Remember when you were little and enjoyed tongue twisters like:

She sells sea shells by the seashore.

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

These tongue twisters are examples of a literary device used by writers, especially poets, to create interesting sounds in their work.  This device is called alliteration. 

Alliteration is the repetition of beginning consonant sounds to create a mood or feeling in writing.

Look at the examples of tongue twisters above. Note how in the first one, most of the words begin with an S sound, and in the second, every word starts with a P sound. The third example repeats the beginning consonant sound of W. That is alliteration. The word sound is important here. Alliteration is NOT just repeating the same beginning consonant letter, but the sound, no matter how it is spelled.

Writers generally don't repeat these consonant sounds quite as often as they are repeated in tongue twisters!  If they did it might distract the reader. Instead alliteration is used more selectively to help set a mood or to repeat a sound that occurs in life. 

Read this poem and look for the use of alliteration:

A Hippo's a Heap

by Beverly Mcloughland

A hippo's a heap
About to pop,
He's so colossal
He'd better stop --
He's
chock full of chow
With no more room --
Just one more swallow and ...
KA-BOOM!

 

In this poem about a hippopotamus, Beverly Mcloughland uses alliteration to add to the fun by not only using rhyming words to create sound but alliteration too.  Did you notice  the repeated H sound in the title and the first line, "A hippo's a heap" and the repeated CH sound in the line, "He's chock full of chow"?  Alliteration is used here to add to the fun sound of the poem and works along with the rhyming words to do this.

Alliteration is not just used in poetry.  Many well know prose writers use it also to improve the sound of their writing.

In the famous novel The Call of The Wild,  Jack London titled one of his chapters "The Toil Of Trace And Trail" repeating the beginning consonant sound of T.

Within this chapter, these alliterative lines are found:

 "Charles was a middle-aged, lightish colored man, with weak and watery eyes and a mustache that twisted fiercely and vigorously up, giving the lie to the limply drooping lip it concealed."

Do you see the two examples of alliteration in this quote?  What two beginning consonant sounds are repeated?

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Prose writers like London often use alliteration to add to the impact of their sentences. Alliteration adds fluency to sentences giving them a more poetic sound.

In Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson, alliteration is found in these lines:

"The sun began to shine upon the summit of the hills as I went
down the road;..."

What beginning consonant sound is repeated here?

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Now try this quote from Kidnapped.  How many examples of alliteration can you find here?

"He cast about for a comfortable seat, lighted on a big boulder under a birch by the trackside, sat down upon it with a very long, serious upper lip, and the sun now shining in upon us between two peaks, put his pocket-handkerchief over his cocked hat to shelter him."
 

How many examples of alliteration did you find?  Name the words Stevenson uses that repeat the same beginning consonant sounds and check yourself below.

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Now take a look at how a famous American poet Emily Dickinson used alliteration in this poem:

Emily Dickinson (183086).  Complete Poems.  1924.

 


 

Part Two: Nature

CVIII

A SLOOP of amber slips away  
  Upon an ether sea,  
And wrecks in peace a purple tar,  
  The son of ecstasy.

In Emily Dickinsons's poem there are really two examples of alliteration. This time the alliteration is not only there to add sound, but also to add meaning to the poem. In the first two lines the S sound is repeated in the words sloop, slips, and sea.  In the last line the word son repeats the same sound. 

This repeated use of the S sound makes the reader hear the sound of the water slipping by the hull of the ship as it moves "Upon an ether sea".  Alliteration is often used by poets to create a sound or mood in their work that helps the reader feel the poem.

Did you notice the other brief use of alliteration in the poem?  In the third line the P sound is repeated in peace and purple.  The repeated P sound here breaks up the soft sounds of the repeated S sounds. Again, this is a deliberate choice of the poet.  In the third line the tone of the poem shifts, and Dickinson talks of the wreck of a tar.

 In the language of sea, a tar is a sailor and death by drowning is sometimes described as the "rapture of the sea" or "ecstasy".  What starts off as a beautiful description of a sailing ship gliding on the sea, suddenly becomes quite sinister and the use of alliteration helps to first set the tone and then to shift it altogether as death enters the picture.

Remember, alliteration is the repetition of beginning consonant sounds to create a mood or feeling in writing. 

As a reader, look for examples of alliteration and notice how writers use it to make their words flow more poetically and to add sound to their work that enhances meaning. 

As a writer, try using alliteration to spice up your work.  Just remember though, like using spice in cooking, don't overuse alliteration.  It should enhance the poetic sound of your words without sounding like a tongue twister!

Need more practice with alliteration?

Click on  the investigator for more information on alliteration and a practice quiz!

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