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The following sentence is from "The Last Leaf" by O. Henry.

An old, old ivy vine, gnarled and decayed at the roots, climbed half way up the brick wall.

Why did the writer use "an old, old vine" instead of "an old vine"?

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    Partly to fit the meter of the verse, but mostly for emphasis. There's nothing like repeating a word for this. Politicians use it all the time. – Mick Nov 6 '16 at 14:16
  • Repetition is usually for emphasis but let's see what who know would say. I wonder how come SE lets two people have the same words for an ID. – learner Nov 6 '16 at 14:16
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    Please note that there is always a space after a comma before the next word. It's "old, old", not "old,old". – Boann Nov 6 '16 at 18:08
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an old, old vine

is older than

an old vine

but not as old as

an old, old, old vine

Just as

I'm very, very sorry.

is much more sorry than just

I'm sorry.

O. Henry could have easily used

a very old vine

to maintain the meter, but the construction is used for emphasis.

Young children tend to do the same.

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In "folksy" stories and children's literature, repeating an adjective is rather like using the word "very". An "old, old vine" is a very old vine. The repetition is a way of intensifying the adjective.

Mr and Mrs Mouse lived in a tiny, tiny house at the edge of the forest.

This sort of repetition also occurs in conversation too.

Doctor, I got this sharp, sharp pain in my knee when I knelt down to tie my shoe.

Hello, Customer Service? We bought a table from your catalog two weeks ago, and it was delivered today. It has a deep, deep scratch which cannot be polished out. We need to arrange a return.

P.S. On the news coverage of the US elections on November 8, one of the reporters used the phrase:

... and he made an impassioned, impassioned plea ...

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From "The Last Leaf" by O. Henry

As Sue was sketching a pair of elegant horseshow riding trousers and a monocle of the figure of the hero, an Idaho cowboy, she heard a low sound, several times repeated. She went quickly to the bedside.

Johnsy's eyes were open wide. She was looking out the window and counting - counting backward.

"Twelve," she said, and little later "eleven"; and then "ten," and "nine"; and then "eight" and "seven", almost together.

Sue look solicitously out of the window. What was there to count? There was only a bare, dreary yard to be seen, and the blank side of the brick house twenty feet away. An old, old ivy vine, gnarled and decayed at the roots, climbed half way up the brick wall. The cold breath of autumn had stricken its leaves from the vine until its skeleton branches clung, almost bare, to the crumbling bricks.

"What is it, dear?" asked Sue.

"Six," said Johnsy, in almost a whisper. "They're falling faster now. Three days ago there were almost a hundred. It made my head ache to count them. But now it's easy. There goes another one. There are only five left now."

"Five what, dear? Tell your Sudie."

"Leaves. On the ivy vine. When the last one falls I must go, too. I've known that for three days. Didn't the doctor tell you?"

While it can be useful to explain a sentence or phrase by itself (and Peter's answer does a good job of this) it is also important to examine it in its full context. Above I include as much of the context of the story as is necessary to understand what is happening: Sue's friend Johnsy is dying from pneumonia, and she has (apparently) lost the will to fight. So she is counting the leaves as they fall from the "old, old" vine, like the hands of a clock slowly ticking away the moments of her life.

In this context, "old, old" puts extra emphasis on the bleak and moribund circumstance of the story. The vine is, of course, not just a vine but the symbol of Johnsy's life and health. If you read the rest of the story, the meaning of the vine and its leaves should be pretty obvious:

But, lo! after the beating rain and fierce gusts of wind that had endured through the livelong night, there yet stood out against the brick wall one ivy leaf. It was the last one on the vine. Still dark green near its stem, with its serrated edges tinted with the yellow of dissolution and decay, it hung bravely from the branch some twenty feet above the ground.

...

The day wore away, and even through the twilight they could see the lone ivy leaf clinging to its stem against the wall. And then, with the coming of the night the north wind was again loosed, while the rain still beat against the windows and pattered down from the low Dutch eaves.

When it was light enough Johnsy, the merciless, commanded that the shade be raised.

The ivy leaf was still there.

I won't give away any more of the story by telling you what eventually happens to the leaf -- it's a very short story, so I suggest reading it to the end.

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  • We must not stray into lit-crit in the answers we give here, Andrew. It's an old, old rule. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Nov 7 '16 at 10:34
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    @TRomano it seems to me a silly silly rule then. If the phrase was part of a campaign speech would it be legal for me to quote the relevant sections to establish context and refine meaning? Or is it only verboten when the context is "literature"? – Andrew Nov 7 '16 at 14:21
  • The context being literature is fine, IMO, and I've answered a number of questions where the literal meaning of a passage in a poem or novel is asked about. Where you stray into off-topic territory is In this context, "old, old" puts extra emphasis on the bleak and moribund circumstance of the story. The vine is, of course, not just a vine but the symbol of Johnsy's life and health. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Nov 7 '16 at 16:07
  • @TRomano this is probably a better conversation for /meta. – Andrew Nov 7 '16 at 16:42

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