What Does Anaphora Mean as a Figure of Speech?

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr

Getty Images/Stephen F. Somerstein

Anaphora is a rhetorical term for the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses. By building toward a climax, anaphora can create a strong emotional effect. Consequently, this figure of speech is often found in polemical writings and passionate oratory, perhaps most famously in Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Classical scholar George A. Kennedy compares anaphora to "a series of hammer blows in which the repetition of the word both connects and reinforces the successive thoughts" ("New Testament Interpretation Through Rhetorical Criticism", 1984).  

Examples and Observations

  • "We learned to 'diagram' sentences with the solemn precision of scientists articulating chemical equations. We learned to read by reading aloud, and we learned to spell by spelling aloud."
    (Joyce Carol Oates, "District School #7: Niagara County, New York." "Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art". HarperCollins, 2003)
  • "I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat, and a gun."
    (Raymond Chandler, "Farewell, My Lovely", 1940)
  • "It rained on his lousy tombstone, and it rained on the grass on his stomach. It rained all over the place."
    (Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye", 1951)
  • "Anaphora will repeat an opening phrase or word;
    Anaphora will pour it into a mould (absurd)!
    Anaphora will cast each subsequent opening;
    Anaphora will last until it's tiring."
    (John Hollander, "Rhyme's Reason: A Guide to English Verse". Yale University Press, 1989)
  • "Here comes the shadow not looking where it is going,
    And the whole night will fall; it is time.
    Here comes the little wind which the hour
    Drags with it everywhere like an empty wagon through leaves.
    Here comes my ignorance shuffling after them
    Asking them what they are doing."
    (W.S. Merwin, "Sire." "The Second Four Books of Poems". Copper Canyon Press, 1993)
  • "Sir Walter Raleigh. Good food. Good cheer. Good times."
    (slogan of the Sir Walter Raleigh Inn Restaurant, Maryland)
  • "We saw the bruised children of these fathers clump onto our school bus, we saw the abandoned children huddle in the pews at church, we saw the stunned and battered mothers begging for help at our doors."
    (Scott Russell Sanders, "Under the Influence," 1989)
  • "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine."
    (Rick Blaine in "Casablanca")
  • "We shall go on to the end, 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, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."
    (Winston Churchill, speech to the House of Commons, June 4, 1940)
  • "Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us. Let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms, and bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of all nations.
    "Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce.
    "Let both sides unite to heed, in all corners of the earth, the command of Isaiah — to 'undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free.'"
    (President John Kennedy, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961)
  • "But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition."
    (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., "I Have a Dream," 1963)
  • "It's the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a millworker's son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too."
    (Barack Obama, "The Audacity of Hope," July 27, 2004)
  • "In school, I am a luckless goosegirl, friendless and forlorn. In P.S. 71 I carry, weighty as a cloak, the ineradicable knowledge of my scandal — I am cross-eyed, dumb, an imbecile in arithmetic; in P.S. 71 I am publicly shamed in Assembly because I am caught not singing Christmas carols; in P.S. 71 I am repeatedly accused of deicide. But in the Park View Pharmacy, in the winter dusk, branches blackening in the park across the road, I am driving in rapture through the Violet Fairy Book and the Yellow Fairy Book, insubstantial chariots snatched from the box in the mud."
    (Cynthia Ozick, "A Drugstore in Winter." "Art and Ardor", 1983)
  • "Whatever failures I have known, whatever errors I have committed, whatever follies I have witnessed in public and private life, have been the consequences of action without thought."
    (attributed to Bernard Baruch)
  • "Brylcreem, a little dab'll do ya,
    Brylcreem, you'll look so debonair!
    Brylcreem, the gals'll all pursue ya!
    They'll love to get their fingers in your hair."
    (Advertising jingle, 1950s)
  • "I want her to live. I want her to breathe. I want her to aerobicize."
    ("Weird Science", 1985)
  • "I'm not afraid to die. I'm not afraid to live. I'm not afraid to fail. I'm not afraid to succeed. I'm not afraid to fall in love. I'm not afraid to be alone. I'm just afraid I might have to stop talking about myself for five minutes."
    (Kinky Friedman, "When the Cat's Away", 1988)
  • "In God's name, you people are the real thing. We are the illusion!
    "So turn off your television sets. Turn them off now! Turn them off right now! Turn them off and leave them off. Turn them off right in the middle of this sentence I'm speaking to you now.
    "Turn them off!"
    (Peter Finch as television anchorman Howard Beale in "Network", 1976)

Anaphora in Dr. King's "Letter From a Birmingham Jail"

"But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize and even kill your Black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing cloud of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos: 'Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?'; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading 'white' and 'colored'; when your first name becomes 'nigger' and your middle name becomes 'boy' (however old you are) and your last name becomes 'John,' and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title 'Mrs.'; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of 'nobodiness'; then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait."
(Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," April 16, 1963. "I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches That Changed the World", ed. by James M. Washington. HarperCollins, 1992)

Anaphora in President Franklin Roosevelt's Second Inaugural Address

"But here is the challenge to our democracy: In this nation, I see tens of millions of its citizens — a substantial part of its whole population — who at this very moment are denied the greater part of what the very lowest standards of today call the necessities of life.
I see millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day.
I see millions whose daily lives in city and on farm continue under conditions labeled indecent by a so-called polite society half a century ago.
I see millions denied education, recreation, and the opportunity to better their lot and the lot of their children.
I see millions lacking the means to buy the products of farm and factory and by their poverty denying work and productiveness to many other millions.
I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.
But it is not in despair that I paint you that picture. I paint it for you in hope — because the nation, seeing and understanding the injustice in it, proposes to paint it out."
(Franklin D. Roosevelt, Second Inaugural Address, January 20, 1937)

The Lighter Side of Anaphora

"I don't like you sucking around, bothering our citizens, Lebowski. I don't like your jerk-off name. I don't like your jerk-off face. I don't like your jerk-off behavior, and I don't like you, jerk-off."
(Policeman in "The Big Lebowski", 1998)

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "What Does Anaphora Mean as a Figure of Speech?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/anaphora-figure-of-speech-1689092. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). What Does Anaphora Mean as a Figure of Speech? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/anaphora-figure-of-speech-1689092 Nordquist, Richard. "What Does Anaphora Mean as a Figure of Speech?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/anaphora-figure-of-speech-1689092 (accessed June 4, 2023).