Is Word Repetition Good Or Bad?

In middle school and high school, we’re taught that word repetition is bad, that we shouldn’t use the same word over and over again in the same piece if we can help it: it gets old/annoying, and it gives the impression that we have severely limited vocabularies.

Later on, however, we’re sometimes told that it’s better to use the same word repeatedly. With dialogue, some novel-writing professors recommend using “said” with each comment instead of replacing it with synonyms (exclaimed, wondered aloud, whispered, responded, etc.). Word repetition is also an emotional appeal strategy for speeches (and sales) because people remember and respond to things they hear multiple times.

So which way is right?

Like most questions about writing style, the answer is, “It depends.” If you’re writing for school, it’s not a very good idea to use the same word constantly (especially in an essay).

If you’re writing dialogue that you want to keep moving at a fast pace, using mostly “said” can help do that because “he said” and “she said” more or less fade into the background. They don’t take much time or attention for the readers, so they can skim through and focus on the dialogue. On the other hand, since some writers use a different synonym for every line spoken in the conversation without disrupting the pace, this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. You might rely on “said” for one scene and mix in a bunch of synonyms for another.

Repeating a word can also provide emphasis (you’ll see that a lot with poetry), and it really is good for sales. Think about commercials and how they re-use specific words to make sure that those words stick in your memories. The trick to this method, however, is that you have to make sure other words aren’t repeating the same way. Otherwise, the repetition loses its punch.

In the end, it comes down to personal taste and the effect you’re trying to achieve. As Shakespeare said, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” You may need to repeat the same word every time. You may need to mix it up with synonyms. You may need to do both at the same time for different ideas. And the decision may change drastically by what you’re trying to do.

I know that’s not extremely helpful (sorry, folks), but that’s the way it is. Word repetition can be an error for you to watch for, or it can be a technique to use to your advantage. Or both. At the same time. In other words, don’t do it except when you should.

Sounds like the rest of English, doesn’t it?

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