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Say I'm attempting to write a sound, as in 'poof', 'thud', or 'clank'. What's the correct convention to write something like this? Is there one, or is it a grey area as long as it's clear to the reader?

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4 Answers 4

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You might consider looking in the dictionary first:

poof 1 |po͞of, po͝of|(also pouf )
exclam.
1 used to convey the suddenness with which someone or something disappears: once you've used it, poof—it's gone.
2 used to express contemptuous dismissal: “Oh, poof!” said Will. “You say that every year.”

thud |THəd|
noun
a dull, heavy sound, such as that made by an object falling to the ground: Jean heard the thud of the closing door.

clank |klaNGk|
noun
a loud, sharp sound or series of sounds, typically made by pieces of metal meeting or being struck together: the groan and clank of a winch.

If you don't find it, you can just make something up. But include some context, or you risk not being understood:

She dropped into the chair with a plooomp.

If we hadn't been told what was happening here, we might not be able to determine what the ploomp sound signified.

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I think there's a slight difference between your title and your question. Onomatopoeia refers to actual words: clank and thud are both in the dictionary, and there is no reason to write them differently because of their origin. Sounds that are not [yet] words are usually put in quotation marks if made by a person ("Aaagh!") or italicised if not ('The snow made a soft plomp as it fell'). Bear in mind that "The cat meowed", "The cat said "Miaou"" and The cat made a meow of agreement" all refer to the same action, but with different emphasis.

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Grammatically, onomatopoeias are verbs, nouns, or interjections:

The cat meowed.
It landed with a dull "thud."
Tic-tic-pomp! The man's fingers fell on the wet pavement with a shower of blood.

Typographically, onomatopoeias present the same choices as thoughts: Set them normally, quoted, or italicized. Style guides recommend using one style consistently, whichever you choose. But set verb onomatopoeias as normal text, especially if they're common words.

EDIT: Notwithstanding the source, it's good practice to set all onomatopoeias as normal text – it maintains consistency between verb and other onomatopoeias, and doesn't require you to make a clear distinction between onomatopoeias and other words.

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The thud-quoting example is wrong, @rdhs –  jwpat7 Dec 3 '11 at 2:58
1  
I think you'd soon get in a lot of trouble if you opted for quoting all onomatopoeic words, and tried to apply this consistently. Nearly everyone agrees beep, moo, and cuckoo are onomatopoeic, but what about chatter, fizz, and snort? Special typography for thud is fine when writing about the word, or maybe in a particularly florid prose style. But not for normal writing. –  FumbleFingers Dec 3 '11 at 4:57
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Sneeze and drip are both onomatopoeia so my approach would be to treat poof, thud, clunk, as you would any other word, as long as the context is clear through punctuation, typography and context.

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