Be bold, be brief, be gone: 13 famous anaphoras you must remember

Anaphora helps reinforce understanding because its repetitions make it easier to remember

By Shashi Tharoor

Published: Thu 17 Feb 2022, 6:48 PM

As a public speaker, one of the classic bits of advice you’re given is the simple dictum — “Be bold. Be brief. Be gone.” You may not know it, but that’s a great example of what today’s column is about, anaphora.

Anaphora sounds like some ancient Greek flask or vase, but it is, in fact, a rhetorical device in English. Anaphora features the repetition of a word or phrase, usually at the beginning of successive sentences or phrases, to emphasise and reinforce meaning and generate a stronger effect upon the reader or listener. Remember President John F. Kennedy’s memorable line in his Inaugural Address, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country”? That’s anaphora. Patrick Henry’s line during the American Revolution: “Give me liberty or give me death”? Ditto.

Winston Churchill, a master of morale-booster rhetoric, used anaphora tellingly in his famous radio speeches during World War Two: “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.” The relentless repetition of “we shall fight” drove home the message of determination and courage that inspired Britons listening to him. In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, the Black-American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King used anaphora by repeating “I have a dream” eight times throughout the speech to reinforce his visionary message.

Perhaps the most famous literary use of anaphora is in the opening paragraph of Charles Dickens’ 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…” The technique shows how anaphora works: repetition of the phrase “it was” gives Dickens a chance to reinforce the impression that he is writing about a period of turbulent contradictions, and builds up an atmosphere in the reader’s mind that sets the scene for the narrative to follow.

Of course, it doesn’t take an entire para full of rhythmic phrases to achieve the same effect: pithy one-liners like Kennedy’s can work just as well. Anaphora is an effective way of conveying a contradiction: “You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.” It also helps make a banal thought sound more impressive: “Stay safe. Stay well. Stay happy.” Wisdom can also be more effectively conveyed when packaged in anaphora: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

Anaphora permits profundities to be communicated in a more accessible way. The Bible famously uses anaphora. Thus the Old Testament — Ecclesiastes 3:1–2 — has the famous line: “…a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted.” Such timeless thoughts persist into our times. Talking about the role of palliative care in terminal cancer patients, and how it eases pain without prolonging life, a doctor said, “It’s not the days in your life that matters, it’s the life in your days.” The poet Rumi’s famous lines about taking the rough with the smooth in life tellingly use anaphora: “If you want the moon, do not hide from the night./If you want a rose, do not run from the thorns./If you want love, do not hide from yourself.”

Rumi’s poetic words utilise anaphora to evoke emotion; Churchill’s to exhort action. Anaphora helps reinforce understanding because its repetitions make it easier to remember. My favourite lines of T.S. Eliot stay in my head because 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?” But when used poorly, anaphora can be off-putting by sounding simplistic or forced. If you use anaphora in your writing, remember to do so sparingly and tellingly, and always strike a balance between what is natural and what is worthy of literary effect.

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