Onomatopoeia, Alliteration, and Rhyme Help (page 2)

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Sep 15, 2011


Alliteration is the name for neighboring words with the same beginning sound. In my description of garbage collection day in Los Angeles there are a few uses of alliteration: "slams and smashes," "feet to the floor," "helicopter hurls," and "shaking and shattering." Whether the words start with soft sounds or hard sounds, having the beginning sound repeat evokes feeling as well as supplies energy to a description, making it memorable.

Here are examples of alliteration from literature:

Try This

Look at what you wrote describing a quiet or a noisy place. Notice any alliteration that entered the writing. See if you can expand on what you started.

Next, think about a sound from childhood that you heard often that you found uncomfortable: the sound of pots clanging as your mother looked for just the right one, the sound of doors slamming or doors squeaking, the sound of your father's razor blade tapping against the porcelain sink, the sound of a drill when you were at the dentist's office. Or think of sounds you found comforting: the hum of your mother's Mixmaster as she mixed ingredients for a cake, the chime of the doorbell on Saturday morning that meant your favorite uncle was arriving, the thunk of the newspaper landing at your door early in the morning, the sound of Sunday football games on TV when you gathered with cousins to watch.

With a specific image in mind, write a description of yourself hearing the sound and use alliteration as much as you can. Some of the alliteration will be to get the sound of your experience in the readers' ears. And some of the alliteration you use will tell readers about the emotions of the time:

I sat in the dentist's chair, every inch of my eight-year-old self braced against what I knew was coming because I'd been there before. My hands on the armrest made a clench to calm the cracking sound I knew I'd hear inside my head. This was the third baby tooth he'd taken since the roots hadn't dissolved and the big teeth were blocked and held back from their rightful place.


Most of us were brought up on limericks, nursery rhymes and greeting card verse and can easily identify the words that rhyme in the traditional way, from the "blue" and "you" in "Roses are red/Violets are blue,/Sugar is sweet,/And so are you" to the rhyming "sicken" and "thicken", "die" and "cry" in Mark Twain's lampoon in Huckleberry Finn (

      And did young Stephen sicken,
      And did young Stephen die?
      And did the sad hearts thicken,
      And did the mourners cry?

Our ears are also tuned to the entertaining sound of words inside lines rhyming fully: I did cry because the fly/was ready to eat the meat.

When we chant the famous nursery rhyme "Hickory Dickory Dock," (www. Dltk we hear a familiar full rhyme in the first and second words and then at the ends of line one and two, but there is also a more subtle rhyme, one we call a slant rhyme, in the third and fourth line endings:

      Hickory dickory dock
      The mouse ran up the clock.
      The clock struck one,
      The mouse ran down,
      Hickory, dickory, dock

"One" and "down" rhyme because of their vowel sounds, the long "o" in one and the "ow" sound in down. This kind of slant rhyme is called assonance. When the consonants that begin or end words with stressed syllables rhyme as in "clock" and "struck," the slant rhyme is called consonance. Some more examples: "Or" and "horn" create a slant rhyme that uses assonance; "blanket" and "forget" create a slant rhyme that uses consonance. It gets more complicated with other terms that further define how many parts of the words rhyme, but understanding that insides and outsides of words can rhyme will help you bring good sound to your writing and is enough of an understanding to work with effectively as a writer.

Most writers today prefer slant rhyme to full rhyme. Full rhymes are thought to easily detract from the emotional message of writing because they become chimey and sing-songy. It may be that in times past full rhyme was a means to remembering what one heard; the change in what writers and readers favor is probably due to the fact that today we usually read rather than listen to writing. It may also be that the subtle sound of slant rhyme brings more pleasure because this sounds modern and sophisticated.

Here are a few lines from Richard Hugo's poem "Letter to Snyder from Montana" (, which appeared in 31 Letters and 13 Dreams, now a part of Hugo's collected works, Making Certain It Goes On. These lines convey feeling with slant rhyme at both the line endings and in the interior of lines, and there is onomatopoeia and alliteration.

      Dear Gary: As soon as you'd gone winter snapped shut again
      on Missoula. Right now snow from the east and last night
      cold enough to arrest the melting of ice.

"Again," "night" and "ice" employ slant rhyme in line endings. "Soon" and "you'd," and "Now" and "snow" and "east" and "last" employ slant rhyme in the interiors of the lines. Of course "snapped shut" employs both onomatopoeia and alliteration.

Look at lines from another of Hugo's poems. "Letter to Wagoner from Port Townsend" is also from 31 Letters and 13 Dreams:

      all said, this is my soul, the salmon rolling in the strait
      and salt air loaded with cream for our breathing.
      And around the bend a way, Dungeness Spit. I don't need

Can you identify the long e sound of the vowels rhyming in the last two line endings? Do you notice the way five words that start with "s" come close together, causing alliterative sound—said, soul, salmon, strait, salt?

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