Repetition, Synonyms, and Pronouns

You may think that repeating words or phrases in an essay is a sign of sloppy writing, but if it is done correctly, it is a sign of good writing. Repetition of key words serves two purposes:

  1. It helps readers understand information because it forces them to focus on what the author thinks is important in an essay.
  2. It assists readers in seeing the connection between sentences and paragraphs.

But don’t misunderstand. Repetition does not mean that a term is necessarily repeated in its original form. You can also improve coherence by using synonyms (“edit,” for example, might become “check”) and pronouns (“readers” might become “they” or “them”). Pronouns that correctly refer to and agree with their antecedents naturally connect ideas because pronouns almost always link a reader back to something earlier in the writing. (For more information on pronouns, refer to the lesson “Editing for Pronoun Reference and Agreement.”)

Let’s look at some writing that uses repetition to help coherence.

President Barack Obama gave this speech the month after the Sandy Hook massacre, in January of 2013. He used repetition to help the listener’s and later readers remember the gist of his speech, but he chooses his words carefully here, repeating “We will” to demonstrate strength and resolve in finding solutions to gun control.

We will make it easier to keep guns out of the hands of criminals by strengthening the background check system. We will help schools hire more resource officers if they want them and develop emergency preparedness plans. We will make sure mental health professionals know their options for reporting threats of violence — even as we acknowledge that someone with a mental illness is far more likely to be a victim of violent crime than the perpetrator.

As is the case with most speeches, Obama’s words were written before they were spoken. In addition to the techniques he used to ensure that the meaning of his words was clear to everyone, Obama continued to repeat groups of words in the remainder of the speech, often repeating the “we” construction to demonstrate strength and unity with the American people.

The second example is from a 2010 New York Times article in which author Geoff Dyer, an Englishman, examines misconceptions that we sometimes have about groups of people. Although the opening paragraph is coherent for several reasons, focus on how repetition, synonyms, and pronouns help smoothly and logically connect the sentences so that they all support the topic sentence, which in this case is the second sentence of the paragraph.

The cartoon at the beginning of the letter illustrates an elderly couple traveling. – they look peaceful and harmless.

Source: Tourists, Brian Rea, New York Times

The first thing I ever heard about Americans was that they all carried guns. Then, when I came across people who’d had direct contact with this ferocious-sounding tribe, I learned that they were actually rather friendly. At university, friends who had traveled in the United States came back with more detailed stories, not just of the friendliness of Americans but also of their hospitality (which, in our quaint English way, was translated into something close to gullibility). When I finally got to America myself, I found that not only were the natives friendly and hospitable, they were also incredibly polite. No one tells you this about Americans, but once you notice it, it becomes one of their defining characteristics, especially when they’re abroad.

By repeating “Americans” three times and also using two synonyms and six pronouns to describe our country’s people, Dyer maintains coherence without making the writing as boring as it would have been if he had used “Americans” 11 times in this one paragraph. All the references to Americans directly tie in with the topic sentence.

When you edit your own essays, pick out the individual words or phrases that are most important for a reader to know and understand. Try to use repetition of the words themselves, their synonyms, and matching pronouns to keep the ideas in the reader’s mind.