Monday, February 4, 2013

The seductive power of repetition in fostering acceptance of ideas

Since it’s election campaign season again in our part of the world, I thought of again offering as food for thought an essay that I wrote for my “English Plain and Simple” column in The Manila Times way back in March 2004. I came up with that essay both as a basic lesson in communication as well as a cautionary guide for appreciating the campaign messages of the candidates in the Philippine presidential elections in May of that year. The earliest members of Jose Carillo’s English Forum will probably recall that I posted that same essay here in the Forum in July 2009 as a grammar lesson in creative repetition. This time, in the context of the campaign season for the Philippine midterm elections in May this year, I am posting it once more in the Forum and here for precisely the same twofold purpose that I originally wrote it. I hope it will help forearm the public against deceptive or downright false blandishments of certain candidates and—it is profoundly to be desired—help the electorate come with an intelligent vote.

When saying it once isn’t enough

Each one of us wants to make a deep impression on our readers or listeners. Whether we are a teacher teaching an inattentive, rowdy, or recalcitrant class; a priest or preacher preaching to a flock of insensate, glassy-eyed believers; a lawyer making logical or semantic convolutions to convince judge or jury that a guilty defendant is innocent; an advertising person hawking an old, jaded product as something excitingly new; or a ward leader trying to pass off a thoroughly unworthy candidate as the best there is for an elective post, we will always want to emphasize the things we want to be accepted as true and de-emphasize those we want to be rejected as untrue. The objective is the same in all cases: to convince the audience of the wisdom of the position we have taken, whether we are speaking with the light of truth or with a forked tongue.

The easiest way to emphasize things, of course, is to embellish them with such off-the-rack qualifiers as “new and improved,” “the one and only,” “especially,” “particularly,” “most of all,” and “the best choice,” as in this sentence: “X Facial Cream is especially designed for tropical use, but best of all, it gives 100% expert conditioning for wrinkle-free cheeks.” As tools to snare the unthinking mind, however, such self-serving adverbs could be persuasive for at most only one or two hatchet jobs apiece. Discerning audiences can only take so much of words that demand acceptance not on the basis of logic but on blind faith.

A much better way to emphasize the things that we deem important is creative repetition. This is the technique of repeating in speech or in writing the same letters, syllables, or sounds; the same words; the same clauses or phrases; or the same ideas and patterns of thought. When done just right, this time-tested rhetorical strategy beats most other devices for achieving emphasis, clarity, retention, and emotional punch.

Just to see how this strategy works, take a look again at how the first paragraph of this chapter tried to hook you to the subject of repetition. In the first sentence, the word-pair “teacher teaching” deliberately repeated the first syllable “teach”; the phrase “a priest or preacher preaching” used the “pr-” sound thrice and the syllable “preach” twice (this figure of speech is known as alliteration); the phrase “judge or jury” repeated the first syllable “ju-” sound (alliteration, again); and the five clauses that carry the examples of people wanting to make a great impression repeated the same structure and pattern of thought (parallelism). 

This reiteration of the same grammar and semantic patterns certainly didn’t come by accident; the patterns were intentionally constructed in the hope of making a human-interest appeal strong enough to make the reader read on. (Did they succeed? You be the judge.)

A staple device to achieve emphasis by repetition, of course, is to use the same key word or idea in a series, as in this statement:

At Village X, enjoy cosmopolitan living with a touch of country: a life with all the amenities but without the inconveniences of the big city, a life amidst lush farmlands fringed by pristine mountain and lake, a life that someone of good taste who has definitely arrived truly deserves.

You will probably recall that “a life” in the passage above functions as a resumptive modifier. Its repeated use of “a life” as key words emphasizes the promise of “cosmopolitan living with a touch of country,” progressively building up the imagery and giving it a strong emotional appeal. This kind of repetition is actually what most advertising in the mass media routinely uses to persuade us, for good or ill.

Even more powerful than simply repeating key words or phrases is suddenly breaking that pattern once it is established:

Airline X is first in passenger comfort and amenities, first in both in-flight and ground service, and last in delayed departures and arrivals.

The disruption by the word “last” of our expectation of a series of all “firsts” dramatizes the airline’s claim of being the industry leader in flight reliability. It’s a neat semantic device that rarely fails to catch immediate attention.

Persuasion by repetition is a powerful device for inducing audiences to identify, recognize, and respond to our messages, but we have to do it with an eye and ear and feel for words and sentence structure. Uncreative repetition, like the ones that regularly assault us during election campaigns, are too predictable, awkward, tedious, and boring—if not downright untruthful. But when done purposively and competently, like the mesmerizing prayers and chants that we live by and the melodious songs, poems, mottos, and credos we love to sing or recite ad infinitum, repetition could shape our beliefs and likes and dislikes for life, Pavlovian and unalterable.
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, March 8, 2004 issue © 2004 by Manila Times Publishing. All rights reserved. This essay later appeared as Chapter 126 of the author’s book Give Your English the Winning Edge © 2009 by Jose A. Carillo. All rights reserved.

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