Repetition: One of Life’s Little, Tiny Annoyances

by • June 03, 2014

repeat, icon, Repeat Day, repetition, writing, Grammarlyrepeat, icon, Repeat Day, repetition, writing, Grammarly repeat, icon, Repeat Day, repetition, writing, GrammarlyYears ago a well-known science fiction writer published a book in which he repeated the same word eight times on the second and third pages. How did this happen? Why such carelessness—on his part and his editor’s?

It’s clear that repetition is irritating; but, why? It calls attention to itself, thus detracting from the content of the writing: Didn’t the author take any time to think of synonyms? Did he care?

Of course, there are some words that it’s okay to repeat much more than others. In general, the more common a word, the more often it can be used. Uncommon words stand out. If a writer uses the word “smirk,” for instance, and then repeats it soon afterward…or even a long time later…it’s going to stand out.

The words that are most annoying when repeated are nouns, adjectives, and adverbs. Verbs can stand out, too, if they are not common. And yes, almost any verb can become annoying with overuse. Yet it doesn’t matter about “invisible” or “ghost” words. Include them as often as you want. These encompass articles such as “a” or “the,” and conjunctions such as “and” or “but.” “To be” verbs usually are less annoying than more active verbs, such as “kick,” or “race,” for instance. And although many teachers and writers caution against the overuse of  “am,” “was,” “were,” etc., these verbs usually aren’t as attention-catching as more active ones.

Other sorts of repetition can be annoying, as well. At a gymnastic exhibition for five-to-six-year-olds the man who introduced the participants read from his notes: “And now these girls will perform the same moves “together, simultaneously, all at the same time.” Really! Was he trying to emphasize something he thought unique? Possibly. Or maybe he was so enthused about the event he wanted to point it out.

Here are two additional examples of blatant repetition. The first is from a recent newspaper article: “Two men broke into an ATM machine….”  And what exactly is an automatic teller machine machine? Then there’s the expression that became popular during the 70s and still persists: “At this point in time.” Why not just say “at this point” or “at this time?’ They mean the same thing.

Another bothersome use of repetition is using a series of sentences that has an unvarying structure, e.g., simple subject and verb. For example, “Bob plays. Sharon dances. The dog watches. We laugh.” Soon a reader will begin to pay attention to the pattern rather than the content.

Certainly, there are situations and types of writing in which repetition is good. Think, for instance, of the ending of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. For emphasis, for rhythm, for lines that are memorable, he used the same phrase five times in five consecutive sentences.

It is the other types of repetition of which we must be aware. There’s no magic way to avoid this.  A writer needs simply to proofread and edit—well, yes—repeatedly—and to approach the task with the different sorts of repetition in mind. Think about editing once for word repetition, another time for sentence structure, and another time for redundancies.

June 3 is Repeat Day (Repeat Day). What kind of repetition makes you do a double-take? Share in the comments!

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