Grammar Sibilance: Definition and Examples |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Sibilance: Definition and Examples

The art of language embraces sound just as it does precision and eloquence of written expression.

For example, along the way we’ve discussed alliteration, which is the repetition of two or more neighboring sounds of words, often initial letters, to create a phonetic device:

simple story

accept and excel

The repeating alliterative sounds occur either in the first letter of each word or in the stressed syllables of those words.

With our examples above, we also have a specific type of sound referred to as sibilance.

What Is Sibilance?

Sibilance is the recurrence of a hissing, hushing, or whispering sound in words. While it is often associated with the letter s, sibilance involves s-type sounds, not the letter itself.

Sibilance originates from the Latin sibilare (“to hiss, “to whistle”). You’ll also notice the word sibilance is sibilant itself: sibilance.

The following table shows common letters that form sibilance as well as examples of words applying its sound.

Letter(s) Sibilant Sound   Letter(s) Sibilant Sound
cc accept, success sh shed, shell
cei receive, receipt ss bliss, miss
ce, ci cease, Cinderella xc excel, except
s simple, list z zoo, zipper

Consider how sibilance establishes the sonic qualities of well-known interjections such as shh and psst. The sounds themselves convey hushing or whispering thoughts.

When we think of sibilance, we also think of the sss of a slithering snake with a slippery forked tongue.

While not a part of our current discussion, other soft or buzzing sounds such as ch (choo-choo), f (fog), hard th (that), and v (victory) might be classified as sibilant by some linguists as well.

As we’ve alluded to, sibilance is alliterative when it appears in the first letters of consecutive words: simple story. However, sibilance doesn’t require a particular order or positioning in a sentence. It can appear anywhere in a word.


Sarah said she wishes she could live in San Francisco.

the receipt for the prescription (ti forms a sibilant sound)

Are they certain we’ll have access to the Sistine Chapel?

Sibilance in Writing

When used with skill and proper restraint, sibilance can add style and even melody to our writing through words that create sounds inside of our minds just as they do for our ears when spoken.

Qualities of sibilance in writing include:

voice. Sibilance might be applied to establish persona according to how a character speaks. For example, how would you begin to evaluate a character who often communicates in the following way?

Say, I sure would like a sip of that soda. Save me some?

I understand your stance, but certain sections of your thinking are suspect.

A commonly quoted passage from Shakespeare’s Hamlet provides another example of memorable sibilance in a character’s speech. In the scene, Bernardo invites Francisco to hear his story about the ghost of King Hamlet.

Sit down a while

And let us once again assail your ears,

That are so fortified against our story,

What we have two nights seen.

emphasis. When we want certain words to stand out, we can make them sibilant to lend them weight they might not otherwise have. Which description would be more distinctive to you: a flavorful steak or a savory steak?

mood and atmosphere. Sibilant writing can infuse a scene or a sentence with additional mystery, mood, intrigue, or suspense. Note how it can influence a feeling or setting:

The wind whispering through the sunshine stirred the otherwise tranquil Bald Cypress.

Alec ascended the staircase, snuck around the corner, and shifted into the shadows.

The iron stayed in the furnace until red and smoking hot.

The passage from Hamlet above is likewise an instance of sibilance creating a mood.

Related Topic

Assonance: Definition and Examples
Consonance: Definition and Examples
Writing with Rhythm and Sound

Pop Quiz

Identify any instances of sibilance (excluding ch, f, hard th, and v).

1. Sally’s favorite song by the Beatles is “She Said She Said.”

2. Should we share the last of the pistachios?

3. Chun-hee wishes you well on your voyage.

4. Wilhelm took the train to Times Square.

5. I missed the eclipse while I was filling the salt shakers?


Pop Quiz Answers

1. Sally’s favorite song by the Beatles isShe Said She Said.”

2. Should we share the last of the pistachios?

3. Chun-hee wishes you well on your voyage.

4. Wilhelm took the train to Times Square.

5. I missed the eclipse while I was filling the salt shakers?

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