Ever heard of anaphora, chiasmus, litotes, or epizeuxis?

If this sounds like nonsense to you, don’t worry!

They’re just fancy words for rhetorical (public speaking) devices you’ll quickly recognise.

Talking about writing style, literary devices and figures of speech can be intimidating for many people — but they can really help you structure your writing.

What is a literary device?

Literary devices, or literary techniques, are specific structures that writers use to add meaning or create more compelling stories for the reader.

They’re the special effects of writing. An actor is just an actor until costume, makeup, lighting and special effects are added.

Source: 62 Movie Scenes Before-And-After Special Effects

Think of it this way; when you’re writing you can use just the facts:

“It was raining.”

It’s an observation and doesn’t make the reader feel any certain way about the rain. But when you want to liven things up a bit, pull out a literary device:

“The rain was beating down as if Thor himself was giving me a lashing.”

It’s basically the same thing, but I used a literary device known as personification to create an image in the mind of the reader. This gives the rain a quality we can appreciate and sets the mood for what comes next.

Literary devices are the tools you use to paint in the world around your characters. Use them to transform the experience for your reader from merely reading a list of facts into an immersive experience.

And the fun part is, you can use literary devices regardless of what you’re writing. Blog posts, short stories, books, emails, social media posts — all writing can benefit from the artful use of literary devices.

Use literary devices to add style to your writing

Mastering these 12 uncommon literary devices from Mr Farnsworth’s book is a great place to start if you are a greenhorn or a great place to beef up your skillset if you are a veteran.

1. Epizeuxis

From Greek epizeugnumi, “to join together”.

This simple repetition of words or phrases in immediate succession, typically within the same sentence, is used for vehemence or emphasis.

Often with no additional words in between. The quick repetition will get the reader’s attention and arouse their curiosity.

Examples of epizeuxis:

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”

– Isaiah 6:3

Never give in — never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”

– Winston Churchill

2. Anadiplosis

From Greek anadíplōsis, “a doubling up”.

Anadiplosis is when a word is used at the end of a sentence and then again at the beginning of the next sentence.

Anadiplosis examples:

“Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

– Yoda, Star Wars

“Noust in the grass
in the wind
on the lark
for the sun
through the sea
in the heart
in its noust
nothing is lost”

– John Glenday

“We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us.”

– Romans 5:3–5

3. Anaphora

From Greek anaphorá, “a carrying back”.

Anaphora is repeating a sequence of words at the beginning of successive clauses.

When writing you can use one phrase to weave several points together.

Anaphora examples:

“Mad world! Mad kings! Mad composition!”

– William Shakespeare, “King John, II”

“For want of a nail, the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost.
For want of a horse, the rider was lost.
For want of a rider, the message was lost.
For want of a message, the battle was lost.
For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.”

– 14th century proverb

4. Epistrophe

From Greek epistrophe, “return”.

It is the repetition of the same word(s) at the end of successive phrases and is the counterpart of anaphora.

It places the emphasis on the last word(s) in a phrase or sentence.

Epistrophe examples:

“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny compared to what lies within us.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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

– Lyndon B. Johnson in “We Shall Overcome”

5. Polyptoton

From Greek polyptōton, “many cases.”

Polyptoton is unique in that it’s a repetition of words derived from the same root.

Polyptoton examples:

Judge not, that ye be not judged.”

– Matthew 7:1

“Not as a call to battle, though embattled we are.”

– John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961

“It is the same with all the powerful of to-day; it is the same, for instance, with the high-placed and high-paid official. Not only is the judge not judicial, but the arbiter is not even arbitrary.”

— G.K. Chesterton, “The Man on Top”

6. Antanaclasis

From Greek antanáklasis, “reflection”.

Antanaclasis is when a single word or phrase is repeated but with two different meanings.

“Your argument is sound, nothing but sound.”

— Benjamin Franklin

“Although we’re apart, you’re still a part of me.”

— Lyrics from “Blueberry Hill” by Fats Domino

7. Isocolon

From Greek ísos ‘equal’ and kôlon ‘member, clause’.

Isocolon is used to create parallel structures in length and rhythm.

The scheme is called bicolon, tricolon, or tetracolon depending on whether they are two, three, or four parallel elements.

Isocolon examples:

“Buy one, get one free.”

– Advertising slogan, [bicolon]

“Veni, vidi, vici.” (I came; I saw; I conquered.)

– Julius Caesar, [tricolon]

“Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out the devils.”

– Matthew 10:8, [tetracolon]

8. Chiasmus

From Greek chiázō, “to shape like the letter Χ”.

Chiasmus is a reversal of grammatical structures that is used for artistic effect.

You use it to balance phrases in order to convey similar (but not identical) meanings and without repetition:

Chiasmus examples:

“Despised, if ugly; if she’s fair, betrayed.”

– Mary Leapor, “Essay on Woman”

“By day the frolic, and the dance by night.”

– Samuel Johnson, “The Vanity of Human Wishes”

9. Antimetabole

From Greek antí, “against, opposite”, and metabolē, “turning about”.

Antimetabole is related to chiasmus, sometimes considered a special case of it.

Use it to repeat words in successive clauses, but in transposed order. Antimetabole has an A-B-B-A configuration.

Antimetabole examples:

“I know [A] what I like [B], and I like [B] what I know [A].”

– English saying

“Mankind [A] must put an end to war [B] or war [B] will put an end to mankind [A].”

– John F. Kennedy

10. Anastrophe

From Greek anastrophē, “a turning back or about”.

You’ll be familiar with this one from Star Wars because it’s a figure of speech where the normal word order of the subject, verb and object is changed.

So, “I like potatoes” (subject–verb–object) becomes, “potatoes I like” (object-subject-verb).

Starting to sound like Yoda yet?

Anastrophe examples:

“Joined the Dark Side, Dooku has.”

– Yoda, Star Wars

”Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing.”

– Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven”

11. Polysyndeton

From Greek poly, “many”, and syndeton, “bound together with”.

Polysyndeton is a stylistic device used to produce an impressively solemn note by slowing up the rhythm in prose.

In grammar, you use extra conjunctions (usually and, but, or, nor) — frequently in quick succession — to create the effect.

Polysyndeton examples:

“If there be cords, or knives, or poison, or fire, or suffocating streams, I’ll not endure it.”

– Shakespeare, “Othello”

“I said, ‘Who killed him?’ and he said ‘I don’t know who killed him, but he’s dead all right,’ and it was dark and there was water standing in the street and no lights or windows broke and boats all up in the town and trees blown down and everything all blown and I got a skiff and went out and found my boat where I had her inside Mango Key and she was right only she was full of water.”

– Ernest Hemingway, “After the Storm”

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

– US Postal Service creed

12. Asyndeton

From Greek asyndeton, “unconnected”.

This is when one or several conjunctions are deliberately omitted from a series of related clauses.

It makes a single idea more memorable and serves to speed up the rhythm of a passage.

Think of it as leaving out the conjunctions to write the direct statements.

Asyndeton examples:

“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, “We Shall Fight on the Beaches”

“That we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

– John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address

13. Litotes

From Greek litos, “plain, small”.

Litotes is a form of verbal irony that we use often in everyday conversation. In it, an understatement is used to emphasise a point by stating a negative to further affirm a positive.

Double negatives are often incorporated for effect.

Litotes examples:

“Not bad.” [To say something is good.]

“He’s not as young as he used to be.” [To say he’s old.]

“Keep an eye on your mother whom we both know doesn’t have both oars in the water.”

– Jim Harrison, “The Road Home”

14. Hypophora

From Greek hypofora, “carrying under”.

It’s a figure of speech where you ask a question and then answer it yourself.

Unlike a rhetorical question, you’ll need to answer the question you posed immediately.

Use hypophora as a transitional device to take the discussion in a new direction, a device to stimulate interest (since the reader’s curiosity is stimulated by hearing a question) or to suggest (and answer) questions the reader may not have thought of.

Hypophora can be a single question answered in a single sentence, a single question answered in a paragraph, or a series of questions each answered in subsequent paragraphs.

Hypophora examples:

Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? So am I.

– 1 Corinthians 11:21–22

“What made me take this trip to Africa? There is no quick explanation. Things got worse and worse and worse and pretty soon they were too complicated.”

– Saul Bellow, “Henderson the Rain King”

What should you do with these literary devices?

Have fun!

Don’t worry, I’m not expecting you to remember these by heart. Believe me, no matter how diligently I look at these Greek words, they just fly out of my brain the next moment.

Remembering the names of literary devices — or which ones do what — isn’t what makes you a good writer.

What makes you a good writer is that you remember to play with your words.

I’m hoping that this opened your eyes to the structures that are threaded through the texts we read every day.

And that the next time you sit down to write or to edit, you’ll remember that there are many ways of conveying meaning and making your writing more engaging.

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