October 5: Epistrophe Day

On this date in 1988, a candidate for the United States vice-presidency made one of the more memorable and rhetorically nuanced retorts in political history. The candidate was Lloyd Bentsen. His opponent was Dan Quayle, a younger and much less experienced candidate. It was inevitable that Quayle’s lack of experience would come up in the debate. When it did, Quayle made a historical comparison, saying he had as much experience as did John F. Kennedy before he was elected president. Bentsen seemed to anticipate the comparison and pounced:

Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.

Bentsen’s response was not only the most memorable line in the entire debate, it was also the most memorable line ever from any vice-presidential debate. Even more, it might just be the most memorable line ever from a political debate.

It’s not just the repetition of “Jack Kennedy” that gives the quip its force, it’s also the placement of the name. Notice that of the four times “Jack Kennedy” is repeated, three of them are at the end of a clause. Each time Bentsen repeats the name, it echoes, like the sound of gavel pounding on a judge’s bench.

This rhetorical repeater is called epistrophe (eh-PIS-tro-fee), and it’s simply defined as repetition of the same word or phrase at the end of successive phrases or clauses (1).

The best way to understand epistrophe is to see it in action. Here’s an excellent definition and example from Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence:

When you end each sentence with the same word, that’s epistrophe. When each clause has the same words at the end, that’s epistrophe. When you finish each paragraph with the same word, that’s epistrophe. Even when it’s a whole phrase or a whole sentence that you repeat, it’s still, providing the repetition comes at the end, that’s epistrophe (2).

Great writers and great speakers use epistrophe to make their sentences more rhythmic and more dramatic.

Here are some examples:

. . . that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. -Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address

If women are healthy and educated, their families will flourish. If women are free from violence, their families will flourish. If women have a chance to work … their families will flourish. -Hillary Clinton

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing his hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” -Jacob Marley’s ghost in Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.

Today’s Challenge: Save the Best for Last
Epistrophe is especially effective when you want to emphasize and drum home a concept or idea. What is a basic concept that all children should be taught, either in school or out of school, such as manners, creativity, patience, or dental hygiene? Brainstorm a list of possible concepts. Then, write a catchy, but brief, Public Service Announcement (PSA) on the one concept you think is most important and why you think it is most important. Use epistrophe to make you PSA unforgettable and to leave your concept echoing in the mind of your audience long after they have listened to it. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day: What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny compared to what lies within us. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

1-Farnsworth, Ward. Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric. Boston: David R. Godine, 2011: 32.
2-Forsyth, Mark. The Elements of Eloquence. London: Icon Books, 2013: 77.