What Is Alliteration?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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Alliteration is the repetition of an initial consonant sound in successive words, as in "a peck of pickled peppers." Adjective: alliterative. Also known as head rhyme, initial rhyme, and front rhyme.

As J.R.R. Tolkien observed, alliteration "depends not on letters but on sounds." Thus the phrase know-nothing is alliterative, but climate change is not.*

Although alliteration is often associated with literary language, it also appears in many common idioms and advertising slogans.

 

The Lighter Side of Alliteration:

See Examples and Observations below.

Etymology

From the Latin, "putting letters together"

Examples

  • "My father brought to conversations a cavernous capacity for caring that dismayed strangers."
  • "Come see the softer side of Sears."
  • "Good men are gruff and grumpy, cranky, crabbed, and cross."
  • "[Alliteration is] a device that many writers employ to create a treasure trove of tried-and-true, bread-and-butter, bigger-and-better, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, do-or-die, footloose-and-fancy-free, larger-than-life, cream-of-the-crop titles."
    (Edwin Newman, quoted by Jim Fisher in The Writer's Quotebook: 500 Authors on Creativity, Craft, and the Writing Life. Rutgers University Press, 2006)

    Observations

    • "Like many another literary device, alliteration is best used sparingly, serendipity being a better inspiration--as in the Daily Mirror's LEGGY LOVELY LANDS UP LEGLESS--than midnight oil. It is to be doubted whether Cigarette-sucking Henry Cecil was sending up smoke signals before a steward's inquiry cleared his flying filly came to a Star sports sub in a frenzied flash."
    • "Alliteration, or front rhyme, has been traditionally more acceptable in prose than end-rhyme but both do the same thing--capitalize on chance... This powerful glue can connect elements without a logical relationship."
    • "[T]here are only about 20 consonant sounds in English, and most of them get repeated fairly often anyway. If you find a repetition of /s/ in a text, it may go unnoticed in normal reading, because /s/ is very common in English. So when writers want to draw attention to sounds, they are more likely to use certain sounds and place them in certain prominent positions. Some sounds stand out more than others--for instance those that are made by stopping the airstream completely with your tongue or lips and then releasing the air. The sounds in this class are made for the letters p, b, m, n, t, d, k, and g..."

    The Lighter Side of Alliteration

    • "Feminism's future must be proud, positive, powerful, perseverant and, whenever possible, alliterative."

    * Not everyone agrees with Tolkien. For example, in his book An Appeal to Reason (2008), British politician Nigel Lawson states his preference for "the term 'global warming' rather than the attractively alliterative weasel words, 'climate change.'"

    Pronunciation

    ah-lit-err-RAY-shun

    Sources

    John Updike, The Centaur, 1962

    Advertising Slogan

    Clement Freud

    Keith Waterhouse, Waterhouse on Newspaper Style, rev. ed. Revel Barker, 2010

    Richard Lanham, Analyzing Prose. Continuum, 2003

    Miss Piggy, on accepting a trailblazer award from the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, June 2015

    Greg Myers, Words in Ads. Routledge, 1994

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    Your Citation
    Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Alliteration?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 18, 2017, thoughtco.com/alliteration-definition-1692387. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, April 18). What Is Alliteration? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/alliteration-definition-1692387 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Alliteration?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/alliteration-definition-1692387 (accessed December 13, 2017).