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What Is an Epistrophe?

By Angie Bates
Updated May 23, 2024
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A rhetorical scheme, an epistrophe repeats words or phrases at the end of consecutive sentences or clauses. Also called an epiphora, epistrophe is used to place emphasis on an idea or point. The term is from the Greek meaning "turning upon," indicating the same word or words "return to" the end of each sentence. Epistrophe is often used in speeches and in poetry, but it can also be seen in prose. The opposite of epistrophe is anaphora, which repeats the same word or phrase at the beginning of consecutive sentences.

Like all rhetorical schemes, epistrophe relies on the syntax and word order of a sentence or group of sentences to help make a point and add interest to a piece. Normally repetition creates uninteresting, predictable, and, at times, tedious writing and therefore should be avoided. Rhetorical schemes which use repetition, however, turn these weaknesses into strengths. When used well, epistrophe can create a sense of familiarity and connection between the piece and the audience because of the predictability of the repeated words. That repetition also helps to drive home a point by forcing the audience's attention on those words.

Additionally, epistrophe can create a sense of unity with the repeated words acting as a common thread throughout the sentences or phrases in which they appear. The scheme also plays on the idea that the last thing heard is often the most clearly remembered. Therefore, by placing the key repeated phrase at the end of the sentence, the audience is more likely to remember that phrase most clearly. Although the key word or phrase is often repeated exactly three times in epistrophe, it can be repeated any number of times.

One of the most famous uses of epistrophe in history is by US president Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War in his 1863 Gettysburg Address. In the last sentence of the address, Lincoln states, "It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us ... and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." Lincoln's repetition of "the people" emphasized the purpose of the address, which was not just to honor the men who died in the battle at Gettysburg, but to remind his citizens that the civil war was being fought to help guarantee the democratic liberty upon which the United States was founded. The emphasis on "the people" focused the audiences attention on the primary aspect of democracy and created a sense of unity and connection between the audience and that idea.

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