Effective Alliteration

I have, buried somewhere deep in my hard drive, a word document named “Alliterations for fun.” In it, I take each letter of the alphabet and write a sentence composed of as many words as possible that start with that letter, and look something like this:

Dashing Delaware dancers delivering delicious Danish delectables to dogmatic dwarven druids dined on deliciously delicate deer drizzled with dizzying dextrose droplets in dilapidated doghouses, dreaming of docile, decorous Dalmatians.

Sentences like these are exactly what most people think of when they hear the world alliteration: repetition of a single letter sound to the point that it creates an overwhelming uniformity. This is the kind of alliteration that shows up in phrases like “Peter Piper picked a pack of pickled peppers,” and tongue-twisters everywhere, the kind of thing that helps us remember lines, but that we can't really take seriously. However, alliterations like those above are actually the worst examples of just how powerful the device can be. To really understand it, we need to do some more serious exploring.

One place we could look for powerful alliteration is poetry. One of the most famous poems of all time, Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” begins with this beautiful line:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary.

Here the alliterated sound is the one that beings the words “Once,” “while,” “weak,” and weary.” The sound isn’t repeated enough to make us hyper-aware or sick of it, but rather just enough to make the line sound harmonious and create patterns that make it easy to remember. This is a perfect example of how alliteration functions at the highest level, impacting us even as we don't recognize it.

A quick glance at the world of advertising, a world that in many ways depends on its ability to make its consumers remember something, also reveals just how powerful alliteration can be.  One of the most famous catchphrases this past year has been Under Armor’s Olympic campaign slogan: 

It’s what you do in the dark that puts you in the light.

The slogan was colloquially shortened to “What you do in the dark,” and it’s here that the alliteration on “do” and “dark” is a bit more obvious. Again, this isn't the kind of alliteration that jumps obviously off the page at us, but that doesn’t mean the device isn't at work. In fact, the slogan was so effective in part because it struck a happy medium with alliteration, where it could stick powerfully in our minds without assaulting our senses.

Pointing out that these are examples of alliteration is the kind of thing that often makes people roll their eyes and groan that I’m being far too “english major” around them, that most don’t even recognize these as alliterations. That, though, is exactly the point. Just because people don’t recognize alliteration doesn’t mean it can’t have an effect on them. Indeed, alliteration often has its strongest effects precisely when it isn't obvious, when it helps us remember a line without coming across as overdone. It takes a careful eye and ear to catch out well-executed alliteration, but it's worth paying the attention it takes to see it. 

With excitement and optimism,