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.