Repetition is sometimes desirable and sometimes not. Desirable repetition must be expressed in the right way, or it will look like the undesirable kind
THE EXACT NATURE OF REPETITION
The concept of repetition is a familiar everyday one. In language, there are various kinds. It is possible to repeat single words or phrases, and also whole statements. We can in addition repeat with the same words or with a paraphrase, where only the meaning is repeated. This discussion is about all of these types of repetition in writing (for repetition in speaking, see 186. Language in Oral Presentations). All can be either good or bad.
TYPES OF BAD REPETITION
Most writers believe that repetition of exact words should be avoided because it shows a lack of skill/maturity as a writer, or a failure to consider the reader, who must be entertained by variety in the language s/he is presented with. This belief is evidenced by the frequency with which single ideas are repeated in different words in texts (creating a major reading difficulty for readers whose mother tongue is not English – see 5. Repetition with Synonyms). Exact-word repetition certainly is undesirable if done excessively, though it may not always be bad (see below).
Repetition in different words is sometimes bad too. One common error is unnecessarily explaining a word with a synonym, like this:
(a) *The function of classroom assistants is to assist, or help, teachers.
There is no problem understanding assist here, so providing a synonym is unnecessary. The best correction is using help by itself (assist is rather repetitive of the earlier assistants). Another word-level error is so-called “tautology”: unintentionally expressing the same meaning twice in a sentence. Consider this:
(b) *Deforestation has such harmful effects as reduced rainfall, soil erosion, flooding, and so on.
There are two indications here that the list is incomplete: such … as and and so on. The sentence does not need both, and is better without and so on (see 1. Simple Example-Giving).
Similar to tautology is the error of repeating a noun with a directly-following pronoun, e.g.:
(c) *Students at university they have many distractions from study.
Formal written English would not normally have they (it is more a feature of informal speech). Beginning the sentence with for (*For me, I think that …) is equally undesirable. For a way to keep the emphasis without the repetition, see 125. Stress and Emphasis.
When the repetition is a whole statement, there is a risk of making the reader feel s/he is being told the same thing twice. One place where this often occurs is the first sentence of an essay, since it is tempting there for the writer to say what the essay is about despite this having already been made clear through the title. Another danger area in essays is when the writer is returning to a previously-mentioned point and wants to remind the reader what it was. If this is not done in the right way, the reader easily feels that the same point is being made twice.
Lecturers and teachers see this last kind of bad repetition as evidence of either poor organization or insufficient knowledge (a way of filling a page when the writer does not have enough to say!). Some students, for sure, are guilty of these failings. However, I suspect that many who are accused of them are not really guilty, but are showing a weakness in English grammar: they do not know how to use grammar to achieve good repetition. This kind of bad repetition is hence more a grammar mistake than a content one (see 170. Logical Errors in Written English). A solution to it is offered in the post 37. Subordination: Grammar for Good Repetition.
TYPES OF GOOD REPETITION
Three important uses of repetition that I wish to consider are for linking, reminding and clarifying.
Repetition for Linking
Linking is necessary in order to help a reader follow the flow of a text. Links do not always have to be made by means of repetition, but they often are. The repetition is usually of a single word or phrase rather than of a statement.
1. Linking with Word Repetition
One can use exactly the same word or an alternative. Consider this:
(d) Economic recessions cause bankruptcies. Bankruptcies harm whole communities.
The two sentences here are linked. The link is clear from the occurrence of the same idea (“bankruptcies”) in both. If there were no repeated idea in the second sentence, we would find it more difficult to understand why the two sentences were being said together.
The repetition above is with the same word. It could have been done instead with a pronoun (These – see 28. Pronoun Errors), a paraphrase (Losing all of one’s money – see 80. How to Paraphrase) or a more general term (Such disasters). I chose to use straight repetition above in order to emphasise that for linking it is just as acceptable as other types, even if less common. My subjective feeling is that the consecutive occurrences of the same word in (d) have a rhythm and a psychological effect that its alternatives do not.
As mentioned above, repetition is not the only way to show a link. Consider this alternative:
(e) Economic recessions cause bankruptcies. Harm is suffered by whole communities.
We can still understand here that the second sentence gives a consequence, but in the absence of repetition we have to work harder at it, making use of our general life knowledge (see 18. Relations Between Sentences). Writers will often help the reader in such situations by including a connector at the start of sentence 2, such as consequently (see 32. Expressing Consequences), or a connector synonym (see 112. Synonyms of Connectors).
2. Linking with Statement Repetition
Links can also be shown by means of repeated statements. Consider this extract from an economics book (Keynes and After, by Michael Stewart, published in 1970 by Pelican). The statement repetitions are underlined:
(f) (According to Marx), competition forces capitalist firms to invest their profits in labour-saving machinery, for if they do not do this their efficiency will drop, and they will be forced out of business. However, if labour-saving machinery is installed, there will be a fall in employment, and hence a rise in the number of the unemployed. As unemployment rises, wages (if not already at subsistence level) will tend to fall – for those who still have jobs will be forced by the capitalists to accept lower wages under threat of being replaced by the “reserve army” of the unemployed. Yet according to Marx, a fall in employment also meant a fall in profits, because the value of what is produced depends on the number of man-hours involved in producing it. This fall in profits before long leads to a crisis.
Here, labour-saving machinery is installed repeats invest … in labour-saving machinery while unemployment rises repeats a rise in the number of the unemployed. The repetition is necessary because each of these happenings is two things: a result of an earlier happening and the cause of a later one. The post 37. Subordination: Grammar for Good Repetition examines how the grammar of these statements gives the feeling of being reminded rather than just being told the same thing twice.
Repetition for Reminding
Reminding is necessary when we want to say something new about a point first mentioned some time before. An example in (f) is the words Yet according to Marx, a fall in employment also meant a fall in profits. The underlined words are an exact repetition of part of sentence 2. They show a link to that earlier sentence, but they also remind the reader of what was said there. How they do this without appearing to be telling the reader the same thing twice is, once again, discussed elsewhere (see 37. Subordination: Grammar for Good Repetition and 156. Mentioning What the Reader Knows Already).
Repetition for Clarifying
This type of repetition is always with different wording, either a single word/phrase or a longer statement. The writer does it because s/he suspects that the reader may not fully understand the first mention. Often you can add in other words between the two mentions:
(g) The scapulas, (in other words) the shoulder blades, are in a posterior position just below each shoulder.
(h) Excessive intake of alcoholic beverages produces deleterious physical effects. (In other words,) it is unhealthy to drink too much.
Sentence (g) is an example of “apposition” (see 77. Pairing of Same-Meaning Nouns). The reason why a writer might want to say the same thing once in complicated language and again more simply involves who the readers are expected to be. The writer might expect them to include both experts in the topic (here doctors, perhaps) and ordinary people, so that both ways of giving the message are needed; or the readers may be students who are trying to learn the more technical way of talking about their subject, but still need some help. In the bad form of this repetition type − sentence (a) − neither of the ways of stating the point is particularly technical. That means there is nothing to clarify and hence nothing to repeat.