Alliteration, Consonance, and Assonance

WEIRD WACKY WORD WAYS

The title above is an alliteration–a figure of speech that plays on the selection of sounds to emphasize a point, create a memory handle, or just get a laugh. Alliteration is defined as the repetition of beginning consonant sounds in words that are close enough to make us notice them, as in “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.” The words don’t have to have the same number of syllables or similar vowels–it’s just the first sound that matters. (This includes consonant blends, such as sl, st, tr, bl, etc.)

When the beginning and the ending consonant sounds are the same, and the vowel sounds are different, that’s called consonance. Consonance is a little harder to come by, as you might imagine. Two-word combinations are the most that can usually be managed: “pick a peck,” “truck trick,” “stuck stick,” etc.

One reason for using word combinations like this is that they are memorable. Alliteration is a device often used by public speakers to help listeners remember the main points. (The late Baptist preacher Adrian Rogers used alliteration in almost all his sermons.) It’s a fairly easy tool to pick up and use as long as you don’t overdo it. Try your hand at alliteration and consonance with these exercises:

1  Write some three-word alliterative sentences. Start with a noun, which will be your subject. Then think of a verb starting with the same consonant sound that tells what the subject does (or did). Finally end with an adjective that tells how she, he, or it does the action. Examples: “Spencer speaks spunkily.” “Raccoons riot reluctantly.” “Gina gyrates gingerly.” If you arrange the words vertically, you could call it a poem! Not that anyone would believe you . . . .

2  Try writing some alliterative news headlines. Find a feature story in your local paper and think of a headline of at least three words, all beginning with the same consonant sound. For instance, a story about the library board of trustees purchasing volumes could be headlined

BOARD BUYS BOOKS

Chances are you could be a little more creative, though. For example, when local police begin a campaign against vagrancy:

LAWMEN LABEL LOLLYGAGGERS

Stray dogs attack valuable fur-producing animals:

MUTTS MUNCH MINKS

Local dignitaries preside at a restaurant grand opening:

BIGWIGS BOOST BURGER KING

3  You want to have some fun?  Think of a two-word consonance, like the examples in the second paragraph above. Then think of a riddle to which those two words are the answer, such as

“What do you call a jammed gearshift lever?” “A stuck stick.”

Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds, such as “smoothly moving through the waves” (which repeats the long o sound, even though it’s spelled three different ways–English spelling is WEIRD!).  Assonances are more subtle and hard to spot, but they have a nice gentle way of working on the ear, especially in poetry. Because the vowel sounds are similar, but not the consonants, they almost rhyme. But not quite. Notice how assonance works in this poem by my friend David Harrison:

First Bird of Spring

You’ve seen so much
since you’ve been away,
sing me a song.

Sing of the mountains
you crossed last fall
through starry nights
and blazing dawns.

Of rivers, bayous,
checkerboard farms,
glistening silos,
pigeony barns . . . .

(copyright 1999 by the author)

Notice how “ah” is repeated in the second and fourth lines of stanzas two and three. It’s a soft sound that creates a gentle mood.

Try this: write some words with “round sounds” (oo, oh, or ow), like down, moon, mope, load, etc. Pick two of these words that have some kind of relationship, such as a similar mood, motion, or experience. Use those words in a three-line poem. For example:

The buttery moon
Bends down low
To whisper secrets.

Try the same exercise using words with short vowel sounds, like pick and cat. Chances are, the poem will have an entirely different mood