What is Onomatopoeia and Its Common Errors?

This post covers onomatopoeia comprehensively. It explains onomatopoeia, how they improve your writing, and common mistakes to avoid while writing them. And all of this through several examples.

What is onomatopoeia?

An onomatopoeia is a figurative language (and within that a device of sound) that uses word whose pronunciation imitates or suggests the sound the word describes. It makes your writing expressive through use of sound of words.

For example, buzz, when spoken, imitates the sound of a flying insect. To take another example, ding-dong, when spoken, imitates the sound of a doorbell. Words that describe sounds of animals such as dog’s woof, cat’s meow, cow’s moo, and snake’s hiss commonly fall into imitation category. In short, for this category of onomatopoeic words:

Pronunciation of the word = Sound being described

However, it’s not that simple. The pronunciation can also suggest (look at the definition above) the sound. For example, giggle, when spoken, doesn’t imitate the sound of someone laughing in a quiet, silly way. But it’s an onomatopoeic word because it suggests the sound. In a way, written language has an aural presence, and it can lend (imaginary) sound even without imitation.

More resources on onomatopoeia:

A simple way to identify onomatopoeic words

If you’re confused, there is a simple way to identify onomatopoeic word. Any word that represents a sound is invariably an onomatopoeic word. (The definition of onomatopoeia says that ‘pronunciation imitates or suggests the sound the word describes’, which implies that there has to be a sound for an onomatopoeia to exist.) Does giggle produce a sound (imagine you’re giggling)? Yes. Does bang produce a sound (imagine you’re banging a table)? Yes. Does wring produce a sound (imagine you’re wringing a wet cloth)? Yes. All the acts produce sound even though this sound is not the same as pronunciation of the word.

Let’s take a counter example. Is waft an onomatopoeic word? Waft means gentle movement through the air, commonly used for movement of aroma, scent, music, etc. Is there any sound when something wafts? No. Although some treat waft as an onomatopoeic word, I don’t think it belongs there.

If you can’t decide whether a word is onomatopoeic or not, refer a dictionary and see if that word can represent a sound. In case of words such as bang, the dictionary meaning will scream that it’s onomatopoeic (btw, scream is an onomatopoeic word). This is the meaning of bang in Cambridge Dictionary: to (cause something to) make a sudden very loud noise or noises. There’s lot of noise in there. But in case of words such as wring, you may have to think for a moment if that action will produce a sound. This is the meaning of wring: to hold something tightly with both hands and twist it by turning your hands in opposite directions. It doesn’t say anything about sound.

Is microwave (oven) an onomatopoeic word?

Microwave and many other machines produce sound just like humans or animals do. Are machines onomatopoeic words? Is microwave an onomatopoeic word?

No. Engine, car, refrigerator, and lawnmower too aren’t onomatopoeic words.

But sounds these machines produce are onomatopoeic words: hum (of an AC or a refrigerator), purr (of a car engine or a lawnmower), rat-a-tat (of a machine gun), and rumble (of a convoy).

Why use onomatopoeia?

Onomatopoeia infuses sounds to our writing and makes it more expressive. Compare the two sentences written in two different ways, one with onomatopoeia:

The witch laughed wickedly and kicked the door open.

The witch cackled and banged the door open.

I couldn’t sleep, with the tap dripping through the night.

I couldn’t sleep amidst the plop, plop, plop of the tap through the night.

On seeing a deer running across the road, I applied the brakes and stopped the car.

On seeing a deer running across the road, I slammed the brakes to bring the car to a screeching halt.

(Onomatopoeic words have been underlined in all the examples for ease of following.)

The second sentence in each pair is more expressive and has ‘sound effect’ that enlivens the sentence.

An onomatopoeic word may lose its tag if context changes

In which of the three do you think whip is an example of an onomatopoeic word?

The horse was whipped even though it was trotting fine.

The thief whipped out a knife.

The team was whipped in the rematch.

In the first sentence, whip means hitting with a whip. In the second, whip means taking something out quickly. And in the third, whip means defeating a person or a team in a competition.

Which of the three acts do you think produces a sound?

First, isn’t it? The first sentence, therefore, is the most appropriate example of onomatopoeia. Some may though argue that whip in the second sentence too has its sound. Maybe, but that will be a weak example of onomatopoeia.

Onomatopoeia words can be used as different parts of speech

Onomatopoeic words don’t necessarily have to be nouns just because sounds are nouns. They, in fact, are more often used as verbs. Few examples of such words used as both noun and verb:

“I’m not going there,” John said between slurps. [Noun]

Don’t slurp the soup! It’s bad manners. [Verb]

On seeing the monkey, the dog went woof, woof. [Noun]

On seeing the monkey, the dog started woofing. [Verb]

The chitchat continued until my phone buzzed. [Noun]

The friends, meeting after a long time, chitchatted till early morning. [Verb]

Interjections aren’t onomatopoeic words

Some erroneously treat human interjections such as aha, hooray, ouch, oops, whoo-hoo, wow, yahoo, and yuck as onomatopoeic words. Confusion occurs because interjections, commonly used in conversations to express certain emotions, are actual words we say. They do not refer to any sound.

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