Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

The Power of Assonance

The word assonance, my old Webster's tells me, comes from Latin, an elision of ad sonare, "to sound." Historically, it first meant "a likeness of sound," then "a rough similarity of sound," and finally and most technically, "a partial rhyme in which the stressed vowel sounds are alike but the consonants are unlike, as in late and make."

I find these definitions as inadequate as defining a blonde bombshell as "a female with yellow hair." The first two are too vague — how alike must words be, how unlike can they be, to be assonant? — and the third is inaccurate: a mix of vowels and consonants can be assonant — prim prom plumb pluck prick itch fetch patch punch pluck plank plum prim...

And all three are far too dry, far too technical! More than a device we can apply by rule or rote, assonance comes to us as a gift from language itself, from our deep animal urge to communicate with our voices. For me, assonance is the inner beauty of our art, the melody of our words, the music of our writing.

Assonant writing creates a flow of word sounds as pleasing to the reader's ear as the babbling of a baby or a brook, the happy cries of kids on a playground, the sob of a solo violin. In assonant writing each word sound blends (or echoes or contrasts) with the word sounds nearby in the flow; the interplay of word sounds creates patterns and textures, morphs from staccato stabs to luxurious legatos, from frantic allegros to funereal adagios, from solemnity:

Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.
Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address

— to silliness:

...it seemed to me incredible that she should not now turn on me like a tigress, according to specifications. It beat me why she hadn't done it already. It seemed to me that a mere tithe of what I had said, if said to a tigress about a tiger of which she was fond, would have made her — the tigress, I mean — hit the ceiling.
P.G. Wodehouse

— and does it so smoothly that only afterwards do we realize that Lincoln got his effect by repeating the somber monosyllable war four times, and Wodehouse his by repeating the "tie" sound — tigress tithe tigress tiger tigress — five times.

We often don't notice assonance because, being practical creatures, we ignore word sound and go straight to word meaning. The words "Sorry, sir, the train just left" may make us glum, and "Yes, ma'am, you're just on time" may make us glad, but it's the facts the words deliver, not the word sounds themselves, that makes the difference.

When we have no idea what words mean, all we've got is assonance. As kids, my brother Johnny and I loved to walk along crowded Boston sidewalks, conversing loudly in made-up languages, using ordinary tones of voice (asking questions, interjecting comments, and such), but inventing the words as we went along:

"Berf, da, naccoseen pitar?"
"Naccoseen dof tabbaz."
"Charn, charn!"
"Peerkell didobas, Cartoph."
"Sasstozan boda kerrope."
"Charn, charn!"

Inspired by "Jabberwocky"'s "'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves" and the "Ooh eee ooh ah ah, ting tang walla walla bing bang" of the pop song "The Purple People Eater," we invented assonant nonsense phrases that we kept coming back to. Singing my favorite, I sounded all its "un"'s and "ee"'s in a rapid-fire monotone:

Kuncee bungratcee cheena, kuncee bungratcee cheen,
Kuncee bungratcee cheena, kuncee bungratcee cheen.

Assonance comes in many forms. Rhyme — "I'm so far from home, Oh why did I roam" — may be the most powerful assonance, because the word sounds are so similar. Imperfect rhymes — "I'm so far from home, I want to moan" — are weaker than perfect, and some avid rhymers, among them Stephen Sondheim, disdain them; I find imperfection at times useful:

You whispered, "No, not here,"
But soon you didn't care...

Some call alliteration — "when America moved from Main Street to mall" — the rhyme of prose. Debatable, perhaps, but there's no contesting its assonant power: "bouncing baby boy" says much more than "elastic infant male." Alliteration works best, I think, when it hovers just below the radar. "Obstinate obstacle," for example, has an alliterative effect on us and slips by us; "obvious obstinate obstacle" draws our attention to its contrivance. Note too that the assonance of "obstinate obstacle" is not confined to the initial "obst"'s. The two words make a neat double dactyl (boom chick chick boom chick chick), and that rhythm contributes mightily to the phrase's assonant power.

Balanced phrases — "Waste not, want not" — emphasize assonance with repetitive sounds and rhythms. Listen again to Dickens' famous opening to A Tale of Two Cities. I've long noticed the passage's parade of vigorous opposites; now I  hear the snare drums snaps of "it was the...it was the...it was the," a three note motif Dickens sounds ten times in this short extract:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair...

Assonance involves more than sound; to my ear, the assonance of meaning makes "black and white" as or more assonant than "black and blick," because the familiar first pair of words instantly evokes a primal contrast, while the unfamiliar second evokes only a puzzled "Huh?" Onomatopoetic words — murmur, howl, shriek, thud, gurgle — have extra assonant power because their sounds embody their meaning. "Splish, splash, I was taking a bath" conveys more meaning, faster and more memorably, than if the word for "splish" were "dudge," for "splash" "plectoban", and the lyric ran, "Dudge, plectoban, I was taking a bath."

We can find assonance everywhere in writing. In a recent New York Times I quickly spotted three notable examples, which, I feel sure, the three writers created consciously, hoping that their assonant word sounds would speed the conveyance of their meaning. 

"...the jobs of government are to medicate, educate, and  incarcerate."

"...the billionaire contemplated a wrongful use of Wright."

"... the seemingly metastasizing ranks of magnates with itchy millions"

If assonance works in prose, assonance plays in poetry. Making music of word sounds — that was, is, and always will be poetry's holy grail. To pick an absurdly few examples from a trillion possibilities, here are nice runs of f's and th's from Thomas Hardy:

Thus I, faltering forward
Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward
And the woman calling.

— haunting imperfect rhymes from Seamus Heaney: 

Laying down a perfect memory
In the cool of thatch and crockery.

I know no sounding-line can find its bottom
nobody ford or plumb its deepest fathom...

— nonsensical cheerfulness from Walt Disney:

Zip-pi-dee-do-dah, zip-pi-dee-ay,
My oh my, what a wonderful day!

and from William Shakespeare, sublimity. Sonnet 30, for instance. We could start by noting its sound words — silent summon sigh wail weep moan tell bemoaned moan; its alliterations — "sessions of sweet silent thought...grieve at grievances foregone"; and its balanced phrases — "old woes new wail." Yet why go on? The most microscopic analysis will never tell us, once and for all, by what magic Shakespeare makes his sonnets sing:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembranceof things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death's dateless night,
And weep afresh love's long since cancell'd woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish'd sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor'd and sorrows end.

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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday June 12th 2012, 5:32 AM
Comment by: Peter K. (Lewes, East Sussex United Kingdom)
Delightful, delicious, and delovely! Thank you Michael for being so wonderful!
Pete Kettle
Tuesday June 12th 2012, 6:32 AM
Comment by: vicki B. (Melbourne Australia)
So enjoyable! end of a long heavy day and you dish this up for auditory consumption. Good to read aloud and hear it trip and skip across my lips. Treats from kin far away in place and time airing and sharing a great sup.
Tuesday June 12th 2012, 8:48 AM
Comment by: mafannie (Knoxville, TN)
Simply delightful and it was so much fun to read that I had to re-read it several times.
Tuesday June 12th 2012, 12:28 PM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
You are a rare gift, Michael. I love your insights and your humor.
Tuesday June 12th 2012, 3:27 PM
Comment by: Cody (Eugene, OR)
You have forever altered my memories of the word assonance: it was the word that took me down, many decades ago, at a young age...the word that kept me from winning the county spelling bee (and I've never misspelled it since). Besides changing memories, your writing brightens a dreary, rainy Tuesday. It is such a joy to experience someone who loves the written word. You've inspired me to visit my bookshelves to retrieve Norton's Complete Works of Shakespeare and re-read the Sonnets, slowly, with an eye to their delights, with no homework to hand in, and with great enjoyment!
Wednesday June 13th 2012, 1:03 PM
Comment by: SmEbbers (CA)
a story singing, how sublime
with phrases, balanced over time
and here or there, imperfect rhyme:
some assonance, some consonance
resounding vowels and pounding consonants

Thank you for this! I learned a lot, for I realize now that I have underestimated assonant sounds. Now I can read poetry-- and write it-- with far more awareness of the design, structure, etc.

I have a hunch that some poets just have an intuition about "what sounds good" and so they use the various devices you describe, but they could not really say how or why they did so, nor give the device a name. Do you know if this is so? for any particular famous writers? How would their writing differ, if they did have a more metacognitive understanding of their innate gifts?
Thursday June 14th 2012, 9:18 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Yes, a very assonance article.
Thanks for the presentation. Is "Very much" phrase after "Thank you" word creates an assonance effect?
Friday June 15th 2012, 8:18 AM
Comment by: Michele H. (Long Island City, NY)
Such a lovely read. It makes me want to linger languorously over each line.
Sunday June 17th 2012, 12:57 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thank you for the many good comments! I'm particularly delighted that so many comments include silly, sly assonances. They tell me that people who love writing love to have fun with writing! Me too!!

To Begum F, I'd say that adding "very much" to "thank you" definitely emphasizes the gratitude of "thank you," but adds no particular assonance.

However, if someone said to you, "Thank you bank you very muchereenio," that assonance would add to the emphasis.
Tuesday June 19th 2012, 6:58 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Oops, I didn't answer Susan Marie from California. First, thanks for the poem.

Second, I think most poets and most writers who have been working at their craft for some time grow to be familiar with rhyme and rhythm, alliteration and assonance, short-words--long-words, onomatopoeia, and the like. The writers may not think of every such writing tools every time, but they are aware of them in the shadowy, creative world where good writing is born.
Tuesday June 19th 2012, 7:51 PM
Comment by: SmEbbers (CA)
"...shadowy, creative world where good writing is born." I like that.

Yes, I would expect that "most writers who have been working at their craft for some time" do become knowledgeable about such lyrical literary devices.

but still...were these devices even defined back when Homer first spake his ancient poems? the old chicken and egg thing. ;-)

Anyway, thanks for the great lesson on assonance (and so much more)!
Wednesday June 20th 2012, 9:56 PM
Comment by: Ferial E R (Woodbridge United Kingdom)
Seen on a cupboard door under a stairwell, an alliteration - Caution, chemical cleaners in cupbard. Assonance can lift the most mundane of subjects. I really enjoyed your article Michael


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