Oftentimes when people want to emphasize something, an idea is repeated three times, but without closing it as a full sentence. I am not sure how to write this in a formal essay.

Here is my example:

The effect is that radioisotopes are often thought of as something to be frightened of, something with ominous powers, something that is an unseen ninja equipped with a poison beam gun.

You see the effect I am trying to make with the repetition of the word "something"; is there any proper grammar for this instance?

  • 2
    I would leave out "something that is" in the third one. If there is a build-up, if you end with the most poignant description, it is a climax, which is the name of a rhetorical figure. Commented Jan 3, 2014 at 23:15
  • Used properly as @Cerberus suggests I think it is a very effective rhetorical device and one worth cultivating. I am rather more concerned about some of your English. 'Often times', which I realise is 'often times' used is a verbose way of simply saying 'often'. Further, you say something 'is repeated three times in repetition'. That seems to me a repetitive use of 'repeat/repetition'.
    – WS2
    Commented Jan 3, 2014 at 23:29
  • 1
    @Klik: I think it would be slightly ridiculous to compare anything to an unseen ninja equipped with a poison beam gun in any serious academic context. Apart from "adolescent humour", it doesn't really have anything going for it (and I'm somewhat sceptical about the possibility of poison beam gun having even a hypothetical referent! :) Commented Jan 4, 2014 at 0:43
  • 1
    @Cerberus: Radiation poisoning is indeed common (though that term also includes poisoning due to ingestion of radioactive substances, obviously). But there's only a single instance of a poison ray in Google Books (and none at all of a poison beam). Anyway, my substantive point remains that taken as a whole, OP's sample text isn't what one would expect in a university level essay (I hope! :) Commented Jan 4, 2014 at 2:23
  • 1
    @Klik: I see you hope to become an engineer, so I guess essay writing is more of a "hobby". If the primary aim of your writing is to deliver information, Susan's answer here is useful to bear in mind. If it's to entertain, Rebecca's answer is excellent advice - but if you're looking for more in that vein, you should consider asking on writers.SE Commented Jan 4, 2014 at 14:05

3 Answers 3


Yes, when you repeat a word at the beginning of successive phrases, there is a proper grammar to use. Specifically, you need to make sure that the phrases that follow the repeated words are expressed in a similar form or pattern. This is parallel construction. In your sentence, part of getting the parallelism right means making sure that each phrase describes the same thing.

Your first two “something” clauses are okay -- radioisotopes are “something to be frightened of, something with ominous powers.” But the third clause doesn’t work -- “something that is an unseen ninja equipped with a poison beam gun.” The pattern of the words there is wholly different, and the metaphor becomes strained to the point of incoherence. Radioisotopes aren’t like a ninja. If you must use the metaphor, they are more like the beam emitted by your ninja’s gun.

The ninja metaphor isn't really worth saving, but if you mean to keep it, try repeating “something” just once and then make the metaphor explicit:

The effect is that radioisotopes are often thought of as something to be frightened of, something with ominous powers, like rays from the gun of an unseen ninja.

  • I appreciate your answer. To clarify, the reason I used the metaphor as an unseen ninja firing a beam of poison is because radioisotopes are indistinguishable from every other piece of matter except that they are unstable and emit radiation. So, in a way they are like an unseen ninja, because they are deadly, but you cannot detect their presence. They are the ones firing the beam gun because it is the radioisotopes that decay and emit radiation (the poison beam gun). It's all just for play in any case, but I'm glad to understand the grammar behind the sentence. Thanks for that.
    – Klik
    Commented Jan 4, 2014 at 4:12
  • @Klik, I see your point about the radioisotopes being more like the ninja than like the rays. Thanks for explaining this.
    – user53907
    Commented Jan 4, 2014 at 7:10
  • 1
    Metaphors that have substantial overlap with the literal referent don't work ('That lion is a real tiger'). Commented Jan 4, 2014 at 16:09
  • Just for fun: The presence of the word like makes the ninja device a simile, not a metaphor, however strained or unstrained, good or bad. Commented Jan 17, 2015 at 12:21

The idea of emphasizing something by repeating it three times is not meant to imply one is to do so in the same sentence.

It is usually taught in Composition:

Use the idea in your opening paragraph. Explain it in the body. use it again in the summary.

Please see the rule of three in Wikipedia.

  • I think Klik is talking about a figure of speech or rhetorical device, not about this way of organising writing.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jan 4, 2014 at 1:47
  • The rule of three: 1: Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em. 2: Tell 'em. 3: Tell 'em what you told 'em Commented Jan 4, 2014 at 2:26

To me your figure of speech is an anaphora(It was the first purpose of your question anyway...)

  • Hi, Yvo, and welcome. It would be a better answer if you added a definition. :-) The site tour and the help center will provide guidance on how to use this site. Commented Jan 17, 2015 at 14:02
  • 1
    @medica Nice smilie :) The reception for newbies on here has definitely been improving on here over the last few months. Thanks! Commented Jan 17, 2015 at 16:40

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.