Cognitive Daily

ResearchBlogging.orgI’ve always been a fan of literary studies — I was an English major in college and I continue to blog about literature on my personal blog. But when I first learned about the concept of alliteration (I must have been in middle school), I was unimpressed. Obviously making a poem rhyme requires some serious skill, since not just one sound but a series of sounds must be repeated at the same point in the poem’s meter. Alliteration, by contrast, only requires the repetition of a single consonant sound at the beginning of a few words. Clearly, creating clever combinations of consonant sounds wasn’t hard at all. What’s the point?

Some scholars have suggested that alliteration makes a poem easier to remember: an important skill back in the days when books were so expensive that it might be cheaper to pay a bard to recite a poem than buy a written copy. But there has been little research about whether alliteration actually acts as a way to spur memory. More to the point, alliteration is rarely used throughout a poem: some of the words have to start with different letters. So alliteration might help you remember some of the poem, but it can’t help you remember the parts that aren’t alliterative. Or can it?

A team led by R. Brooke Lea has come up with an innovative way to find out if alliteration helps not with the recall of the alliterative passage itself, but with words near that passage. They modified less-well-known poems by reknowned poets like William Carlos Williams and Robert Frost to eliminate all the alliteration in the poem. Then in a “target” line in each poem, they created three different versions: two alliterative ones and one non-alliterative one:

all along the raw and rutted road the reddish barn,

all along the way-winding road, wary whispers of the old barn,

all along the creek-winding road, past Stuart’s barn,

In this case, each version ends with “barn.” The question is, does the alliteration in the line help readers remember the word “barn”?

Lea and his colleagues had student volunteers read these modified poems aloud from a line-by-line computer display. At a random distance around ten lines from the target line, a second alliterative line was presented. In this case, the text read “the wooden willowy warp of wildcarrot leaf.” Once the student read this line, the poem was interrupted: the word “barn” flashed on the screen and the student was asked to indicate as quickly as possible whether the word had appeared in the poem.

Now you can see that the two alliterative passages in the target line had different purposes. In one case, the alliteration matched the later line in the poem (all the words start with “w”), while in another, it did not. Did the alliteration help the students recall the word “barn”? Here are the results:


When the alliteration in the second line matched the first, readers were significantly faster in recognizing the nearby, non-alliterative word (“barn” in our example). When the alliteration was different in that line, there was no difference in word-recognition reaction time compared to the no-alliteration condition. While this 110-millisecond difference in reaction time might not seem that dramatic, the results were highly significant, with a prep of .94. Remember, too, that some portion of the reaction time is due to basic, invariant motor-control functions, so this really is a dramatic difference. Alliteration really does aid in recall of even the non-alliterative portions of a poem.

The researchers repeated the study with new students who read the poems silently and found the same effect. Then they repeated it again with prose passages, and again found the same effect. So even in a text passage where readers may not be as aware of the potential for alliteration, alliteration still appears to enhance memory.

R. Brooke Lea, David N. Rapp, Andrew Elfenbein, Aaron D. Mitchel, Russell Swinburne Romine (2008). Sweet Silent Thought: Alliteration and Resonance in Poetry Comprehension Psychological Science, 19 (7), 709-716 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02146.x


  1. #1 Lauren S.
    August 29, 2008

    Perhaps I do not know what P-rep is, but when results are just “significant” they have to be at .05 (or .95 in the opposite direction). And in my experience in research lab, “highly significant” generally meant going higher than that…perhaps .99 or higher (.01 or lower).

  2. #2 Dave Munger
    August 29, 2008

    Most journals accept a p-rep of .9 or even lower, so .94 is pretty good.

  3. #3 Ryan Fox
    August 29, 2008

    Seems to me that the alliteration is probably just recognized as something weird.

    Has anyone tried the same sort of setup, but rather than poems, the participants read a sentence about something like a brown/purple dog?

  4. #4 Dunc
    September 5, 2008

    This is very interesting… to anyone with an interest in pre-literate cultures. I can’t speak about any others, but I do know that alliteration is extremely important in the poetry of both P-Celtic-speaking and Anglo-Saxon Britain. If such constructs actively aid memory, they would be extremely important in cultures without writing.

  5. #5 Glenn Capelli
    October 5, 2008

    I wrote a radio piece – Thinking Caps ABC Radio Australia – regarding alliteration. Not the science of it, but the joy of it! Glenn CapelliThemes:

    Language lives lusciously and poetry is perhaps pure perfection. One of the great poetic devices is alliteration: always an adventure.

    Poetry – Let Language Live – Alliteration

    It was just a line in a book, yet it caught my eye and ear. A simple line in amongst many, but it had the sticky quality – it caught my brain’s attention. It was a line about creative minds and it read:

    ‘…The Eschers, the Ellingtons, the Edisons and the Einsteins…’

    Maybe it was the memory of ‘She sells sea shells on the sea shore’ but there is something in alliteration – the repetition of the first letter of words – that can grab a hold.

    It was my Year 10 English teacher who was the first to read any of my teen poems and praised them. The power of poetry, praise and teenage passion is provocative and my English teacher – Mr Hodge – started my run of journals full of my own poetic scribbles and lines from favourite poems.

    Prior to Year 10 my favourite poem had been:

    I wish, I was a cake of soap
    A floating in a tub
    Think of all the things I’d see
    And all the things I’d rub

    Up to the age of 14, these lines contained all the elements of deep interest – rhyme, potential naked bodies and clever (deep) bathroom humour.

    At the start of Year 10 I heard another poetic masterpiece and wrote it in my journal:

    Lillee shines the cricket ball
    For no reason that’s specific
    It doesn’t do the ball any good
    But boy, Lillee feels terrific

    How good is that? An ode to the great Dennis Lillee: rhyme, a famous cricketer (a hero) and a clever (deep) mention of the word ‘ball’.

    Then Mr Hodge stepped in and suddenly I was fast tracked into the world of rhythm, alliteration, hyperbole and poetic wonder. He built us up – starting with Janis Joplin singing Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Busted flat in Baton Rouge’ from ‘Me and Bobbie McGee’ and leading us to Simon & Garfunkel singing ‘In a deep and dark December’ from ‘I Am a Rock’. Then he had us leap and soar with the antics of Gerard Manley Hopkins (you got to love a bloke whose middle name is ‘Manley’) and I am working from memory here so please forgive me (and send your emails and text messages to correct me) but I think it went:

    ‘A dapple dawn drawn dauphine’

    I did not know what those words meant and I still don’t but boy it sounded and sounds good. I also remember Mr Hodge saying something about Gerard Manley Hopkins inventing words if he could not find the right word. Again, how good is that? Magic. Marvellous. Miraculous. Mizoopic!

    So, please get your ears on earnest watch and set your eyes on glorious glance – seek out the letter linear patterns of alliteration and draw our attention to them. Make Mr Hodge magnificently happy. Do the ‘Gerard Manley’ thing and play with the pitter-patter of living language.

    Let alliteration live.

    Where do we go from here?

    • Okay all you poetry people what are your favourite pieces of alliteration from poems and songs?
    • Did any of you have a teacher who made poetry live for you? If so, who and how?
    • Can you recite a poem by heart? Should children still learn recited poems? If so, which poem would you choose for a child to learn?