One of the first literary devices we learn as children is rhyme. We learn these through nursery rhymes and repetitive stories. But did you know we also learn assonance and other similar rhetorical devices? We usually don’t even know that we know them until we are much older.
Assonance is a common rhetorical or literary device. It’s closely related to rhymes, and rhymes usually feature some assonance. But they are not the same thing.
You probably know tons of examples of assonance without even realizing it. So, what is assonance? Why should we know about it as writers? Today, we’re taking a deep dive into this often-used but underrated literary device.
What Is Assonance?
Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds. It comes from the Latin word assonare, which means “to answer with the same sound.”
Immediately, you might think of words like “clock” and “rock” or “ham” and “jam.” While these are accurate examples, assonance goes much deeper than words that rhyme.
Assonance only requires the repetition of similar vowel sounds, and they can occur anywhere within the words. The words do not have to have the same consonant sounds, nor do they have to end with the same sounds.
Let’s take a look at some other word pairs using assonance:
Each of those examples feature assonance, but they do not have the same consonant sounds.
The Repetition of Vowel Sounds
In the last example, the assonance is not even in the same syllable of the two words. The first example has assonance of the short /u/ sound. Notice that “some” does not actually have the letter u. It only has the “uh” sound.
The second example’s assonance appears in the short /i/ sound. In this case, both “sit” and “Chip” actually have the letter i, but this is not a requirement for assonance.
The third example has longer words. In real world examples, this is usually how assonance appears. The first syllable of “leaping” and the last syllable of “chimpanzees” use the long /e/ sound.
Assonance also doesn’t only appear in word pairs. In fact, assonance often appears in several words within a phrase or sentence. We’ll cover more in-depth examples from literature and poetry later in this article. For now, you have a working understanding of what assonance is.
Phonetic Sounds in Literary Devices
You can probably see how assonance is easily confused with rhyming. So, if assonance isn’t the same thing as a rhyme, what is a rhyme? Does a rhyme always feature assonance?
There are four common rhetorical devices that involve phonetic sounds. They can all be used together or used separately.
To truly understand assonance, you must know the difference between these four terms.
Examples of Assonance
We’ve already covered the definition of assonance. Sometimes, English grammar experts debate on whether or not assonance can occur at the beginning of words. We’ll talk more about this in the section about alliteration.
Let’s take a look at some longer phrases using assonance. The following are common sayings or proverbs in the English language. The writer used assonance to make them more memorable without resorting to rhymes.
The squeaky wheel gets the grease. This common saying uses the long e sound (phonetic symbol /i/) to focus readers’ attention. Notice the words don’t rhyme because the consonants at the end are different.
The early bird catches the worm. This often-used proverb repeats the vowel sound /ɜ/ to capture readers’ awareness.
Also, notice that not every word has to include the same assonant sound. Depending on how you pronounce “the,” three to five of the six words in the first example use assonance. In the second example, only “early,” “bird,” and “worm” use assonance.
Consonance is assonance’s cousin. It’s easy to remember because it involves using the same consonant sounds.
Like assonance, these consonant sounds don’t have to be at the ends of words. They don’t even have to be in the same syllables as the other words.
One example of consonance is actually the same as one of our assonance examples from above.
The early bird catches the worm.
This phrase uses the repetition of the /r/ sound in the words “early,” “bird,” and “worm.”
Another common adage is “All’s well that ends well.” The consonance is in the repetition of the /l/ sound. Even though the /l/ sound is at the end, the words do not rhyme because they don’t share the same vowel sound.
Alliteration is another phonetic rhetorical device. This is the repetition of letter sounds only at the beginning of words.
Some people agree that alliteration can use the same vowel sounds at the beginning of words, which is a form of assonance. For example, “Annie’s apple.”
Other people say that alliteration is a special type of consonance that occurs only at the beginning of a word. These people think that if shared vowel sounds are at the beginning of words, this is only called assonance. Alliteration for them would only include things like, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair,” or “Mike’s mango.”
It doesn’t really matter to most writers what the actual definition of alliteration is. Just know that the same sounds at the beginning of words is alliteration.
How Is Rhyme Different to Assonance?
A rhyme is when the ending sounds of two or more words are the same. This requires the ending syllables to have both assonance and consonance: shared vowel and consonant sounds.
Think of the song, Rock Around the Clock. “Rock” and “clock” both have the short /o/ sound and end in the /k/ sound.
Here’s a well-known poetry example from Robert Frost:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
The ending words of each line rhymes with another line in the same stanza.
If you’re looking for ways to add more rhyme and alliteration into your writing, try ProWritingAid’s Word Explorer.
Just search for a word, and you’ll see commonly alliterated adjectives, nouns, and verbs as well as rhymes, collocations, clichés, and more.
Assonance occurs commonly in poetry, especially in non-rhyming poetry. It’s a great rhetorical device to promote rhythm and lyricism. Here are some examples of assonance in poetry. The emphasis is added to show the occurrences of assonance.
May-Flower by Emily Dickinson
Pink, small, and punctual, Aromatic, low,
Covert in April, Candid in May,
Dear to the moss, Known by the knoll,
Next to the robin
In every human soul.
Bold little beauty, Bedecked with thee, Nature forswears Antiquity.
Excerpt from Mother to Son by Langston Hughes
Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time I’se been a-climbin’ on, And reachin’ landin’s, And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark Where there ain’t been no light...
In this next example, try to find all the examples of assonance yourself. Can you identify other rhetorical devices, too?
We’ll start you off:
Excerpt from The Bells by Edgar Allen Poe
Hear the sledges with the bells—
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells—
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.
Robert Frost used assonance frequently in his poems. What vowel sounds is he repeating in this example?
Excerpt from After Apple-Picking by Robert Frost
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
Can you think of another example of assonance from poetry? I bet you’ll see it everywhere when you read poetry now that you know all about it.
Assonance in Taylor Swift Lyrics
Have you seen this fantastic Twitter thread all about how Taylor Swift uses literary devices in her songs?
5. ASSONANCE: The repetition of similar vowel sounds in neighboring words.
Assonance is often thought of as a less common literary device in literature. Truthfully, however, it appears accidentally all the time. That’s because writers often write sentences that sound good without paying attention to why! Here are a couple of examples of assonance in literature.
This first example is from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. He uses the short /i/ sound repeatedly. How many instances can you count in this sentence?
Soft language issued from their spitless lips as they swished in low circles round and round the field, winding hither and thither through the weeds…
Harper Lee uses the repetition of the short /e/ sound at the beginning of the sentence, then switches to consonance, in this example from To Kill a Mockingbird:
When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.
Here’s an example of assonance from William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom that uses the repetition of the short /o/.
So it took Charles Bon and his mother to get rid of old Tom, and Charles Bon and the octoroon to get rid of Judith, and Charles Bon and Clytie to get rid of Henry; and Charles Bon's mother and Charles Bon's grandmother got rid of Charles Bon.
Finally, let’s look at Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney:
I never heard before of a ship so well furbished with battle tackle…;
No wise man in hall or weathered veteran…;
Asleep from their feasting…;
They wept to heaven…"
Consider how battle tackle, weathered veteran, asleep…feasting and wept…heaven repeat vowel sounds, drawing your ear and your attention to word choice. Beowulf is famous for its cadence and sounds, and this translation uses assonance to mimic the original sounds of Old English.
Why Do We Use Assonance?
Assonance was a common rhetorical device in Old English. The literature during this era was lyrical and songlike. But we still use it today for the same reasons, although often with less intention.
Assonance serves several purposes in writing. First, any sort of repetition of sounds, whether it’s assonance, consonance, alliteration, or rhyme, adds emphasis to our sentences.
When you run the report, you can then hover over any adjectives, verbs, nouns, or adverbs in your text to see contextually relevant synonyms.
Assonance can also speed up or slow down a sentence, depending on the length of the words and sentences you are using. This means that with some repetitive vowel sounds, you can impact the pacing of your writing. (Check out ProWritingAid’s Pacing Tool for more ways to improve your pacing.)
Most importantly, assonance is memorable because it affects the rhythm of writing. It’s most impactful when paired with other literary devices that involve repetitive sounds. Challenge yourself to add some assonance to your own work! It can be a lot of fun.