Outwit, Outplay and Outlast.
The rain in Spain, stays mainly on the plain.
All that glitters is not gold.
What do the Survivor television series, the film My Fair Lady and Shakespeare’s classic works all have in common? Why, great and memorable taglines and quotes of course! If you’re curious how writers come up with such mind-lingering hits, then join Wordsmith as we take a look at some tips from writer and etymologist* Mark Forsyth in his book The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase.
* Someone who studies the history and meaning of words
Apart from rhyme, alliteration and assonance are a staple in most forms of poetry – and are convenient for crafting catchy phrases. Both techniques are similar in that they involve the repetition of a sound, but their usage is rather different. Remember, alliterations are a series of words in a sentence that begin with the same letter – like Peter picked pickled peppers.
Looking into alliteration, Forsyth compares Shakespeare’s The Tragedie of Anthonie, and Cleopatra to the source material that the great poet allegedly plagiarised “word for word”. Here is Thomas North’s English translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans:
“… she disdained to set forward otherwise but to take her barge in the river Cydnus, the poop whereof was of gold, the sails of purple, and the oars of silver…, and such other instruments as they played up in the barge.”
Reading much like a drab history book, Shakespeare decided to work his poetic charm and rewrite the copy as so:
“The barge she sat in like a burnished throne,
Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails and so perfumed that
The winds were lovesick with them; the oars were silver…”
“All he did was add some alliteration,” explains Forsyth. “Nobody knows why we love to hear words that begin with the same letter, but we do and Shakespeare knew it. So he picked the word barge and worked from there.” Mastering alliterations is relatively straightforward, provided that you do not let it dictate what you write. First, write as you would any ordinary copy, then pick a letter as your starting point and replace or add words as needed – a thesaurus is a great tool for this job!
The media often takes advantage of alliterations to deliver catchy headlines. Ignoring the subject matter, which would you say is more memorable?
Although two alliterations per line hardly seem like much, Shakespeare mocked other poets who used them too liberally. Consider the example Forsyth concocted if Shakespeare did decide to go overboard with B words:
“The barge she basked in, like a burnished boat
Burned by the banks, the back was beaten brass.”
Not only is the above excessive, we can see that some of the original meaning is lost. The poop of a ship is a raised deck or the hindmost part of a vessel’s hull, but it’s no longer evident here. However, Forsyth argues that “any phrase, so long as it alliterates, is memorable and will be believed even if it’s a bunch of nonsense”, which places the onus of factual integrity on the writer, as “accuracy is much more important than alliteration.”
Assonance refers to words with vowels that sound similar – “Ozzy got hot and bothered.” Dubbed the “thin and flimsy cousin of alliteration” by Forsyth, assonance is used less frequently due to the limitations of vowels in the English language.
“Half the vowels in English aren’t what you thought they were – they’re schwas,” he describes. Unlike proper vowels, a schwa (defined by the ə symbol and pronounced as uh) has a slurred pronunciation that is not unique like E, I or O. “It’s a lazy compromise between all the proper vowels, and we use it all the time.”
Consider the word “another” and the three vowels in it. Although the pronunciation is inconspicuous when in writing, it’s a different story when read aloud – uh-nuh-thuh. Check out this short passage from Forsyth and see how many vowels are actually ə in disguise:
“If you start using this lettə, you get an ideə of how ubiquətəs schwa is – it’s the most commən vowəl in English… Not ə lot of peopəl know that.”
With this “vague and half-assed compromise vowel” that makes up so many words and there being so few actual proper vowels in English, it’s not a surprise that assonance is less popular than alliteration. However, assonance does have its place. An article from Literary Terms explains that softer vowels evoke a calm and tranquil mood, whereas harsher vowels and hard consonants can create feelings of power or aggression. Consider “Little Timmy made not a peep, for his world was deep in sleep” versus “The Iron Giant smacked away the Cadillac.” It’s one of the reasons why pop and rap songs feature lyrics with assonance – to influence listeners’ emotions!
To write with assonance, begin by focusing on a vowel sound that you want to build on. The easiest ones are usually vowel sounds found at end of a word, which makes regular rhyming words effective as well. For vowel sounds found at the beginning or middle of a word, syllable rhyme search engines are handy tools. However, be wary that the overuse of assonance may also affect the precision of your writing, so the same rules for alliteration abuse apply!
Alliteration and assonance are bread and butter tools for spicing up copy. If you ever find that your writing is too dull, use these essential copywriting tools to give your words a lift. Interested in learning more ways to sharpen up your writing? Stay tuned for more tips on crafting catchy copy!