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Anaphora has two different and almost opposite meanings depending on whether one is using it within the context of linguistics or rhetoric. In linguistics, it usually refers to the replacement of a part of a sentence with a pro-word form in order to minimize clumsy repetition. In contrast, in rhetoric, the term refers to using the same phrase over and over again in successive sentences in order to build a powerful effect for the listener.

Introduction of anaphora

Anaphora is a literary device used in writing which entails deliberate repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive sentences in order to achieve an artistic effect or language flow. Anaphora is also the use of a pronoun or pro-verb in place of the initial words used, as in the relationship between a grammatical substitute and its antecedent. Anaphora is considered to be one of the oldest literary devices ever used, initially appearing in Biblical Psalms to emphasize particular phrases or words. Besides Biblical use, anaphora was common in Shakespearean plays, Dickens’ writings, and Wordsworth’s and Blake’s poetry and prose, as well. In speeches and poems, anaphora helps define the rhythm of the words, aiding in memorization and reading pleasure and ease. Anaphora often appeals emotionally to listeners of rhetoric, inspiring, motivating, and encouraging them through repetition. Anaphora is derived from the Greek anapherein which means “to carry back, refer to.” Anaphora’s first known use was in 1589.


Romantic and Elizabethan authors and orators often used anaphora to drive home a certain point, repeating words or phrases in order to emphasize them in readers’ or listeners’ consciousnesses. In the King James Version of the Bible, Psalms such as Psalm 8:1 are good examples of anaphora: “O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! Who hast set thy glory above the heavens.”

In politics, anaphora is often used to persuade constituents and rouse passion among an audience. The following is a portion of a Winston Churchill speech from World War II. “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 defend our island…We shall never surrender.” Anaphora is often used in military speeches to inspire troops and promote patriotic feelings in a particular portion of a country’s populace. In Shakespeare’s Henry V, anaphora is used to unite the faltering British army in St. Crispin’s Day: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he to-day that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.” Shakespeare was fond of anaphora, and used in many other plays, as well. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech uses anaphora by repeating the speech’s title throughout.

Anaphora was common in the tragic, dark literature of Charles Dickens, too, as in his historical novel A Tale of Two Cities: “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.”

Poets William Wordsworth and T.S. Eliot relied upon anaphora to convey rhythm and measure in their poetry and prose. Wordsworth uses anaphora at the beginning of his famous poem “Tinturn Abbey”: “Five years have passed; five summers, with the length of five long winters!” T. S. Eliot’s “The Rock” contains the following example of anaphora: “Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

Anaphora In Literature

William Blake’s “The Tyger” uses the following lines to describe anaphora: “What the hammer? What the chain? In what furnace is they brain? What the anvil? What dread grasp dare its deadly terrors clasp?” Walt Whitman, a contemporary of both Blake and Wordsworth, also used anaphora in the style of the times: “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking; out of the mockingbird’ throat, the musical shuttle, out of the ninth-month midnight, over the sterile sands, and the fields beyond, where the child, leaving his bed, wander’d alone bare-headed, barefoot.”

The other definition of anaphora is less recognizable, but equally as common in language. It is used to avoid the unpleasant sound of repetitious words and phrases that might result in difficult reading passages in a piece of text or speech. In this instance, a pronoun is used in the second clause of a sentence to avoid restating the subject. “Anastasia arrived late that night, but no one saw her.” The pronoun her is anaphoric, and refers back to the subject of the first clause, which is Anastasia. Here anaphora means “referring back to” and the word that does the referring (her) is called an anaphor or cataphor. This definition of anaphora concerns itself with how discourse is constructed and maintained in a language, and also binds the syntactical sentence elements together. Anaphora in computational linguistics challenges natural language processing through identification of references, and in cognitive psychology it is relevant to linguistics.

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