One of the most memorable scenes in Martin Scorsese’s 1990 gangster opus “Goodfellas” features Henry Hill showcasing all the mobsters in his crew. The camera glides through The Bamboo Lounge, and Hill makes introductions. Each wise guy breaks the fourth wall to say hello. We meet such luminaries as Fat Andy, Frankie No-Nose, Pete the Killer and — last but not least — Jimmy Two-Times, who always says everything twice, as in “I’m gonna go get the papers, get the papers.” If epistrophe were a person, it would be Jimmy Two-Times.
Epistrophe is intentional repetition at the end of a sentence or clause. This figure of speech is typically used for dramatic effect, as it adds emphasis to the repeated word or phrase and creates a sense of rhythm.
Because the repetition is deliberate, epistrophe (also known as epiphora or antistrophe) has the potential to be a powerful rhetorical device. This puts it in stark contrast to rhetorical tautology, which involves unintended redundancy that weakens otherwise good writing.
Given its mutant superpower to highlight ideas and stir up emotions, you often see epistrophe used in speeches, song lyrics and dramatic monologues. Remember Tom Joad’s “I’ll be there” speech from “The Grapes of Wrath?” You know, the one that goes: “Wherever [there’s] a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever [there’s] a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there…” That’s epistrophe.
Here’s another epistrophe example from “I’ll Be Around” by The Spinners:
Whenever you call me, I’ll be there
Whenever you want me, I’ll be there
Whenever you need me, I’ll be there
I’ll be around
Contrary to this article’s trajectory, not all uses of epistrophe are legally required to include the phrase “I’ll be there.” In the next section, we’ll look at several epistrophe examples that have virtually nothing to do with pop culture. I promise.
There are several reasons why a writer might employ epistrophe in his or her writing. Here are four of the most common.
1. To Show Strong Emotion
The repetition of a feeling can arouse emotion in the reader and convey great emotion on the writer’s part, too. Those feelings can be positive, negative or somewhere in between. Check it out:
- My toddler’s kindness fills me with pride. His curiosity fills me with pride. His ability to burp his full name fills me with pride.
- Whenever Jake watches a Warriors game, he misses his dad. Each time he tunes up his vintage Chevy in the driveway, he misses his dad. Every time Netflix promotes its documentary about all those elderly people his dad scammed out of their retirement savings, Jake misses his dad.
As you can see from this second example, the words or phrases used to create epistrophe don’t have to be exact matches, either. Here, despite the alterations in phrasing, Jake’s sense of sadness over his absentee (and criminal) father is punctuated by epistrophe.
2. To Emphasize a Point
Epistrophe can be a valuable rhetorical device in argumentative or persuasive writing, as well. Repeating words or phrases is a simple way to stress a point. Ready for more epistrophe examples?
- Tom, I married you knowing that you’re obsessed with Limp Bizkit, and now it’s time for me to divorce you knowing that you’re obsessed with Limp Bizkit.
- This condo building doesn’t have a rat problem. It’s besieged by rats. The weight room in the basement is overrun with muscular rats. I’m pretty sure our next election for condo board president will see Donna in 4G take on 15 rats stacked on top of each other under a trench coat.
3. To Share a Strongly Held Conviction
In this next example, you’ll see that you can also use epistrophe to convey an important belief, ethical position or moral stance:
- Asking your daughter to drive the getaway car was wrong. Robbing that bank was wrong. Making you pay for your own mask was wrong. Loudly and repeatedly calling you by your full name while we were robbing the bank just because I was mad at you this morning was wrong, and I see that now.
4. To Create a Memorable Moment
As politics prove in abundance, repeating words and phrases is often an easy way to produce a memorable moment. From Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can” refrain to Abraham Lincoln’s government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” history is littered with memorable speeches that stick in our brains largely due to a deft use of repetition.
Here’s one more example of epistrophe in action, this time in pursuit of an unforgettable rallying cry:
- No middle school cafeteria is better than the hot lunches it serves, and the students of Reginald VelJohnson Middle School want the best! We’re hungry for the best! We deserve the best! And when I’m elected student body president, we’ll never eat mystery meat again!
The Effect of Epistrophe
No matter what point or conviction it’s used to drive home or what emotion it’s meant to provoke, one thing remains the same: Epistrophe makes words and phrases stick with you. Just like hyperbole, epistrophe is a way to add emphasis without screaming, “Hey! Yo! I really mean this!” When used well, strategic repetition can create stunning effects.
Which epistrophe examples from pop culture (or otherwise) are your favorite? Do you share my belief that “Goodfellas” is superior to “The Godfather?” (Sorry, Dad.) Sound off in the comments below, in the comments below!