Most people know what alliteration is and almost everyone has an opinion on when, why, or even if it should be used at all in a number of different circumstances. In most cases, alliteration is the stressed first syllable of a word. If every word begins with an “s,” then you’re witnessing alliteration at its finest (or likely just its most common). Alliteration is most often practiced in poetry, and more rarely done in other forms of writing. It is less often used in formal speech or writing. If you are working on your thesis or writing an essay on an unrelated subject, then you should steer clear of the literary device if you prefer to avoid scrutiny.
Symmetrical alliteration is practiced mostly by those who have truly mastered the art of alliteration. Start with four words in order to write yourself an easy example of symmetrical alliteration. The first and last word should begin with the same stressed consonant. The second and third words should begin with a different stressed consonant. This form of alliteration is also most often used in poetry, but is less practiced.
There are different forms of alliteration to which one might refer. If you hear the word “consonance” used, it is a term that falls under the same umbrella of terms. Rather than the stressed syllable or first syllable, consonance is the repeated use of a single consonant sound. The words “sent” and “went” form a consonance pair, as do “strong and swing.”
Alliteration isn’t necessarily used simply to create a certain sound or cadence when writing poetry. More often, it’s used to put emphasis on a certain word. A poet often writes a line of poetry and calls attention to a single word by placing it alone on the very next line, but alliteration allows the poet to create an emphasis that can be heard rather than seen. Sometimes one is better than the other. Then again, alliteration can also be utilized in order to emphasize the mood of a particular song or poem. Some sounds tend to grate on our nerves, while others are much more soothing. Depending on how the writer uses alliteration, he or she can create a whole new meaning simply based on sound alone.
Historically, you’ll hear alliteration used not only in poetry, but also archaic literature. If you study Old English, Old Saxon, Old High German, Old Norse, or Old Irish, then you’ll likely run into it a lot. Popular poets and storytellers like Shakespeare and Walt Whitman often used the literary device in their writing.
Although not often heard in formal speaking, it is used here and there. Much like in poetry, it helps emphasize portions of writing or speech that the author wants remembered. Martin Luther King Jr. used it in his own “I have a dream” speech. One phrase ends “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” The letter “c” is indicative of alliteration in this case.
Alliteration isn’t for everyone, but when used properly it can completely change the way an audience interacts with a piece of writing.