Definition of Alliteration

Alliteration is the repetition of the same consonant sounds at the beginning of words that are in close proximity to each other. This repetition of sounds brings attention to the lines in which it is used, and creates more aural rhythm. In poems, alliteration can also refer to repeated consonant sound in the stressed syllables of a line. For example, in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30, we find the line “Then can I grieve at grievances foregone.” In this case, the “g” sound is alliterative in “grieve”, “grievances”, and “foregone”, since the stressed syllable in “foregone” starts with “g”.

Alliteration has been used as a literary device in the English language for many hundreds of years, prevalent in works of literature all the way back to Beowulf, the eighth-century Old English poem. Alliteration is most common in poems, though it can be found in prose and drama as well. It is often used in the real world in things like nursery rhymes, famous speeches, and advertising slogans.

Note that alliteration is dependent on the beginning sound and not the beginning letter. For example, “cat” is not alliterative with “choice”, but is alliterative with “kick”. Historically, alliteration has also included consonants with similar properties like the sibilants “s” and “z”.

Difference Between Alliteration, Assonance, and Consonance

Alliteration, assonance, and consonance are all similar in that they contain repetitions of certain sounds.

  • Assonance refers to the repetition of vowel sounds in close proximity.
  • Consonance refers to the repetition of consonant sounds in close proximity. While this sounds nearly identical to the definition of alliteration, consonance can occur at any place in the word—beginning, middle, or end. It also does not matter whether the syllables are stressed for the repetition of a consonant sound to count as consonance. Alliteration is thus a special case of consonance, since it is restricted only to the beginning of words or in the beginning of a stressed syllable.

Common Examples of Alliteration

Many common tongue twisters contain examples of alliteration. For instance:

  • Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.
  • She sells seashells by the seashore.
  • A big black bug bit a big black dog and the big black dog bled blood.
  • Betty Botter bought some butter, but she said, this butter’s bitter; if I put it in my batter, it will make my batter bitter, but a bit of better butter will make my bitter batter better.

Many famous speeches have contained examples of alliteration. For example:

  • “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall” — Barack Obama, Inaugural Address
  • “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” — Martin Luther King, Jr., I Have a Dream speech
  • Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation…” — Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address

Advertisers often make use of alliteration so as to help customers remember certain companies and their products. For example:

  • A little dab’ll do ya (Brylcreem)
  • My goodness, my Guinness (Guinness beer)
  • Every kiss begins with Kay (Kay Jewelers)
  • Maybe she’s born with it. Maybe it’s Maybelline. (Maybelline makeup)
  • Put a tiger in your tank (Esso/Exxon)

Examples of Alliteration in Literature

Example #1

He was four times a father, this fighter prince:
one by one they entered the world,
Heorogar, Hrothgar, the good Halga
and a daughter, I have heard, who was Onela´s queen,
a balm in bed to the battle-scarred Swede.

(Beowulf as translated by Seamus Heaney)

The epic poem Beowulf contains examples of alliteration in almost every line. In Old English, alliteration was particularly important, especially as a way of passing down the tradition of oral storytelling. Alliteration was one of the key tools for making the works memorable enough to be told over and over again. The Irish poet Seamus Heaney translated Beowulf with special attention paid to both the rhythm of the original poem and to the use of alliteration. In just this short excerpt, we can see many repeated sounds, all highlighted in red. In the first line, the “f” sound is repeated in “four”, “father”, and “fighter”. The three sons’ names all start the “h” sound—Heorogar, Hrothgar, and Halga. Naming children in an alliterative manner was a popular tradition at the time. In the final line we see repetition of the “b” sound in “balm”, “bed”, and “battle”. These words provide a contrast between “balm” to “battle”, and the use of alliteration highlights their juxtaposition.

Example #2

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes;
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life.

(Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)

Shakespeare used alliteration very frequently in his plays and poetry. In this prologue to Act I of Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare uses alliteration in the “f” sound of “from”, “forth”, “fatal”, and “foes”; he also alliterates the “l” sound in “loins”, “lovers”, and “life”. In this alliteration example, the words beginning with the “f” sound are united as words of death and destruction—“fatal” and “foes”—while the words beginning with “l” are all connected to the continuity of life, including “loins” and “lovers”. The alliteration thereby weaves these opposing images together.

Example #3

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

(“I heard a Fly buzz – when I died -” by Emily Dickinson)

In this famous poem by Emily Dickinson, the alliteration of “st” connects the words “stillness” and “storm”. Conceptually, these two words are at odds, and yet in context Dickinson is referring to the calm that occurs in the middle of storms, such as the eye of the hurricane. The stillness at those times is more profound than at other times, and this connection between stillness and storm is highlighted by her use of alliteration.

Example #4

They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—

(“Birches” by Robert Frost)

In this excerpt from Robert Frost’s poem “Birches” we can find several instances of the “cr” sound: “cracks”, “crazes”, “crystal”, and “crust”. This use of alliteration is onomatopoetic in that the “cr” sound mimics the sound of ice breaking and trees knocking against each other. Frost creates the feel of a forest of birch trees not only through images, but also in the words he uses to create an aural representation of the sound of the trees.

Example #5

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;

(“The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe)

Edgar Allen Poe’s long and dark poem “The Raven” contains many examples of alliteration. He creates rhythm and musicality in the poem in many different ways, notably through rhyme and repetition. Alliteration plays a very large role in creating this rhythm as well, as the vast majority of the one hundred and eight lines in this poem contain some sort of repeated consonant sound. In this excerpt, Poe repeats the “d” sound in “deep”, “darkness”, “doubting”, “dreaming”, “dreams”, “dared”, and “dream”.

Test Your Knowledge of Alliteration

1. Choose the best alliteration definition:
A. The repetition of vowel sounds in close proximity.
B. The repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of nearby words.
C. The repetition of consonant sounds in unstressed syllables.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: B is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

2. Which of these lines from Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” contains alliteration?
A. Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
B. “’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
C. Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: A contains alliteration in the form of the “w” sound—“once”, “while”, “weak”, and “weary” all begin with the same sound. While B has a repetition of the “m” sound in “muttered” and “my”, “my” is not a stressed syllable and therefore this does not count as alliteration.[/spoiler]

3. Is the following line from Romeo and Juliet an example of alliteration, consonance, or assonance?

For men so old as we to keep the peace.

A. Alliteration
B. Consonance
C. Assonance
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: C is the correct answer. This line contains no significant repetition of consonant sounds, but does have three words with the same vowel sound: “we”, “keep”, and “peace”.[/spoiler]