dignity (as signaled through commodities) at the same time.” –Allison Pugh, Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children, and Consumer Culture

4.) “We hold these Truths to be Self-Evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness…” -The Declaration of Independence

USING REPETITION TO YOUR ADVANTAGE

Knowing when and how to use repetition effectively can make your writing clearer, more cohesive, and more powerful. Let’s look at some of the most common uses for word/phrase repetition and structural repetition.

Repetition of words and phrases:

TO EMPHASIZE:  In example #1 above, Williams begins each sentence with the phrase “I write.” This repetition establishes her main focus: it is not “employability” or “memory,” but the personal act of writing. If you want to call your reader’s attention to a critical word or phrase, it can help to repeat it over the course of the passage–especially in concluding sentences.

The key here is moderation: repetition in the name of emphasis is not an excuse to use the same word three times in one sentence. To figure out whether you are creating productive emphasis through repetition, you might ask yourself these questions: 1.) Is the repeated word or phrase one that you want to be emphasizing? If yes, progress to question 2.) Does the repetition bog down the passage and/or make it harder to read (see the next section)? If the answer is no, you are good to go.

TO CREATE TRANSITIONS: In example #2 above, Foster Wallace uses the word “irony” in three successive sentences. In doing so, he links them (and the ideas they contain) while using few formal transition words. We can repeat a word/phrase to build transitions between paragraphs as well as within them: writing a topic sentence, it can help to reuse in a word/phrase from the concluding sentence of the previous paragraph.

TO AVOID AWKWARD PHRASING: Sometimes it’s impossible to remove a repeated word without making the sentence more confusing. If we tried to take out the repetition of “irony” in the second example above, it might read something like this (changes italicized):

“The nexus where television and fiction converse…is self-conscious irony. This self-aware phenomenon is, of course, a turf fictionists have long worked with zeal. And the expression of meaning by saying the opposite is important for understanding TV.”

The new passage is imprecise and hard to read. Better to just repeat the word “irony.”

Repetition of sentence structures:

TO LINK SUCCESSIVE SENTENCES: Terry Tempest Williams’ list (example #1 above) roams far and wide but never feels disorganized. This is in large part because the repeated “I write” serves as an anchor, tethering the sentences to each other and building cohesion.

The reuse of a particular word or phrase at the start of successive sentences–often to link those sentences to each other–is called anaphora. Anaphora is one type of parallel structure.

TO BUILD MOMENTUM: Try reading this one aloud: “We hold these Truths to be Self-Evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness–”

We can feel the pressure building. Repeating a clausal structure (in this case, “that” [+new idea]) heightens the momentum and power of the sentence.

WHEN REPETITION IS INEFFECTIVE

Although repetition can be an effective rhetorical device, it can also obstruct the flow of ideas if used needlessly. Repetition can occur at the level of words, structure, or meaning as illustrated in the following examples.

Problem 1: Repetition at the word level

INEFFECTIVE: When Sally finished reading the newspaper, she gave the newspaper to her brother.

INEFFECTIVE: When Sally finished reading the newspaper, she gave the periodical to her brother.

EFFECTIVE: When Sally finished reading the newspaper, she gave it to her brother.

The first example repeats ‘newspaper’ multiple times and the result sounds clumsy. Replacing the repeated term with a synonym in the second example is an obvious and clunky attempt to avoid repetition. The third sentence best addresses the redundancy by replacing the second term with a pronoun. In general, repetition at the word level can usually be solved by substituting the repeated word with a pronoun or, if possible, removing some of the repeated terms.

Problem 2:  Repetition of structure

INEFFECTIVE: In the park, we played a game. At the time, it was fun. Of the participants, Andy was the winner.

EFFECTIVE: We played a fun game in the park and Andy won.

All of the sentences in this example are short and lead with a preposition. A stronger rewrite condenses the ideas into a single compound sentence that dramatically reduces the word count. While repeating a grammatical structure across multiple sentences can be stylistically effective, it must be done in the right context. The short and informal recollection in this example did not merit special prose. Repetitive structures can usually be fixed by varying sentence types or moving word groups (e.g. prepositions, clauses, etc.) to a different place in the sentence.

Problem 3: Repetition of meaning

INEFFECTIVE: Over and over, we repeatedly bought the pizzas that our favorite athletes ate. The reason we bought these pizzas was because we wanted to imitate them.

EFFECTIVE: We repeatedly bought the pizzas that our favorite athletes ate because we wanted to imitate them.

This example has several layers of problematic repetition. First, the initial sentence uses both ‘repeatedly’ and ‘over and over’ to illustrate frequency when one term would suffice. Second, both sentences include the fact the authors bought the pizza. A good rule of thumb in writing is that every word or phrase should contribute something new to the work. In this case, it is mentioned in both sentences that the pizzas were bought and only the initial mention is necessary. Condensing the sentences is a natural way to eliminate the repeated information and is a good overall strategy to remove repeated content.

HOW TO WORK WITH REPETITION IN TUTORING

1) Read the tutee’s paper aloud: Because repetition often impedes rhythm, the tutee may be better at recognizing repetition aurally rather than visually. This is the most nondirective approach to eliminating repetition but it does require that the tutee have a well developed ear for rhythm.

2) Underline repetitive elements: If a particular word, phrase, or structure is particularly pervasive, the tutor and tutee can work together to highlight all instances of that repetition. This visual representation increases the tutee’s self-awareness of their writing style so they can fix and avoid further redundancy.

3) Model techniques that eliminate repetition: Sometimes it may be difficult for the tutee to identify or eliminate needless repetition. In these cases, the tutor can point out some of the repetitive areas and demonstrate how to fix them using some of the above techniques.

4) Demonstrate effective repetition: Tutors can introduce repetition as a tool for improving transitions or cohesion, two aspects that come up frequently in tutoring sessions.

Contributed by Sabrina and Abby

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