Rhetorical Devices: Epistrophe

This post is part of a series on rhetorical devices. For other posts in the series, please click this link. For a comprehensive, step-by-step overview of how to write a speech outline, please see this post.

Device: Epistrophe (also known as Epiphora)

Origin: From the Greek ἐπιστροφή (epistrofi), meaning “turning about” or “upon turning”.

In plain English: Repetition of a word or phrase at the end of successive sentences or clauses.

Effect:

    • Because the emphasis is on the last word(s) of a series of sentences or phrases, epistrophe can be very dramatic.
    • It is particularly effective when one wishes to emphasize a concept, idea or situation. Note, for example, the concepts emphasized in the quotes below: people; problems; moments; domination; togetherness; ability.
    • Repetition makes the lines memorable.
    • The speaker’s words have rhythm and cadence.

Notes:

    • Epistrophe is the counterpoint to anaphora.
    • As is the case with anaphora, speakers should be careful not to overuse epistrophe.
    • Epistrophe is effective even when the words differ slightly; for example, when they are singular and plural as in the quote from Bill Gates below.
    • The potential downside of using epistrophe to emphasize the subject of an action is that the sentence is often in the passive voice, which is weaker than the active voice.

Examples:

“… that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

 Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, 19 November 1863

———

“There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem.  There is only an American problem.”

— Lyndon Johnson, Washington, D.C., 15 March 1965

———

“Our struggle has reached a decisive moment. We call on our people to seize this moment, so that the process towards democracy is rapid and uninterrupted. … I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination.”

— Nelson Mandela, Cape Town, 11 February 1990

———

“Market forces cannot educate us or equip us for this world of rapid technological and economic change. We must do it together. We cannot buy our way to a safe society. We must work for it together. We cannot purchase an option on whether we grow old. We must plan for it together. We can’t protect the ordinary against the abuse of power by leaving them to it; we must protect each other. That is our insight. A belief in society. Working together.”

— Tony Blair, Blackpool, 4 October 1994

———

“I left campus knowing little about the millions of young people cheated out of educational opportunities here in this country. And I knew nothing about the millions of people living in unspeakable poverty and disease in developing countries.”

— Bill Gates, Harvard University address, 7 June 2007

———

“But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope. For when we have faced down impossible odds; when we’ve been told that we’re not ready, or that we shouldn’t try, or that we can’t, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes we can. It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation: Yes we can. It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail toward freedom through the darkest of nights: Yes we can. It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness: Yes we can.

— Barrack Obama, New Hampshire primary, 8 January 2008

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19 Replies to “Rhetorical Devices: Epistrophe”

    1. Thank you for the comment, Gopinath. And thank you for sharing the text of your speech. You hit on three great rhetorical devices in it: contrast; powerful questions; and the power of three.
      John

  1. Dear John,
    Thank you for this. I have been doing some research on epistrophe and have a question for you. Epistrophe is often defined as “the repetition of a word or phrase at the end of successive sentences or clauses.” Yet I see your Obama example here, where the repeated element of the epistrophe is not actually a word or phrase at the end of a sentence/clause, but actually it’s own sentence. Can epistrophe also mean “the repetition of a sentence at the end of successive passages/lines?”
    Thanks!
    T a G

    1. Hi Sally. Absolutely. Epistrophe (and its counterpart, anaphora) can be an entire sentence. In such cases, it will usually be a short sentence such as “Yes we can!”.

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