Polyptoton (Rhetoric)

Les Miserables
"I dreamed a dream in times gone by...".

Universal Studios


Polyptoton (pronounced po-LIP-ti-tun) is a rhetorical term for the repetition of words derived from the same root but with different endings. Adjective: polyptotonic. Also known as paregmenon.

Polyptoton is a figure of emphasis. In the Routledge Dictionary of Language and Linguistics (1996), Hadumod Bussmann points out that the "double play of varying sound and contrasting meaning in many aphorisms is achieved through the use of polyptoton." Janie Steen notes that "polyptoton is one of the most frequently employed types of repetition in the Bible" (Verse and Virtuosity, 2008).

Pronunciation: po-LIP-ti-tun

From the Greek, "use of the same word in many cases"

Examples and Observations

  • "I dreamed a dream in times gone by
    When hope was high
    And life worth living."
    (Herbert Kretzmer and Claude-Michel Schönberg, "I Dreamed a Dream." Les Miserables, 1985)
  • "Choosy Mothers Choose Jif"
    (commercial slogan for Jif peanut butter)
  • "To imagine the unimaginable is the highest use of the imagination."
    (Cynthia Ozick, The Paris Review, 1986)
  • "I have no sharp taste for acquiring things, but it is not necessary to desire things in order to acquire them."
    (E.B. White, "Goodbye to Forty-Eighth Street." Essays of E.B. White. Harper, 1977)
  • "The things you own end up owning you."
    (Brad Pitt in the movie Fight Club, 1999)
  • "[S]he now mourned someone who even before his death had made her a mourner."
    (Bernard Malamud, The Natural, 1952)
  • "Flattery is so necessary to all of us that we flatter one another just to be flattered in return."
    (Marjorie Bowen)
  • "To be ignorant of one's ignorance is the malady of the ignorant."
    (A. Bronson Alcott, "Conversations." Table-Talk, 1877)
  • "By dint of railing at idiots, one runs the risk of becoming idiotic oneself."
    (Gustave Flaubert)
  • "The young are generally full of revolt, and are often pretty revolting about it."
    (Mignon McLaughlin, The Complete Neurotic's Notebook. Castle Books, 1981)
  • "[T]he signora at every grimace and at every bow smiled a little smile and bowed a little bow."
    (Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers, 1857)
  • "Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
    To be understood as to understand;
    To be loved as to love;
    For it is in giving that we receive;
    It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
    And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life."
    (Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi)
  • "Morality is moral only when it is voluntary."
    (Lincoln Steffens)
  • "Facing it—always facing it—that's the way to get through. Face it."
    (Attributed to Joseph Conrad)
  • "A good ad should be like a good sermon: it must not only comfort the afflicted; it also must afflict the comfortable."
    (Bernice Fitzgibbon)
  • "Friendly Americans win American friends."
    (Slogan of the United States Travel Service in the 1960s)
  • "Behold, I shew you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory."
    (St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 15:51-54)
  • "His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars."
    (William Faulkner, Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, December 1950)
  • "Sentimentality is the emotional promiscuity of those who have no sentiment."
    (Norman Mailer, Cannibals and Christians, 1966)
  • Shakespearean Polyptoton
    - "...love is not love
    Which alters when it alteration finds,
    Or bends with the remover to remove..."
    (William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116)
    - "Shakespeare takes great interest in this device; it increases patterning without wearying the ear, and it takes advantage of the differing functions, energies, and positionings that different word classes are permitted in speech. Schaar [in An Elizabethan Sonnet Problem, 1960] says that Shakespeare uses polyptoton 'almost to excess,' 'using derivatives of more than a hundred stems' in the sonnets."
    (The Princeton Handbook of Poetic Terms, 3rd ed., ed. by Roland Greene and Stephen Cushman. Princeton University Press, 2016)
  • Polyptoton and the Beatles
    "'Please Please Me' [a song by John Lennon recorded by the Beatles] is a classic case of polyptoton. The first please is please the interjection, as in 'Please mind the gap.' The second please is a verb meaning to give pleasure, as in 'This pleases me.' Same word: two different parts of speech."
    (Mark Forsyth, The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase. Berkley, 2013)
  • Polyptoton as an Argumentative Strategy
    "It is sometimes the goal of an argument to take a concept accepted by an audience in one role or category of a sentence action and transfer it to others, an agent becoming an action or an action becoming an attribute and so on. This work is epitomized by polyptoton, the grammatical morphing of the word, as Aristotle explains repeatedly in the Topics... He points out, for example, how people's judgments follow a term as it changes from one part of speech to another. So, for example, an audience who believes that acting justly is better than acting courageously will also believe that justice is better than courage and vice versa... [T]he Topics is not concerned with immutable rules of validity but with the patterns of reasoning that most people follow most of the time, and most people will indeed follow the logic of polyptotonic morphing as Aristotle describes it."
    (Jeanne Fahnestock, Rhetorical Figures in Science. Oxford University Press, 1999)
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Nordquist, Richard. "Polyptoton (Rhetoric)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/polyptoton-rhetoric-1691641. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Polyptoton (Rhetoric). Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/polyptoton-rhetoric-1691641 Nordquist, Richard. "Polyptoton (Rhetoric)." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/polyptoton-rhetoric-1691641 (accessed March 23, 2023).