One More Favorite Language Lesson: Repetition and Style

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The most important change I have ever made to my grammar and language lessons was one that I originally shared on here a few years ago: Reorganizing grammar and language lessons by what they do, not by what they are. For example, instead of breaking grammar and language into traditional categories like parts of speech, punctuation, and rhetoric, we now talk about the tools we have to capture the cadence of our voices, add emphasis, or—for this week’s favorite language lesson—add some style to our writing.

And for adding style, nothing I know beats repetition. In fact, when one boils it down, a huge number of the stylish literary and rhetorical devices are essentially just repetition. Alliteration, assonance, rhyme, parallel structure, anaphora, polysyndeton, chiasmus (along with the purposeful repetition of sentence lengths, themes, symbols, etc.): All of them are repetition of something because it turns out that we humans tend to be endlessly impressed with things that are repeated in thoughtful ways.

One of my favorite lessons for helping students to develop their own style (while also better understanding the style of others) is simply to point this fact out and then to give them space to read and write different types of repetition. Then, as always, we keep coming back to this idea until repetition becomes a natural part of their writing in the same way that it does for nearly every great writer one can think of. Here is what that looks like in my classes and a link to a sheet that I use.

I start with a general introduction about purposeful repetition followed by some retrieval practice where we recall all of the rhetorical and literary devices we’ve already learned that involve repetition.

Next, I introduce a few of my other favorite forms of repetition: anaphora, alliteration, and polysyndeton. What I like about these is that—despite the fancy titles—they are pretty easy to grasp while also being highly effective. One of my favorite authors to use as a mentor text for these devices and other forms of purposeful repetition is Sandra Cisneros, so my examples on this come from her.

Then the students look at a repetition-rich piece and highlight each of the moment of repetition they can find. The Sandra Cisneros story “Eleven” is one I often use, but my favorite for this year was “Joyas Valadoras” from Brian Doyle’s One Long River of Sound: Notes on Wonder, a book I’ve been loving recently. Here is the passage:

“Consider the hummingbird for a long moment. A hummingbird’s heart beats ten times a second. A hummingbird’s heart is the size of a pencil eraser. A hummingbird’s heart is a lot of the hummingbird.

…Each [hummingbird] visits a thousand flowers a day. They can dive at sixty miles an hour. They can fly backwards. They can fly more than five hundred miles without pausing to rest. But when they rest they come close to death: on frigid nights, or when they are starving, they retreat into torpor, their metabolic rate slowing to a fifteenth of their normal sleep rate, their hearts sludging nearly to a halt, barely beating, and if they are not soon warmed, if they do not soon find that which is sweet, their hearts grow cold, and they cease to be. Consider for a moment those hummingbirds who did not open their eyes again today, this very day, in the Americas: bearded helmet-crests and booted racket-tails, violet-tailed sylphs and violet-capped woodnymphs, crimson topazes and purple-crowned fairies, red-tailed comets and amethyst woodstars, rainbow-bearded thornbills and glittering-bellied emeralds, velvet-purple coronets and golden-bellied star-frontlets, fiery-tailed awlbills and Andean hillstars, spatuletails and pufflegs, each the most amazing thing you have never seen, each thunderous wild heart the size of an infant’s fingernail, each mad heart silent, a brilliant music stilled.

Hummingbirds, like all flying birds but more so, have incredible enormous immense ferocious metabolisms. To drive those metabolisms they have race-car hearts that eat oxygen at an eye-popping rate. Their hearts are built of thinner, leaner fibers than ours. Their arteries are stiffer and more taut. They have more mitochondria in their heart muscles—anything to gulp more oxygen. Their hearts are stripped to the skin for the war against gravity and inertia, the mad search for food, the insane idea of flight. The price of their ambition is a life closer to death; they suffer more heart attacks and aneurysms and ruptures than any other living creature. It’s expensive to fly. You burn out. You fry the machine. You melt the engine. Every creature on earth has approximately two billion heartbeats to spend in a lifetime. You can spend them slowly, like a tortoise and live to be two hundred years old, or you can spend them fast, like a hummingbird, and live to be two years old.”

From “Joyas Valadoras” by Brian Doyle

Lastly, the students get to give it a try. This year we read “Joyas Valadoras,” so I took his opening line and turned it into a frame that began “Consider the _____” and let students run with it.

I am going to take a few weeks off now to begin wrapping up the year and my manuscript while I also ramp up Camp Rewrite. If you missed my post on Camp Rewrite from last week, please think about joining us. There will be more on language (both from me and Rebekah O’Dell of Mini-Moves for Writers) and so much beyond that. Also, I want every single one of you who wants to join to join, so if you want to be a part but the price is too much, let me know. Reduced price and scholarships are available, no questions asked.

Lastly, for those who enjoyed these posts, there will be much, much more on language in the months to come. I shared today’s post in part because a reader asked if I had a lesson on anaphora, and I did! Let me know if there are any particular topics you’d like me to post about in the future.

Thanks for reading and yours in teaching,


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