Alliteration (uh-lit-uh-RAY-shun) is the deliberate repetition of a sound at the beginning of two or more words, stressed syllables, or both. The word derives from the Medieval Latin word alliteratio. The English word alliteration was first used in the 17th century.
Because it joins words together in a similar way to rhyme, alliteration is sometimes referred to as head rhyme or initial rhyme.
How Alliterations Are Formed
Alliterative repetition must occur within a short sequence of words but not necessarily in consecutive words—other words may appear in between.
- “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers”
- “White Walker”
- “Sweet Thames, run softly, til I end my song”
As the above examples show, a repeated sound usually involves a repeated letter. But this isn’t always the case:
- “Kick the cat”
- “Circus showman”
The repeated sound can also be formed by more than one letter:
- “Bring me the abridged brief”
- “The sheer shock of it”
Alliteration usually involves repeated consonant sounds, but vowel sounds can also alliterate. However, while consonant letters nearly always make the same sound, vowels may evoke different sounds in different words.
Considering the following examples:
- “Evil Enid eats eels”
- “Annoying Amy’s awesome acid”
To most literary scholars, the second phrase isn’t an example of alliteration because the A sound differs in every word. But outside a literary context, many people would say that the example alliterates.
Where Alliterative Sounds Occur
Most agree that alliteration occurs whether the repeated sound appears at the beginning of a word, at the beginning of a stressed syllable, or both:
- “Dolores was declared deceased” (initial sound of words)
- “They eloped alone to Bel” (initial sound of stressed syllables)
- “Run around the revolting orangutan” (both)
However, in a traditional, poetic alliteration, the repeated sounds must appear at the beginning of stressed syllables. By this definition, the first example above contains no alliteration, and in the third example, the r of revolting doesn’t alliterate. When discussing poetry written prior to the 20th century (and some modern poetry), this stricter definition of alliteration applies.
Alliteration vs Consonance and Assonance
There are two other literary devices that also deal with repetitious sounds.
Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds within a short sequence of words. The following example contains no alliteration but two sets of consonant sounds (s and l):
- “Alice is always blameless.”
Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds within a short sequence of words. Different vowel letters can produce the same sound, as in the following example:
- “The group boos true news”
The Purpose of Alliteration
Writers use alliteration for a range of reasons. It can make writing more beautiful and memorable, and because it creates audible effects, alliteration enhances writing’s musical qualities. For this reason, this device is especially common in poetry, which pays closer attention to the effects of rhythm and rhyme than prose.
There are several more specific reasons for using alliteration.
- To create onomatopoeic effects, which mimic the sound of the thing being described:
- “The ice was all around:/It cracked and growled, and roared and howled” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner)
- To emphasise ideas or images:
- “And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting” (Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven”)
- To tie together two parts of an image that don’t obviously go together:
- “Fast-running floors […] A wave drops like a wall” (Philip Larkin, “Absences”)
- To make a phrase memorable and catchy.
- Many aphorisms are alliterative: What’s good for the goose is good for the gander; Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill; Practice makes perfect
- This is particularly common in book titles, like John Updike’s Rabbit series, with titles like: Rabbit, Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich, Rabbit at Rest, and Rabbit Remembered.
- To make writing sound musical:
- “Perhaps the self-same song that found a path/Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,/She stood in tears amid the alien corn” (John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale”)
- To enhance a rhythmic effect by creating extra emphasis on stressed syllables:
- “Suddenly starting from his ambush/ Followed fast those bloody footprints” (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Song of Hiawatha)
Alliteration as a Poetic Form
In early English poetry, alliteration was used to structure poems according to strict rules, not unlike the way rhyme is used in later poetry. Poetry written this way is called alliterative verse or alliterative poetry.
In an alliterative poem, each line must have at least three alliterating stressed syllables:
- “A feir feld full of folk fond I þer bitwene,/Of alle maner of men, þe mene and þe riche” (William Langland, Piers Plowman)
Beowulf is written in alliterative verse, along with many of the most important works of medieval English poetry, including Piers Plowman and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Alliteration’s Many Uses in Media
Alliterations are found in many different media formats.
Books for young readers often contain alliteration to help children learn and remember words. Younger readers respond strongly to the musical sounds that alliteration creates.
Many popular children’s picture books have alliterating titles.
- Alligators All Around by Maurice Sendak
- If You Give A Moose A Muffin by Laura Numeroff
- Big Bad Bunny by Franny Billingsley
- The Tiger Who Came To Tea by Judith Kerr
Branding and Advertising
Because alliteration makes short phrases memorable and satisfying to repeat, it’s a common marketing technique. The list of alliterating brand names, slogans, and jingles is extensive, and includes:
- Kit Kat
- Chuck E. Cheese
- Rolls Royce
- Best Buy
- Gorilla Glass
- American Apparel
- Pick ‘n’ Pay
- “Designed for Driving Pleasure” (BMW)
- “Every kiss begins with Kay” (Kay Jewelers)
- “Get the door, it’s Domino’s!” (Domino’s Pizza)
- “Pick up a Penguin” (Penguin Biscuits)
- “Be the Best” (Royal Navy)
Alliteration in song lyrics functions similarly to rhyme: it ties lines together in a satisfying way. Hip-hop frequently incorporates complex patterns of alliteration that involve multiple repeating sounds.
- “With your mercury mouth in the missionary times” (Bob Dylan, “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”)
- “I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils” (Beyoncé, “Formation”)
- “To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark dock,/In a pestilential prison, with a lifelong lock” (Gilbert & Sullivan, The Mikado)
- “Feel me now, listen/Momma loved me, pop left me/Mickey fed me, and he dressed me/Eric fought me, made me tougher” (Jay-Z, “Blueprint”)
Speeches employ alliteration to create memorable soundbites and emphasize important points:
- “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” (Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963 Lincoln Memorial speech)
- “Let it be our cause to give that child a happy home, a healthy family, and a hopeful future” (Bill Clinton, 1992 DNC Acceptance Address)
Tongue twisters are a playful sequence of words or sounds that are difficult to say or repeat quickly. Alliteration helps tangle up these sequences. Because the initial consonant sound (or sounds) are placed in front of a shifting sequence of consonant and vowel sounds, tongue twisters are easily mixed up when said aloud.
- “She sells seashells by the seashore”
- “How much dew does a dewdrop drop, if dewdrops do drop dew?”
- “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood?”
Examples of Alliteration in Literature
1. Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow
Pynchon’s novel begins with a description of a V2 missile in flight:
“A screaming came across the sky.”
As well as making Pynchon’s opening line punchy and memorable, the alliteration of sk and k sounds mimics the harsh noise of a rocket.
2. William Shakespeare, “Sonnet 30”
The sonnet begins with the narrator describing how happy memories of the past make him sad in the present:
“When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste”
The repeated s and w sounds mimic crying, a sound Shakespeare evokes with the alliterative words sigh and wail.
3. Toni Morrison, Beloved
Baby Suggs, a formerly enslaved woman, explains to her daughter-in-law Sethe that Sethe is lucky not to have lost as many children as Baby Suggs has:
“My first-born. All I can remember of her is how she loved the burned bottom of bread. Can you beat that?”
Baby Suggs’s voice becomes slow and emphatic with grief through the repeated heavy b sounds.
4. Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ode To The West Wind”
Shelley’s poem opens by addressing the wind:
“O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being”
To form w and b sounds, air is forcefully expelled from the mouth. The high concentration of those sounds in this line creates a windy effect.
5. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
Ellison’s black protagonist discusses how white people choose not to see him:
“Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus side-shows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass.”
The repeated hissing s sounds convey the narrator’s rage and frustration.
6. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
Atwood’s protagonist Offred describes the repressive conditions at the Red Center where she was trained to be a Handmaid:
“We learned to whisper almost without sound. In the semi-darkness we could stretch out our arms, when the Aunts weren’t looking”
The repeated w sounds mimic the sound of whispering.
7. J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
This is the opening line of Rowling’s first Harry Potter novel:
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
The repeated p creates an emphatic flow, suggesting how firmly the Dursleys believe they are normal (and making readers wonder if they have something to hide).
Further Resources on Alliteration
With over 100 examples, this list from a marketing blog demonstrates how widespread alliteration is in brand names, titles, and slogans.
Pallman’s Alliteration Guide helps writers in any genre find suitable alliterations to enhance poetry, prose, or essays.