What is Alliteration and How to Write One?

Besides explaining alliteration in detail, this post covers how alliterations can lift your writing, common pitfalls to avoid while writing them, and how to write them in a step-by-step method. And all of this through several examples.

What is alliteration?

Alliteration, like onomatopoeia, is figurative language (and within that a device of sound) that focuses on sounds of words to make writing expressive and memorable. They’re often used in poems, songs, brand names, and ads. In alliteration, two or more consecutive words, usually but not always, start with the same consonant sound. (More than two consecutive words with same sound though may look little forced as part of an actual piece of writing.) Same sound though doesn’t necessarily mean same letters. After all, different letters can produce same sound.

(Note: First, I haven’t counted articles, prepositions, pronouns, and conjunctions towards the words that alliterate. Second, I’ve avoided names as alliterative words because I believe that’s shortcut and isn’t genuine alliteration. Third, my comments that go with examples are in square brackets.)

Examples (words that alliterate have been underlined):

Do you want cold coffee?

The lazy lion preferred to scavenge than to hunt.

Disgruntled dishwashers don’t wash dishes.

More resources on alliteration:

Does alliteration have to start with the same letter?

No. Alliterations focuses on sameness of consonant sounds at the start. Key word here is sound and not letter. Examples:

Gentle Jack didn’t create unnecessary fuss.

The sleepy city has no nightlife.

These are examples of alliteration because the two words start with the same consonant sound even though they don’t share the first letter.

And for the same reason of sameness of consonant sounds, two words with the same letter may not alliterate. Examples:

Thirsty tiger lapped up water to his fill.

The crocodile chased the wildebeest, but it swam to safety.

In the first sentence, thirsty and tiger don’t alliterate even though they start with the same letter. That’s because they’ve different starting consonant sounds. In the second sentence, swam and safety alliterate, but crocodile and chased don’t for the same reason.

Note that some definitions of alliteration on the internet say ‘two consecutive words that start with the same sound or letter’. That’s incorrect. There is no place for sameness of letters in alliteration. What matters is sound and that too consonant.

Can alliterative words start with vowel sounds?

No. None of these is an example of alliteration:

Alice asks for axes.

Air Asia

Alaska Airlines

American Airlines

American Apparel

Emerson Electric

The words start with the same sound, but they’re all vowel sounds. Remember the definition of alliteration? Consonant sound. Some, though, mistakenly list the four brand names listed above as examples of alliteration.

For the uninitiated, sounds are not same as letters. Whereas English language has 26 alphabets, it has 44 sounds (some vowel sounds, some consonant sounds). A letter can, therefore, have multiple sounds. For the purpose of alliterations, your assessment of starting sound will be correct in most cases. In case of doubt, check the phonetic pronunciation of the word in any online dictionary, and tally the first symbol in the pronunciation with the symbols in the chart of vowel and consonant sounds (you can Google such chart). If the first symbol in the pronunciation matches with one of the vowel sounds in the chart, then the starting sound is a vowel. Otherwise, a consonant.

However, difference between few close consonant sounds is often ignored. Example:

The shark surfaced to breathe.

Shark and surfaced are considered alliterative despite slight difference in their starting sounds.

Can alliteration have words in between?

Yes. So far, we’ve looked at alliterations mostly with consecutive words, but alliterations can have words in between. Examples:

Go and get the jug for me.

Cookies are in the kitchen.

Here, the alliterative words are not next to each other. Typically, the words in between are filler words such as articles, conjunctions, and prepositions. There is no hard and fast rule on how many words can separate alliterative words, but as a rule of thumb if you hear repetition of sound when reading the sentence aloud, your sentence has alliteration.

Why use alliteration?

Repetition of sound in alliteration adds rhythm and musical pattern to your lines, making them memorable and fun to read. That repetition of sound makes brands, slogans, ads, names, poems, and songs more memorable, and it works even if you read them silently.

You’ll find them almost everywhere, particularly in poetry and advertising.

Alliteration in brand names

Alliterations commonly figure in brand names. Few examples:

Best Buy

Blue Bell

Café Coffee Day

Circuit City

Coca-Cola

Ted Talk

If these brands didn’t use alliteration, they may sound like this:

Best Purchase

Blue Chime

Café Espresso Day

Circuit Town

Coca-Soda

Ted Speech

Without repetition, they’re less memorable. That’s the power of alliteration. More contrasting examples:

The dish is so tasty!

What a delicious dish this is!

Separate eternal from transitory.

Separate eternal from ephemeral.

The second sentence of the pair are far more memorable.

Alliteration in songs

1. Staring at the Sun

Breaking on your back like a beach

I’m not sucking my thumb, staring at the sun

What if the song hadn’t used alliteration?

Breaking on your arms like a coast

I’m not sucking my thumb, looking at the moon

The change makes the song less musical, less memorable, doesn’t it?

2. King Crimson – The Court of The Crimson King

The purple piper plays his tune

The choir softly sings

Three lullabies in an ancient tongue

For the court of the crimson king

How to write alliterations?

When writing alliterations in sentences, people often start with a word and then brainstorm another word, often an adjective, starting with the same consonant sound that can go immediately before or after the first word. After finalizing a pair or trio of words, they write a sentence around it. This method, however, isn’t optimal.

I, instead, follow sentence-first approach, which I’ve used to write alliterations on variety of topics and guide students in writing alliterations. Let’s understand this through an example.

Sentence-first approach to writing alliterations

Step 1: If I’ve to use alliteration in sentences on Covid, I first brainstorm a list of words on Covid. Here is my list: lockdown, economic slowdown, online study, online work, hospital, health workers, virus, delta variant, tragedy, Covid-19, vaccine, infectious, death, deadly, indoors, travel restrictions, and suffering. If you’re running short on words after brainstorming, type in Covid (or any other topic) in Google Image to get fresh ideas.

Step 2: I quickly write sentences around as many of these words as possible. (That’s sentence-first and not alliteration-first approach.) This is the sentence around the word lockdown:

Version 1: In the initial phases of Covid, lockdown was the main tool government used to flatten the curve.

Step 3: I plug-in the words with matching consonant sounds.

Final version: In the initial phases of Covid, lockdown was the lever to flatten the Covid curve.

How quickly you pull off the third step depends on the strength of your vocabulary. You can take help of an online thesaurus, but that’s not a good replacement for own vocabulary.

Sentence-first approach has few advantages

1. By starting with sentence, you widen the range of positions where you can put in an alliterative word. By starting with consecutive words though, you limit the range of positions. (Remember, words don’t need to be consecutive to alliterate.) I’ve in fact stumbled on an additional alliterative word through this method. Example:

The woodpecker banged its beak against the bark of the tree.

Different versions I went through, albeit quickly, for the above final sentence are:

Version 1: The woodpecker chipped away at the tree.

Version 2: The woodpecker banged its beak at the tree. [Comment: Here, trigger word was beak as it’s easy to associate with a bird. After that, I brainstormed bang to alliterate with it.]

Final version: The woodpecker banged its beak against the bark of the tree. [Bark was the additional word I stumbled on, a bonus]

2. By starting with sentence, you develop your idea fully before coming to alliteration. That’s how it should be. But when you start with consecutive words, main idea isn’t front and centre. Matching the sound is.

Dos and don’ts in writing alliterations

Don’t sacrifice meaning for the sake of alliteration

Consider these examples of alliterations:

The megalodon munched on the fish.

The tiger roared in twelve voices.

Munch means eating something hard and/ or dry steadily. A megalodon, an extinct shark, would’ve probably eaten or chomped or feasted on a fish. So, munch seems to be forced to alliterate with megalodon. It’s not a natural fit. (‘Monkey munched on peanuts’ would be natural.) The second example too is forced because tigers don’t really make twelve sounds.

Unless you’re completely making things up, avoid sacrificing meaning for the sake of creating an alliteration.

Don’t stuff too many alliterative words in a sentence

Consider this example we covered earlier:

Disgruntled dishwashers don’t wash dishes.

With four words alliterating, this sentence has gone overboard. Avoid such sentences in your writing unless they serve some purpose, say in poems.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are alliteration and tongue twister the same?

Tongue twisters are a sequence of words that are difficult to pronounce correctly when spoken quickly. They’re often, but not always, alliterations. For example, these tongue twisters aren’t alliterations:

Ex-disk jockey

Higgledy, Piggledy

This disk sticks

Hiccup teacup

Peggy Babcock’s mummy

Free kiwis

Second, even when tongue twisters have two or more words with the same sound, they cover both consonants and vowels. Alliterations, on the other hand, cover only consonant sounds.

Third, the two have different purposes. Whereas tongue twisters are more for improving pronunciation and fun, alliterations are figurative language to make your writing expressive.

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