Devon Strawn
Design + Computers


I came across a phrase recently that seemed simple enough:

“knitting sentences together”

This might look like a throwaway phrase. But I had a hunch that it was the kind of thing that started off life as shorthand for something deep, before being ‘telephone-gamed’ out the fringes where I first encountered it.

So I went looking for the source of that depth. Pulling on that particular sweater-thread led me to some unexpected places.

The second clue that I was onto something new was seeing an unfamiliar definition of ‘anaphora’:

“the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses”

That was quite different than the definition I was taught:

“the use of a word referring to or replacing a word used earlier in a sentence, to avoid repetition, such as do in I like it and so do they.”

That definition was so different that I wondered where it came from. So I kept digging.

I came across some examples of ‘knitting’ as ‘techniques for maintaining flow’:

If you dig deeper into this, you’ll find that there are so many tools for ‘knitting’. You’ll also find that those tools are so much more varied and well-studied than you might think. It’s kind of a wonder that so many of us manage to write so poorly when those particular subjects have been so well studied.

Ultimately, this led me to formal studies of rhetoric. To see how deep that particular rabbit hole goes, do a search for terms like ‘anadiplosis’, ‘antimetabole’, ‘chiasmus’, etc.

As a software engineer obsessed with abstractions and historical precedents, I love the formalisms of rhetoric. Understanding the precedents of named formal abstractions for things we use but take for granted is a key part of advancing as a computer scientist. I wonder to what extent that is true for formally studying rhetoric to advance as a writer?


Re-reading this article year after I originally wrote it, I realized that the two meanings of anaphora are in fact conceptually linked. Statistically, the use of anaphora as a way to compress a text means that the same ‘anaphora symbol’ (he, she, it, etc.) will be repeated much more frequently than the original object it refers to (proper noun, etc.). This is a kind of repetition, although not restricted to be at the beginning of each line as in the other meaning.