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Understanding Polyptoton: Meaning, Functions and Examples

Polyptoton is an artistic, literary, and rhetorical device that employs repeating a root word in different conjugations or contrasting cases for emphatic and rhythmic effect. By placing varying forms of the same word nearby, you can create irony, emphasize an idea, or produce a rhythm. In this article, we explore the distinct feature of polyptoton, as well as its effects and examples.

Difference between polyptoton and antanaclasis?

Polyptoton may appear similar to antanaclasis, but they are different. Antanaclasis repeats the same word in a sentence, but each repetition carries a different meaning. For example, “Put out the light, then put out the light,” from Shakespeare’s Othello is antanaclasis. But polyptoton repeat words sharing the same root word, probably belonging to different parts of speech. For example, "I'm so exhausted, trying to create an exhaustive list of problems that can exhaust the new system."

Functions of polyptoton in writing

Writers use polyptoton to create different effects depending on the context they use it. As with all repetition, polyptoton emphasizes and highlights the repeated words. The repetition allows writers to portray a contrast between different words. The distinct forms of the repeated word can also indicate a change from one state to another, just as the repeated word changes from one form to another. Also, by flexibly repeating a word, polyptoton can connect different parts of a sentence, ideas in a paragraph, or scenes in a book. Generally speaking, polyptoton allows writers to create connections and distinctions simultaneously. 

Examples of polyptoton in literature

1. St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 15:51-54, KJV. "Behold, I shew you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory." 

2. William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida (1609). "TROILUS: The Greeks are strong and skilful to their strength, / Fierce to their skill and to their fierceness valiant; / But I am weaker than a woman’s tear, / Tamer than sleep, fonder than ignorance, / Less valiant than the virgin in the night / And skilless as unpractised infancy."

3. William Shakespeare, Hamlet (1603). "POLONIUS: Madam, I swear I use no art at all. / That he is mad, ’tis true. Tis true, ’tis pity, / And pity ’tis ’tis true—a foolish figure, / But farewell it, for I will use no art. / Mad let us grant him then. And now remains / That we find out the cause of this effect, / Or rather say, the cause of this defect, / For this effect defective comes by cause. / Thus it remains, and the remainder thus."

4. Adrienne Rich, Diving Into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972 (1973). "First the air is blue and then / it is bluer and then green and then / black I am blacking out and yet / my mask is powerful / it pumps my blood with power / the sea is another story / the sea is not a question of power / I have to learn alone / to turn my body without force / in the deep element."


Adrienne Rich, Diving Into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972, W. W. Norton & Company, 1973

Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Frank Stephen