A polyptoton does not have the be the same exact word, just those related to the root word. It is a common literary device in Old English verse and can still be seen in contemporary writing. It usually occurs within a single sentence, but there could be a few examples spread out over a couple of sentences or a paragraph. But, the words have to be close together, or the figure of speech loses its impact.
Definition of Polyptoton
Polyptoton is an interesting figure of speech that sounds more confusing than it actually is. It occurs when words with the same root are used together. For example, “strong” and “strength” or “blood” and “bleed.” There is an endless number of possible examples, but for it to be a true example of polyptoton, the words have to appear close to one another. This is usually within the same sentence. It can be incredibly effective in verse, creating a feeling of repetition without using the same exact word more than once. Additionally, a writer can improve the rhythm of their piece by repeating the same word sounds.
Examples of Polyptoton in Literature
Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare
This less-commonly read Shakespeare play takes place during the Trojan War. It tells the story of Troilus and Cressida and their love affair. The play has a few complex characters that some scholars have labeled as one of the Bard’s “problem plays.” Meaning that the play doesn’t conform to the standards of a tragedy or comedy, and audiences have a hard time understanding the purpose of some of the characters. Despite this, the play does contain a good example of polyptoton. Consider these lines from Act I Scene1:
The Greeks are strong and skillful 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 […]
In the first two lines of this excerpt, spoken by Troilus to Pandarus, he uses “strong” and “strength,” “skillful” and “skill” and “fierce” and “fierceness.” Readers could not ask for a better, more obvious example of polyptoton. It helps create rhythm, alliteration, and emphasis in this passage. Troilus’s opinion of the Greeks comes through clearly.
The Dry Salvages by T.S. Eliot
This wonderful poem, the third part of Eliot’s Four Quartets, was published during the air-raids on Great Britain. Eliot was in the area giving lectures at the time. The poem explores humankind’s role in the universe and their place in time. Life is depicted metaphorically with humankind traveling in a boat and the constant quest for knowledge keeping the boat from its destination. Consider these lines from the poem as an example of how Eliot use polyptoton to his advantage:
There is no end of it, the voiceless wailing,
No end to the withering of withered flowers,
To the movement of pain that is painless and motionless,
To the drift of the sea and the drifting wreckage,
The bone’s prayer to Death its God. Only the hardly, barely prayable
Prayer of the one Annunciation.
This is the sixth stanza in Part II of the poem. If a reader takes the time to look through the words in this passage, there are several interesting examples of the literary device. For example, “withering” and “withered” in line two and “painless” and “pain” in line three. Another is “drift” and “drifting” in line four. Finally, Eliot ends the stand with “prayer,” “prayable,” and “Prayer.”
Read other T.S. Eliot poems.
In this famous sonnet, also known as ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds,’ Shakespeare explores the nature of love and what “true love” is. The poem is one of 126 that the poet devoted to the Fair Youth, an unknown young man with whom the poet (or at least his speaker) appeared to be deeply infatuated. In this particular poem, the speaker says that love never changes, and if it does, it was not true or real in the first place. Here are lines one through five:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
In these lines, Shakespeare uses “alters” and “alteration” and “remover” and “remove,” great examples of polyptoton.
Explore William Shakespeare’s poetry.
Why Do Writers Use Polyptoton?
Writers make use of this literary device for several different reasons. It can add emphasis to a piece of writing, focusing the reader on a particular idea, action, or setting. For example, if a writer repeats several different instances of polyptoton in a sentence when describing a place, then the reader is going to pay better attention to it. These lines are going to stand out. They might also use to connect different ideas together. By using similar words, they can help a reader understand that one sentence, person, idea, action, etc., is connected to the next.
Related Literary Terms
- Antanaclasis: a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is used several times and the meaning changes.
- Aphorismus: occurs when a word’s use is called into question.
- Epizeuxis: a figure of speech that occurs when the writer repeats a word or phrase in immediate succession.
- Figure of Speech: created when a writer uses figurative language or that which has another meaning other than its basic definition.
- Metalepsis: a figure of speech that occurs when a writer uses a phrase or word in a new context.
- Metaphor: used to describe an object, person, situation, or action in a way that helps a reader understand it without using “like” or “as.”