Are you addicted to alliteration, like so many writers? Yeah, me too. But unless you fancy a career in tabloid news, it could be time to break the habit.
As you may imagine, I attend a lot of meetings where writing is discussed. Headlines, taglines, pseudonyms and slogans are often bandied about with some vigour, and I frequently get to hear the ideas of other writers. One thing looms as large as a mammoth in Ilford High Street: we’re all way too fond of alliteration for our own good. Ask any writer to create a headline, and the odds are excellent that alliteration will crop up somewhere in the process.
But before I go any further, let’s pause to look at the definition of alliteration. Wikipedia describes it as:
“A stylistic literary device identified by the repeated sound of the first consonant in a series of multiple words, or the repetition of the same sounds or of the same kinds of sounds at the beginning of words or in stressed syllables of a phrase.”
The same article goes on to describe the effect of alliteration as, “pleasingly rhythmical”. Presumably this pleasant impression of rhythm is exactly why we’re such hardcore alliterators. The device lends a sense of the poetic to mundane words and ideas, turning them into something memorable, and best of all it isn’t hard to employ.
Such poetic appeal and ease of use is probably exactly why alliteration occurs so frequently where it really has no business being. It’s often found in parts of the tabloid press which are not considered models of literary merit, as per the example below.
Here it is used to sensationalist and comic effect. It’s clever. But even if you enjoyed reading the headline, I’m sure you’ll agree that neither sensationalism nor comedy is really appropriate to the reporting of this subject matter. Much of the sensationalism is contrived, too. It is derived from the implication that the police in this investigation are cannibals (when in reality I suspect they’re simply attempting to apprehend a person suspected of this act).
The intrinsic and popular appeal of alliteration means that it’s an undeniably useful device to include in tabloid and ‘clickbait’ headlines. But it’s worth recognizing that the device has become tarnished by its populist associations and, unless used with great care, its presence does tend to convey the general impression of low-rent copywriting.
So is it time to expunge alliteration from our stylistic repertoire? I think not. There are countless instances where it has been used to superb effect, such as this famous example by Martin Luther King:
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
So what’s the difference between this example and the one from the tabloid newspaper? In King’s speech, the alliteration is incidental and is only one amongst a whole host of rhetorical devices. In the case of the tabloid headline, it’s the entire raison d’etre of the piece.
Has this investigation rid me of my addiction to alliteration? Sort of. I’ll probably carry on alliterating, but I’ll do it with far greater awareness and care. And I’ll caution writers never to choose their words purely with the purpose of constructing alliteration. Unless, of course, they fancy a career as a tabloid journalist.