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... and if not, what is it?

This cropped up in a facebook expat group that I am in, when one commentor insisted it is assonance, not alliteration. As the only linguist in the group I was called on to give a definitive answer.

I was about to say "it is alliteration" on the basis that assonance is based on syllabic stress, and started looking for sources but...

....OWL, Silva Rhetorica, and Wikipedia all suggest, directly or indirectly, that alliteration applies only to word-initial consonants. This would leave the phrase as assonance, but only if assonace includes word-initial vowel sounds, which the same sources suggest is not the case except when the first syllable is stressed.

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  • ar t ful, perhaps?
    – deadrat
    Apr 17, 2016 at 5:48
  • The OED allows for same sounds in syllables, not necessarily the first.
    – deadrat
    Apr 17, 2016 at 5:51
  • @deadrat assonance or alliteration? If it is assonance, that would leave something like "Alan's artful apartment" as neither alliteration nor assonance. Apr 17, 2016 at 6:23
  • Alan's artful apartment. Wouldn't that qualify as assonance even under a strict definition of stressed syllables? artful apartment. Wouldn't that qualify as alliteration by the same token?
    – deadrat
    Apr 17, 2016 at 6:43
  • Hmmmm... I guess it would so it is not a good example, - my bad! - but it is not assonic because everything starts with an 'a'. "Alan's artful department" would work as assonance too. Apr 17, 2016 at 6:48

3 Answers 3

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In popular, nontechnical use (that is, when 'alliteration' is loosely used), the meaning of 'alliteration' as given by OED Online includes vocalic initial as well as consonantal initial sounds:

The commencement of adjacent or closely connected words with the same sound or letter; an instance of this; ....

["alliteration, n.". OED Online. March 2016. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/5324?redirectedFrom=alliteration (accessed April 17, 2016).]

The OED definition agrees with American Heritage (as shown at The Free Dictionary):

The repetition of identical or similar sounds at the beginning of words or in stressed syllables, ....

And Random House (op. cit.):

  1. the commencement of two or more words of a word group with the same letter, as in apt alliteration's artful aid.

More-specialized uses of the term are also defined by the foregoing and other sources:

spec. (in Old and Middle English and other Germanic poetry) the commencement of certain accented syllables of a verse with the same consonant or consonantal group, or with any vowel sounds.

(OED Online, bold emphasis mine.)

Modern alliteration is predominantly consonantal; certain literary traditions, such as Old English verse, also alliterate using vowel sounds.

(American Heritage, bold emphasis mine. Note that "predominantly" does not rule out modern vocalic alliteration.)

(Literary & Literary Critical Terms) the use of the same consonant (consonantal alliteration) or of a vowel, not necessarily the same vowel (vocalic alliteration), at the beginning of each word or each stressed syllable in a line of verse, as in around the rugged rock the ragged rascal ran.

(Collins English Dictionary. Note that this definition omits or overlooks the use of alliteration in prose.)

  1. repetition of the same sound, as a consonant or cluster, at the beginning of two or more stressed syllables, as in from stem to stern.

(Random House, bold emphasis mine. Here again, although repetition of initial consonant sounds is mentioned by way of example, repetition of initial vocalic sounds is not ruled out.)

In summary, 'alliteration' loosely used refers to a repetition of initial sounds, whether vocalic or consonantal; thus apt alliteration's artful aid is alliterative. Specialized uses with exclusive reference to repetition of initial sounds in stressed syllables in verse also include types of vocalic alliteration.


The definition of 'alliteration' at Silva Rhetoricae most closely matches the casual or nontechnical sense taught to students at US universities and secondary schools:

Repetition of the same letter or sound within nearby words. Most often, repeated initial consonants.

(Silva Rhetoricae, "alliteration".)

That definition and the definitions derived from the uses collected by the lexicographers at sources previously mentioned (OED Online, American Heritage, Random House, Collins English) differ in two notable ways. The Silva Rhetoricae definition accounts for

  1. graphemic and phonetic alliteration, and

  2. initial and internal alliteration.

Of these differences, OED Online and Random House agree that 'alliteration' may be graphemic or phonetic ("with the same sound or letter"), but American Heritage does not; none of the lexicons admit, outside of the specialized cases embodied in alliterative verse, that the repetition of sounds may be either initial or internal.

The insistence at Silva Rhetoricae that, at least in modern rhetoric, the current

usage of this term is in its most restricted sense (repeated initial consonants), ....

is mystifying until it is recognized that the "term" referenced is not 'alliteration' but rather alliteratio as "a further specification" of annominatio.


Concerning the contrast with the terms 'assonance' and 'consonance', in nontechnical use 'alliteration' is sometimes a subtype of those, that is, 'alliteration' is sometimes a type of 'assonance' and 'consonance', and is sometimes at variance with those:

consonance, n.
1. Correspondence of sounds in words or syllables; recurrence of the same or like sounds, e.g. in a verse; = assonance n. 1.

["consonance, n.". OED Online. March 2016. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/39704?redirectedFrom=consonance (accessed April 17, 2016).]

assonance, n.
1. Resemblance or correspondence of sound between two words or syllables.

["assonance, n.". OED Online. March 2016. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/11999?redirectedFrom=assonance (accessed April 17, 2016).]

In these nontechnical senses, both 'assonance' and 'consonance' refer to correspondence of sound, which 'alliteration' does not when it includes graphemic alliteration. Also, in the nontechnical senses, both 'assonance' and 'consonance' are less restrictive in use than 'alliteration', and refer to any phonetic correspondence within a group of words, rather than to a phonetic or graphemic correspondence of predominantly initial sounds or letters.

None of the differences between the senses of 'alliteration' and 'assonance' or 'consonance' in popular use, including the senses evident in the use of 'assonance' or 'consonance' with reference to rhyme (including head rhyme and internal rhyme), should be regarded as absolute or polar. Particular rhymes may include alliteration and vice versa.

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    Agree fully! The Old English bit is not really relevant to how we use alliteration today, because the rules are simply completely different. Alliteration in Old English was a very rigid set of rules to be adhered to when writing poetry, and it is quite a different system from what we would consider alliteration today. Few people today would hear can’t change and consider it alliteration, but in Old English it was (because [k] and [tʃ] were allophones of /k/, and allophones alliterated), for instance. The question is whether alliteration’s artful aid would be alliterative to anyone now. Apr 17, 2016 at 8:23
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    (Since, phonemically, the first two are allophones of /a/ and the last is a difference phoneme /eɪ/. And I’m of course not talking about definitions that are based on orthography and talk about letters; sound only.) Apr 17, 2016 at 8:25
  • Curious. How does "similar sounds at the beginning of words or in stressed syllables", or "commencement of certain accented syllables of a verse with the same consonant or consonantal group, or with any vowel sounds", or "the use of the same consonant...or of a vowel...at the beginning of each word or each stressed syllable" differ from assonance or consonance? This looks to me like dictionaries taking the stance that assonance and consonance are types of alliteration, so they can be lumped together. Apr 17, 2016 at 8:29
  • The other problem with looking in a dictionary is that more specialised sources often contradict dictionary entries: "The repetition of initial stressed, consonant sounds"(poetryfoundation.org/learning/glossary-term/alliteration) or "he repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of words"(britannica.com/art/alliteration) are quite specific about it being consonants and not vowels.m Apr 17, 2016 at 8:36
  • To add to the fun, at least one dictionary (examples.yourdictionary.com/alliteration-examples.html) tells us that alliteration is "when a series of words in a row (or close to a row) have the same first consonant sound" and then gives example for every letter of the alphabet - including the vowels! To be fair, Literary Devices (literarydevices.net/alliteration) does the same thing: "having the same first consonant sound" followed by American Airlines and American Apparrel as examples. Apr 17, 2016 at 8:43
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Assonance Definition:

Assonance takes place when two or more words close to one another repeat the same vowel sound but start with different consonant sounds.

For instance,

“Men sell the wedding bells.”

literarydevices.net: assonance

So "word-initial consonant sounds" are also expected for assonance.

But it maybe you're pounding on a special case that few of the definitions took seriously.

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  • This doesn't really answer my question. I know that most ( but not all...) sources say assonance is internal, and the others say it is when the stressed syllable has the same vowel sound, so in either case it is not a repeated initial vowel sound. As it isn't assonance, and it isn't alliteration, what is it? Apr 17, 2016 at 6:21
  • Well it's not Consonance: The same or similar consonant sound repeated in the stressed syllable, preceded by uncommon vowel sounds. Examples: urn and shorn, or irk and torque. If the excluding definitions can be taken seriously it's none of the above. Apr 17, 2016 at 6:26
  • Yep... I totally agree that it is not consonance! But if it is none of the above, what do we call it? Apr 17, 2016 at 6:28
  • A sentence? Seriously I'd have called it alliteration until you proved it wasn't because of this consonant thing. Not every corner case has a proper name. Apr 17, 2016 at 6:30
  • That is where I am too. Based on what I learned in school, alliteration was repeated first sounds, assonance was repeated internal vowels, and consonance was repeated internal consonants. I never questioned that because is is tidy, until a few hours ago. Apr 17, 2016 at 6:42
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No, I don't think this specific sentence is alliteration. The last two words have no consonants following the 'a'. They'd jsut have a weird, blended vowel sound that wouldn't really be classified with the other two as alliteration.

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  • 'r' is a consonant... Apr 17, 2016 at 6:24
  • I apologize. I meant 'the last word has the blended vowel sound that would not allow it to be classified with the other three.' Apr 17, 2016 at 6:26
  • Then, of course, the first three words would qualify as phrasal alliteration, like a tiny alliteration. Apr 17, 2016 at 6:27
  • The links I provided in the OP say alliteration applies to strings of word that start with the same consonant - that is why I am asking the question! Apr 17, 2016 at 6:31

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