Grammar Writing with Rhythm and Sound |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Writing with Rhythm and Sound

Good writing involves more than good grammar. A sentence can be correctly written but dull. In addition to technical precision, composition that connects with readers has a sense of rhythm and sound.

Think of how much children enjoy rhymes and word play such as Red Rover, Red Rover, let Raymond come over and The itsy bitsy spider climbed up the waterspout / Down came the rain and washed the spider out.

As children become adults, they still respond to devices that give style to language. Consider how certain jingles and slogans create messages we remember, such as Alka-Seltzer’s Plop plop, fizz fizz, oh what a relief it is.

The following are some of the techniques we might use to add rhythm and sound to our writing:

  • Assonance: the repetition of vowel sounds in the same line (He walks on a wire above a personal mire; in this case, the rhyme further reinforces the sound)
  • Alliteration: the repetition of vowel or consonant sounds in the same line, typically at the beginning of words (Adam’s apple, brisk breeze)
  • Consonance: the repetition of consonant sounds in the same line, including in the middle or at the end of words (She sells seashells by the seashore.)
  • Onomatopoeia: the imitation or representation of a natural sound (beep, clang, hiss).

When used with skill, these devices can result in beautiful sentences such as Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows by poet Alexander Pope. Experts with them might even find work as advertising writers who can use assonance, alliteration, consonance, and onomatopoeia all in one short, catchy line like the one for Alka-Seltzer above.

Just as important, we want to avoid the jarring or distracting use of sound. Imagine a book or an article that includes a sentence such as She went to the station to see the map of the nations for a lively look at their frosty relations. We can agree that it’s a bit too much.

Writing with rhythm and sound also involves where we place our words for emphasis. Note what the following two sentences emphasize and how they sound:

Believing in his message of hope, they followed him faithfully.
They followed him faithfully, believing in his message of hope.

In the first sentence, we stress the faithful following; we also end with a softer vowel sound (-ly), which is less resolute. In the second sentence, we underscore the message of hope; we also end with a single syllable with a consonant p sound, which is more resolute.

Yet another way to cast the sentence could be:

Believing in him, they followed faithfully his message of hope.

This treatment is perhaps the most succinct and rhythmic. In addition to looking more readable, it combines the two originally differing points of emphasis into one idea while ending in the stronger sound. 

By focusing on rhythm and sound as much as we do grammatical accuracy, we can make ourselves writers who sing sweetly to reader’ inner ears at the same time we write with precision.

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

7 responses to “Writing with Rhythm and Sound”

  1. Kevin Caldwell says:

    Of these three sentences:

    “Believing in his message of hope, they followed him faithfully.”
    “They followed him faithfully, believing in his message of hope.”
    “Believing in him, they followed faithfully his message of hope.”

    …only the first seems (to me, at least) to convey the idea that his message of hope was what led them to follow him faithfully. If I were the writer and wanted to convey that idea, the first one is what I would prefer over the other two. However, a better way to convey that meaning while accomplishing what you prefer (a more resolute sound at the end) would be:

    They followed him faithfully because of his message of hope.

    • We appreciate that this article stimulated your thinking, which is always our hope. Thank you for your analysis of the structure of a thought with attention toward rhythm and sound as well as straightforward declaration.

  2. Lee McIntyre says:

    This is a terrific article. Too often we work to master the mechanics of writing, so it’s nice to read a piece accenting the artistry of writing.

  3. Nick Adams says:

    This article supports why poetry is important.

  4. Roy M Warner says:

    “Believing in him” conveys a different motivation than “believing in his message of hope.”

  5. Janice H. says:

    I enjoyed reading this morning your message about the use of rhythm and sound in good writing, but I find myself wondering whether techniques so subtle and personal can actually be taught.

    • We understand your observation. This topic is less focused on technical instruction than it is on tools available to enhance writing style.

      As the article expresses, a sentence can be correctly formed (as taught) but dull. Further developing one’s style might be compared to learning an instrument: One can be taught the notes, but composing melodies takes desire, practice, and experimentation. That dedication is an X factor that can often separate artists from rote learners.

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