Alliteration: What Is It and How to Use It in Your Writing
- What is alliteration?
- Examples of alliteration: how to use the literary device
- Why use alliteration in your writing?
Alliteration is a literary device and describes the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of consecutive words. Big bucks, cool cat, or zig-zag are examples of alliteration. Words and phrases with alliteration can create rhythm and melody, following a certain stress pattern. We use alliteration in writing and speech to draw attention to expressions, make memorable names and phrases, and elicit a response from readers and listeners.
Let’s look at how we define alliteration, how it differs from other figures of speech, and how you can use it effectively in your writing!
What is alliteration?
Alliteration is also known as head rhyme or initial rhyme, which already gives you a hint of the key component of this figure of speech. In alliteration, a series of words repeat the same or similar sounds. The repetition is of initial consonant sounds: the sound occurs in the first letter, or in the stressed syllable of the alliterative word. The sequence of alliterative words can be broken up by a word in between.
Peter put peppers on plates is a repetition of “p” sounds.
Seven sisters slept soundly on the sand is a repetition of “s” sounds.
Tiny Tim took tons of time to tame is a repetition of “t” sounds.
The following rules govern alliteration:
- Alliteration repeats sounds, not letters. The first letter in a phrase doesn’t have to be identical, they only have to produce the same or close enough sounds, such as “c” and “k”, for example. Clown and Klingon are alliterative.
- As in the above examples, stop words or short words such as “the”, “a”, or “of” can be part of the phrase and we still call it alliteration.
- There is a minor difference between the first and the stressed syllable. Kind king repeats a “k” sound, while David declares seems to repeat a “d” sound. However, the sound doesn’t occur in the stressed, second syllable. Clause declared can therefore be considered a “cl” sound repetition because, in the second word, the sound occurs in the stressed syllable. Both versions of alliteration are accepted.
- Similarly, it’s the clusters of consonants which are important to alliteration: “sp,” “st,” and “sk” all have unique sounds and are not alliterative. Spill, skill, still are rhymes, but not head rhymes. However, there are examples where the initial sound can be close enough.
- Alliteration typically occurs with the repetition of consonant sounds. But what about initial vowels? In today’s usage, we call these alliterations as well—again, given that the sound is close enough. American Airlines is alliterative, Open Office is not.
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Alliteration as a figure of speech
Figurative language uses words and expressions to signify something beyond the literal meaning and to appeal to the senses of the listener or reader. Alliteration is primarily a sound device and doesn’t involve figures of speech.
Yet alliteration can add to the words beyond their meaning: the device can emphasize, evoke and enhance feelings, and even create meaning. For example, sounds can tap, howl, flow, stutter, screech, hiss, or soothe. Similar to a simile or metaphor, the sounds of the words can make us compare them to something else.
How does alliteration compare to assonance and consonance?
Assonance and consonance are like alliteration because they also repeat sounds. However, in both cases, the repetition doesn’t take place at the beginning of the word, or in the stressed syllable.
Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds across a series of words. The repetition can occur anywhere within each word. Assonance is the same concept, but with vowel sounds: “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain” (from My Fair Lady). For both consonance and assonance, we allow greater space between the sounds. Babbling babies is alliteration, but The Baby does not speak but babble is consonance.
Onomatopoeia describes words and sometimes phrases which in their sound imitate the very thing they describe. The words we use to mimic animal sounds are common examples, such as meow and moo. Alliterative phrases can be onomatopoetic when they, too, sound like the thing to which they refer. Time ticks, takes toll has the tick-tock rhythm of a clock, swinging back and forth like a pendulum.
Etymology of the term
The first use of alliteration with today’s definition seems to have appeared at the beginning of the 17th century. We attribute the term itself to the Italian humanist Giovanni Pontano and his work printed in the 16th century.
The word itself borrows from Latin: the preposition ad means “to, near” and litera means “letter.” Though the literal meaning suggests the proximity of letters, keep in mind that alliteration refers to the repeated sounds different letters can make.
Examples of alliteration: how to use the literary device
Among literary devices, alliteration is very accessible in the sense that it facilitates reading and that we feel its immediate effect merely by pronouncing or reading the alliterative words. Writers use alliteration to give a sensation of flow, and craft musical verses or metrical patterns with an impact of tension, satisfaction, and even relaxation.
Below you’ll find examples of alliterative phrases from literature, but also advertising, and common usage.
Examples of alliteration in literature
Poet and playwright William Shakespeare uses alliterative wording in the Prologue of his play Romeo and Juliet:
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life; Whose misadventured piteous overthrows Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.
In four lines, Shakespeare foreshadows the events of the tragedy, hitting all the major marks of the plot. But the pairings in his alliterations also pick up the themes of the play and contrast the opposing forces. The “f” sounds associate fatal and foes, referencing the feuding families, Capulet and Montague; the “l” sounds connect lovers with life, that is Romeo and Juliet, but only their death ends the conflict, dooming them to death, as foretold by the “d” sounds.
English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge published The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in 1798. Exploratory voyages such as those of James Cook might have been a source of inspiration. The poem recounts a sailor’s adventures, as told by a mariner to a wedding guest, whose reactions change as the story unfolds. Coleridge uses a change in language, personification, and repetition, to elicit these in various parts of the poem.
The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew, The furrow followed free; We were the first that ever burst Into that silent sea.
The rhythm of that passage recalls fanciful ballads of a time before Coleridge. It also mimics the ebb and flow of the sea itself. The soft and still “s” sounds at the end create the image of an undisturbed sea, while the harsher “f” and “b” sounds instill a forward-driven rhythm.
The Raven is arguably the most famous work by poet Edgar Allan Poe. He uses alliteration in the first stanza to create a distinct mood, only to break it up by the disturbance of the poem’s subject bird:
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore— While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door. “’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door— Only this and nothing more.”
“Weak and weary” and “nodded, nearly napping” have exactly that effect, almost putting us to sleep. All the greater is the surprise when the tapping occurs, rattling us. Poe wakes us up with the harsh, short, and bursting sounds contained within “‘Tis some visitor.”
Famous alliterative names and pop culture characters
Character names from comic books, children’s books, TV shows, movie franchises, and pop culture often use alliteration to create memorable heroes and villains and brand names that stick in your mind and roll off the tongue. Here are a few alliterative character names:
- Bob the Builder
- Bruce Banner
- Bugs Bunny
- Buster Baxter
- Clark Kent
- Daffy Duck, Daisy Duck, Donald Duck
- Fred Flintstone
- Green Goblin
- Jessica Jones
- Kris Kringle
- Lois Lane
- Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse
- Miss Marple
- Peppa Pig
- Peter Parker
- Phineas and Ferb
- Pig Pen
- Shaun the Sheep
- Silver Surfer
- Spongebob Squarepants
- The Fantastic Four
- Wade Wilson
- The Wicked Witch of the West
- Wonder Woman
Real-life personalities can also have alliterative names: Jesse Jackson, Katie Couric, Kim Kardashian, Marilyn Monroe, Ronald Reagan, Ryan Reynolds, Sammy Sosa, William Wordsworth, Janis Joplin, or Herbie Hancock. The device is also popular for pseudonyms, stage, artist, and band names, or alter egos: Marilyn Manson, Dirk Diggler, Beastie Boys, Counting Crows, or Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
Use of alliteration in branding and marketing
Companies make use of alliteration to craft memorable brand names. Thanks to the head rhyme, these are harder to forget and we get a certain satisfaction from hearing them or saying them out loud. Marketers who write advertising copy like alliterative phrases to grab the attention of the audience:
- Intel inside
- Don't dream it. Drive it.
- Snickers satisfies
- Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s Maybelline
- The best four by four by far
- Welcome to the World Wide Wow
Many brand names and products feature repetition of consonant sounds:
- Bed Bath & Beyond
- Best Buy
- Canon Camera
- Chuck E. Cheese
- Dippin’ Dots
- Dunkin' Donuts
- Hip Hop
- House Hunters
- Kit Kat
- Krispy Kreme
- Park Place
- Paw Patrol
- Polly Pocket
- Rainbow Room
- Tik Tok
- Tonka Trucks
- Weight Watchers
Common usage of alliteration
We often use alliterative phrases in everyday speech, unconsciously or unintentionally. Some expressions simply stick around, precisely because they are so memorable figures of speech. However, many of these are clichés that readers might recognize as empty or overused when they appear in writing, such as “right as rain” or “busy as a bee.”
- big business
- as good as gone
- last laugh
- rocky road, rough ride
- quick question
- high heaven
- picture perfect
Song lyrics for children’s songs and nursery rhymes use alliteration also for memorability, yet in tongue twisters, the effect of repetition and rhyme creates difficulty in pronunciation:
- Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, A peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked; If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, Where’s the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?
- How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
- Betty Botter Bought Some Butter
- Sally sells seashells by the seashore
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Why use alliteration in your writing?
Martin Luther King, Jr. used the alliterative phrase “content of their character” in a most memorable passage of his famous I have a dream speech. We associate alliteration closely with rhetorics, speeches, poetry, and poetic language. Still, you can use this literary device in more profane and commercial ways, even as a scriptwriter. Consider the following alliterative titles of movies and TV shows:
- Bad Boys
- War of the Worlds
- Rat Race
- Maid in Manhattan
- Big Brother
- Breaking Bad
- Family Feud
- Royal Rumble
- Batman Beyond
- Peter Pan
- Donnie Darko
- Dawn of the Dead
- Saving Silverman
From Walter White to Matt Murdoch, from Hannah Horvath to Liz Lemon, characters such as Shoshanna Shapiro, Steve Stifler, or Don Draper have alliterative names that highlight their eccentricity, quirkiness, or other traits.
You can use the unique stress patterns of alliteration to create moments of comical relief, moody gloom, witty comebacks, gravity, melodious and musical declarations, or flowery and interesting dialog. Let these come from the characters or flow from the situation, use alliteration sparsely to highlight exceptional moments, and leave it out when in doubt. Not every movie needs a V for Vendetta monologue!