What’s So Great About Peter Piper’s Peppers?
Okay, folks. Let’s talk more about rhetorical devices.
I promise you’re not going back to English class, here — not much, anyway. Rhetorical devices are just nifty language tricks that will make your audience read your work. That’s it. Simple, easy to learn, and incredibly effective.
Last time we discussed what rhetorical devices are (nifty word tricks), why they work (your brain likes patterns), why they’re important (your readers will keep reading), and which four devices are important for bloggers (alliteration, assonance, rhyme and meter.) Next up … alliteration!
Alliteration is the name for a series of identical initial consonants distributed throughout a phrase.
Big name for a simple concept, isn’t it? Alliteration is just the repetition of a consonant sound. It’s especially effective if you use it in words located near or next to each other. For instance, I used alliteration on an S in the header of my first blog post. “Say it in one second” is a five-word phrase in which two words begin with an S. That’s a high ratio of S to other consonants in a short phrase; your brain hasn’t had time to forget the first S before it hears the second one. And as we talked about last time, your brain likes patterns. Hearing the same sound twice in a row is like hearing people clap their hands in rhythm. It pleases some part of us, and makes us want to join in.
You definitely want your audience to want to join in your content. That’s a huge plus, right there.
So that’s it — alliteration in a nutshell. But if you want more about the nuts and bolts of the device … read on!
Technically, alliteration occurs only when the alliterated sound falls at the beginning of words, as in the example above. But I think using alliterative consonants throughout a phrase is a useful trick regardless of their exact location.
One of the headlines in today’s New York Times is “Obama Pursuing Climate Accord in Lieu of Treaty.” Several consonants are alliterated in this phrase, including C. The phrase “Climate Accord” is appealing to the ear; it doesn’t matter that the C falls in the middle of the word “Accord” instead of at the beginning. It’s the repetition of the sound that’s important, not its placement.
The repetition of sounds that are not quite alliterative, but are very close, is also useful.1 Those sounds include:
B and P
C and G
D and T
F and V
M and N
S and Z
Other kinds of similar sounds can be equally appealing to the ear. For instance, S and Sh or C and Ch share many features, and are beautiful in combination.2
Company and brand names often employ this not-quite-alliteration technique. My favorite example of this phenomenon is “British Petroleum,” or “BP” for short. Whether you use its long or its abbreviated version, this company’s name is appealing because its initial consonants are similar, rather than technically alliterative. (It’s also appealing for some other reasons — we’ll get into those later.)
Remember that alliteration involves sounds, not letters. “Excess” and “Cash” both contain a C sound, but it is not located in their shared letter C. Rather, the letters X in “Excess” and C in “Cash” are alliterative.
Water, Water, Everywhere
When you start thinking about it, you’ll find alliteration littered all over famous English phrases. For starters, try some tongue-twisters. Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers speaks for itself. Nursery rhymes and childhood games, like Miss Mary Mack or Red Rover, are great examples. You also can find more subtle alliteration in song lyrics. Try to spot it in some of the most famous lyrics ever written:
And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our souls
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines bright light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold…
That’s All Great … But How Do I Use Alliteration?
When you’re writing, think about synonyms of the words you’re choosing, and decide whether you could choose alliterative words instead. Think, for instance, about the phrase Your best bet. It’s an easy, common phrase, yes? Well, it probably wouldn’t be if it read Your greatest bet or Your easy bet. The alliteration of “best” and “bet” make this phrase memorable. Any other synonym for “best” wouldn’t do the trick.
So if you’re writing a post about gardening, you could try titling it “Great Gardens” rather than “Awesome Gardens.” A post about dating etiquette could be “Dinner Dates” rather than “Restaurant Dates.” Get the idea? Give people what their brains like: catchy sound combinations. They’ll keep reading if you do.
If you’re enjoying this series on rhetorical devices, please join me for next week’s episode, preliminarily entitled Asso-what? Assonance and Blogging. Alternative title requests accepted in the comments section!
1For my fellow geeks out there: these combinations are appealing because each of the sound pairs in question shares two out of three basic features. For instance, B and P share a manner of articulation: they’re called “stops,” because their sound is created by stopping airflow out of the mouth. They also share a place of articulation: they are “labial,” or occurring at the lips. They only differ in their voicing. B is a “voiced” consonant; the vocal chords are engaged when you make this sound. P is an “unvoiced” consonant; the vocal chords are not engaged.
2 These sound pairs are more similar than you may think. They share all but one basic linguistic feature; their place of articulation differs. In each case, the second sound is a palatalized version of the first, meaning that its place of articulation moves to the upper palate.
Got more info on my footnotes? Please leave it in the comments! I’d love to hear.
For more on these topics, see my favorite overview of the English language:
A History of the English Language. van Gelderen, Elly. John Benjamin Publishing Company; Amsterdam/Philadelphia, 2006. Credit is also due to Professor Connie C. Eble at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in her lectures on English Grammar, 2009.