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H.W. Fowler (1858–1933).  The King’s English, 2nd ed.  1908.

Chapter III. Airs and Graces

REPETITION



'RHETORICAL' or—to use at once a wider and a more intelligible term—'significant' repetition is a valuable element in modern style; used with judgement, it is as truly a good thing as clumsy repetition, the result of negligence, is bad. But there are some writers who, from the fact that all good repetition is intentional, rashly infer that all intentional repetition is good; and others who may be suspected of making repetitions from negligence, and retaining them from a misty idea that to be aware of a thing is to have intended it. Even when the repetition is a part of the writer's original plan, consideration is necessary before it can be allowed to pass: it is implied in the terms 'rhetorical' or significant repetition that the words repeated would ordinarily be either varied or left out; the repetition, that is to say, is more or less abnormal, and whatever is abnormal may be objectionable in a single instance, and is likely to become so if it occurs frequently.

The writers who have most need of repetition, and are most justified in using it, are those whose chief business it is to appeal not to the reader's emotions, but to his understanding; for, in spite of the term 'rhetorical', the object ordinarily is not impressiveness for impressiveness' sake, but emphasis for the sake of clearness. It may seem, indeed, that a broad distinction ought to be drawn between the rhetorical and the non-rhetorical: they differ in origin and in aim, one being an ancient rhetorical device to secure impressiveness, the other a modern development, called forth by the requirements of popular writers on subjects that demand lucidity; and there is the further difference, that rhetorical repetition often dictates the whole structure of the sentence, whereas the non-rhetorical, in its commonest form, is merely the completion of a sentence that need not have been completed. But in practice the two things become inseparable, and we shall treat them together; only pointing out to the novice that of the two motives, impressiveness and lucidity, the latter is far the more likely to seem justifiable in the reader's eyes.

We shall illustrate both the good and bad points of repetition almost exclusively from a few pages of Bagehot, one of its most successful exponents, in whom nevertheless it degenerates into mannerism. To a writer who has so much to say that is worth hearing, almost anything can be forgiven that makes for clearness; and in him clearness, vigour, and a certain pleasant rapidity, all result from the free use of repetition. It will be seen that his repetitions are not of the kind properly called rhetorical; it is the spontaneous fullness of a writer who, having a clear point to make, is determined to make it clearly, elegance or no elegance. Yet the growth of mannerism is easily seen in him; the justifiable repetitions are too frequent, and he has some that do not seem justifiable.

He analysed not a particular government, but what is common to all governments; not one law, but what is common to all laws; not political communities in their features of diversity, but political communities in their features of necessary resemblance. He gave politics not an interesting aspect, but a new aspect: for by giving men a steady view of what political communities must be, he nipped in the bud many questions as to what they ought to be. As a gymnastic of the intellect, and as a purifier, Mr. Austin's philosophy is to this day admirable—even in its imperfect remains; a young man who will study it will find that he has gained something which he wanted, but something which he did not know that he wanted: he has clarified a part of his mind which he did not know needed clarifying.

All these powers were states of some magnitude, and some were states of great magnitude. They would be able to go on as they had always gone on—to shift for themselves as they had always shifted.

Without Spanish and without French, Walpole would have made a good peace; Bolingbroke could not do so with both.

Cold men may be wild in life and not wild in mind. But warm and eager men, fit to be the favourites of society, and fit to be great orators, will be erratic not only in conduct but in judgement.

A man like Walpole, or a man like Louis Napoleon, is protected by an unsensitive nature from intellectual destruction.

After a war which everyone was proud of, we concluded a peace which nobody was proud of, in a manner that everyone was ashamed of.

He hated the City because they were Whigs, and he hated the Dutch because he had deserted them.

But he professed to know nothing of commerce, and did know nothing.

The fierce warlike disposition of the English people would not have endured such dishonour. We may doubt if it would have endured any peace. It certainly would not have endured the best peace, unless it were made with dignity and with honesty.

Using the press without reluctance and without cessation.

He ought to have been able to bear anything, yet he could bear nothing. He prosecuted many more persons than it was usual to prosecute then, and far more than have been prosecuted since... He thought that everything should be said for him, and that nothing should be said against him.

Between these fluctuated the great mass of the Tory party, who did not like the House of Hanover because it had no hereditary right, who did not like the Pretender because be was a Roman Catholic.

He had no popularity; little wish for popularity; little respect for popular judgement.


Here is a writer who, at any rate, has not the vice of 'elegant variation'. Most of the possibilities of repetition, for good and for evil, are here represented. As Bagehot himself might have said, 'we have instances of repetition that are good in themselves; we have instances of repetition that are bad in themselves; and we have instances of repetition that are neither particularly good nor particularly bad in themselves, but that offend simply by recurrence'. The ludicrous appearance presented by our collection as a whole necessarily obscures the merit of individual cases; but if the reader will consider each sentence by itself, he will see that repetition is often a distinct improvement. The point best illustrated here, no doubt, is that it is possible to have too much of a good thing; but it is a good thing for all that. As instances of unjustifiable mannerism, we may select 'fit to be the favourites..., and fit to be great orators'; 'not political communities..., but political communities...'; 'something which he wanted, but something which he did not know that he wanted'; 'a man like Walpole, or a man like Louis Napoleon'; 'without reluctance and without cessation'; 'who did not like..., who did not like...'; and 'without Spanish and without French'. We have mentioned clearness as the ultimate motive for repetition of this kind: in this last sentence, we get not clearness, but obscurity. Any one would suppose that there was some point in the distinction between Spanish and French: there is none; the point is, simply, that languages do not make a statesman. Again, there is sometimes virtue in half-measures: from 'something which he did not know that he wanted' remove the first three words, and there remains quite repetition enough. 'Wild in life and not wild in mind' is a repetition that is clearly called for; but it is followed by the wholly gratuitous 'fit ... and fit...', and the result is disastrous. Finally, in 'who did not like..., who did not like...', mannerism gets the upper hand altogether: instead of the appearance of natural vigour that ordinarily characterizes the writer, we have stiff, lumbering artificiality.

Writers like Bagehot do not tend at all to impressive repetition: their motive is always the business-like one of lucidity, though it is sometimes lucidity run mad. Repetition of this kind, not being designed to draw the reader's attention to itself, wears much better in practice than the more pronounced types of rhetorical repetition. The latter should be used very sparingly. As the spontaneous expression of strong feeling in the writer, it is sometimes justified by circumstances: employed as a deliberate artifice to impress the reader, it is likely to be frigid, and to fail in its object; and the term 'rhetorical' should remind us in either case that what may be spoken effectively will not always bear the test of writing.

Rhetorical repetition, when it is clearly distinguishable from the non-rhetorical, is too obvious to require much illustration. Of the three instances given, the last is an excellent test case for the principle that 'whatever is intentional is good'.

I have summoned you here to witness your own work. I have summoned you here to witness it, because I know it will be gall and wormwood to you. I have summoned you here to witness it, because I know the sight of everybody here must be a dagger in your mean false heart!—Dickens.

As the lark rose higher, he sank deeper into thought. As the lark poured out her melody clearer and stronger, he fell into a graver and profounder silence. At length, when the lark came headlong down ... he sprang up from his reverie.—Dickens.

Russia may split into fragments, or Russia may become a volcano.—Spectator.


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