What Is Euphony in Prose?

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In prose, euphony is the harmonious arrangement of sounds in a text, whether spoken aloud or read silently. Adjectives: euphonic and euphonious. Contrast with cacophony.

In our time, notes Lynne Pearce, euphony is a "much neglected aspect of both spoken and written discourse"; however, "classical rhetoricians regarded 'sentence euphony' . . . as of paramount importance" (The Rhetorics of Feminism, 2003)


From the Greek, "good" + "sound"

Examples and Observations

  • "Euphony is a term applied to language which strikes the ear as smooth, pleasant, and musical . . .. However, . . . what seems to be a purely auditory agreeableness [may be] due more to the significance of the words, conjoined with the ease and pleasure of the physical act of enunciating the sequence of the speech sounds."
    (M.H. Abrams and Geoffrey Galt Harpham, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 11th ed. Cengage, 2015)
  • "Euphony guides word choice, but it is not an objective concept. One listener may find the phrase notorious notations amusing, while another finds it irritating."
    (Bryan A. Garner, Garner's Modern American Usage. Oxford University Press, 2009
  • James Joyce and the Play of Sounds
    "The suggestion of verse tends to be increased in [James] Joyce's long unpunctuated or lightly punctuated sentences by a frequent play of sounds. . . .
    "One often senses that Joyce carefully chose and arranged words to produce abundant consonant clusters:
    The empty castle car fronted them at rest in Essex gate. (10.992)
    Stephen withstood the bane of miscreant eyes glinting stern under wrinkled brows. (9.373-74)" (John Porter Houston, Joyce and Prose: An Exploration of the Language of Ulysses. Associated University Presses, 1989)
  • Poe's Soundscapes
    - "In [Edgar Allan Poe's] lifetime, the short story had not yet coalesced into a separate prose form. Poe considered that sounds of words serving as the basis for poetry should bleed into the prose form and vice versa. He conceived of a literary text with its own soundscape, not merely through the harmonies of words, but with an 'aural' dimension essentially 'playing' in the background. . . .
    "[In the short story 'The Premature Burial'] Poe spends his energy developing a rich symphony of sounds serving essentially as background noises, a 'soundtrack' accompanying the action. Readers do not hear distinctive sounds of people talking, but the background speaks for them. Bells chime, hearts thud, furniture scrapes, and women shriek. Poe does not need to mimic sounds of voices in discursive speech when he can achieve this sound dimension by other means. There is a reason Emerson once referred to Poe as 'the jingle man.'"
    (Christine A. Jackson, The Tell-Tale Art: Poe in Modern Popular Culture. McFarland, 2012)
    - "Scarcely, in truth, is a graveyard ever encroached upon, for any purpose, to any great extent, that skeletons are not found in postures which suggest the most fearful of suspicions.
    "Fearful indeed the suspicion—but more fearful the doom! It may be asserted, without hesitation, that no event is so terribly well adapted to inspire the supremeness of bodily and of mental distress, as is burial before death. The unendurable oppression of the lungs—the stifling fumes of the damp earth—the clinging to the death garments—the rigid embrace of the narrow house— the blackness of the absolute Night—the silence like a sea that overwhelms—the unseen but palpable presence of the Conqueror Worm—these things, with thoughts of the air and grass above, with memory of dear friends who would fly to save us if but informed of our fate, and with consciousness that of this fate they can never be informed—that our hopeless portion is that of the really dead—these considerations, I say, carry into the heart, which still palpitates, a degree of appalling and intolerable horror from which the most daring imagination must recoil. We know of nothing so agonizing upon Earth—we can dream of nothing half so hideous in the realms of the nethermost Hell."
    (Edgar Allan Poe, "The Premature Burial," 1844
  • A Matter for the Ear and for the Mind
    - "The euphony and rhythm of sentences undoubtedly play a part in the communicative and persuasive process--especially in producing emotional effects--but students would be ill advised to spend a great deal of time learning a system for scanning prose sentences. Euphony and rhythm are largely a matter for the ear, and students would do just as well to read their prose aloud to catch awkward rhythms, clashing vowel and consonant combinations (as in that five-word phrase), and distracting jingles. . . . The sentence that is difficult to enunciate is often a grammatically or rhetorically defective sentence."
    (Edward P.J. Corbett and Robert J. Connors, Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, 4th ed. Oxford University Press, 1999)
    - "What we perceive as euphony could be more than pleasant feelings due to a more regular distribution of sounds and sound features. It could partly ensue from preconscious and unconscious associations elicited by some articulatory or acoustic characteristics of sound sequences that convey along with the sentence some secondary, more confidential information."
    (Ivan Fonagy, Languages Within Language: An Evolutive Approach. John Benjamins, 2001)
  • Gorgias on Euphony (5th Century BC)
    "One of Gorgias' legacies, as it is widely thought, is the introduction of rhythm and poetic style to the art of words. . . .
    "Gorgias . . . blurred the distinctions between lyrical poetry and rhetoric. As Charles P. Segal notes, 'Gorgias, in fact, transfers the emotive devices and effects of poetry to his own prose, and in doing so he brings within the competence of the rhetoric the power to move the psyche by those suprarational forces which Damon is said to have discerned in the rhythm and harmony of the formal structures of music' (1972: 127). . . .
    "In his remarkable study of euphony and the Greek language, W.B. Stanford notes that Gorgias 'showed how elaborately and effectively a prose-speaker could use effects of rhythm and assonance to influence his audience' (1967: 9). Gorgias is thus the most musical of the sophists."
    (Debra Hawhee, Bodily Arts: Rhetoric and Athletics in Ancient Greece. University of Texas Press, 2004
  • Longinus on Euphony (1st Century AD)
    "[In the treatise On the Sublime] Longinus treats of various kinds of figures and tropes that lend sublimity to expression. In 30-38, he discusses nobility of diction; and at 39-42 elevated synthesis, including consideration of word order, rhythm, and euphony. All combine to produce not just a special style but a special effect. Longinus displays his admiration for both pungent gravity and rich solemnity, but he goes further to unite such stylistic qualities under a moral, not just a literary, ideal. On the one hand, therefore, we see in his discussion of techniques a constant emphasis on the presence of pathos and the importance of occasion (kairos) as conditions of success, but he balances this potentially irrationalist approach--reminiscent of Gorgianic rhetoric--with the insistence that, in effect, the true source of sublimity is in the character of 'the good man skilled in speaking.'"
    (Thomas Conley, Rhetoric in the European Tradition. University of Chicago Press, 1990)
  • Euphonic Advice
    - "Pleasantness of sound, or Euphony, as it is called, is best secured by avoiding the use of words, or combinations of words, which are difficult to pronounce. The most melodious words are such as contain a blending of vowels and consonants, especially if some of the consonants are liquids."
    (Sara Lockwood, Lessons in English, 1888; in Rhetorical Theory by Women Before 1900: An Anthology, ed. by Jane Donawerth. Rowman & Littlefield, 2002)
    - "Give heed to the sound of the sentence. Euphony demands the use of words that are agreeable to the ear. Avoid, therefore, whatever would give offense, such as harsh sounds, similar word endings or beginnings, riming words, alliteration, and careless repetition."
    (George Benjamin Woods and ‎Clarence Stratton, A Manual of English. Doubleday, 1926
  • Brodsky on the Primacy of Euphony (20th Century)
    "In general, the reason I insist on euphony is perhaps the primacy of euphony. There, in the sound, we have in some animal way more than we have in our rational, . . . the sound can release a greater energy than the rational insight."
    (Joseph Brodsky, interviewed by Elizabeth Elam Roth, 1995; Joseph Brodsky: Conversations, ed. by Cynthia L. Haven. University Press of Mississippi, 2002)

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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Euphony in Prose?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/what-is-euphony-in-prose-1690581. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). What Is Euphony in Prose? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-euphony-in-prose-1690581 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Euphony in Prose?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-euphony-in-prose-1690581 (accessed June 5, 2023).