#SecondThoughts: Avoid alliteration. Always.

Alphabetical Africa, by Walter Abish, is the kind of eccentric novel that you have to really work at – but it is incredibly clever. The first chapter is written using only words that begin with ‘a’. With every chapter, the next letter of the alphabet is added until the full alphabet is available; from that point though, letters are dropped until the last chapter returns to the same restriction as the first.

I’m not sure I’d want to have a go at writing something like that, but I think that most writers, at some point or another, enjoy having a go at something experimental. At the very least, there’s always something that is considered to be some kind of rule that you feel that you want to rebel against.

The thing about a lot of writing ‘rules’ is that people tend to focus on the sound bite and fail to look at the more nuanced case behind it. Eliminate adverbs, for example, is supposed to help you produce a cleaner form of writing. Using an adverb means that you should have used a stronger verb, they say. For myself, I think it’s a piece of advice that can help you in the editing phase, but you shouldn’t just take all the adverbs round the back and shoot them. Adverbs, if used sparingly, can be powerful, in a subtle kind of way. For example, ‘run’ is not a stronger verb to replace ‘walk quickly’. If you walk quickly, you’re walking with purpose; if you hurry, there’s possibly a certain nervous urgency to your action.

‘Avoid alliteration, always’ is a piece of advice that I’ve seen floating around for years. If Abish had followed this advice then there would be one less odd book for us to ponder over. Some might say that would be a good thing…

However, is the advice genuine? Or is it a joke? Alliteration is taught in schools, so why should we avoid it?

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to be given a copy of Mark Forsyth’s Etymologicon, which explores the etymology of a range of words, with each explanation following on from the last, and the last entry linking back to the first. For someone interested in words, and how they are related, the book is fascinating. On the basis of my enjoyment of the book, I put in a request for some of Forsyth’s other work, and so have recently been able to make a start on ‘The Elements of Eloquence’. The first chapter, as you might have guessed, is on alliteration.

Alliteration is one of the tools of rhetoric – the black art and subtle science of persuading people to your point of view by talking to them. As with many of the ‘rules’ around writing, the answer is not to avoid it always, but rather to deploy it for effect in the right places. Alliteration is a way of generating a certain rhythm to a piece, to hammer home a point. But. But. And again, but. It is all to easy to over-egg the pudding. It might be thought that Alphabetical Africa is far too much of a good thing, but Abish deliberately goes too far, and in so doing makes a point. If he’d done any less, then it would have reduced the impact of what he was attempting. Instead, by going the whole hog, the alliteration is a statement.

However, alliteration allowed to run amok, an attempt at Art, is usually amazingly atrocious and should not be accepted. What had not occurred to me before though, assuming alliteration must always use the same letter in a given sentence, is that the rhetorical ruse can be used usefully with different letters.

Ahem. The point, as ever, is that you can have too much of a good thing. Don’t avoid alliteration, but do use it sparingly. Save it for special occasions. Like any tool, learn to use it safely, for the right purpose, and it can add sparkle to your scribbles.

© David Jesson, 2022

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