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I have a question about my English Language & Usage Stack Exchange post: Is alliteration adjacent words and/or close together words starting with the same letter? If words between are permitted then how many?

I don't understand why my question on alliteration is off topic. It has been put on hold because of this. Alliteration is a stylistic language device, a figure of speech and uses words and the sounds that the letters in them produce, to create an effect in the language of a sentence. It was suggested that I migrate this to Literature SE, but although alliteration is used widely in literature, it is the language technique in using it that I was asking about. I also noticed that there are other alliteration questions on this site and have not been put on hold/closed.

Could someone please explain why there was so much uproar over it and why it is now being closed as off-topic.

The question has now been moved to Literature SE and has been deleted by a moderator on ELU

  • It would probably be better at Writing. I can't guarantee they would say it's on-topic though. – curiousdannii Nov 29 '17 at 15:33
  • Two clarifying questions for you. (1) Can you clarify how the alliteration question is a question about English? (2) Are you basing your question on a belief that neighboring means adjacent and, if so, why? – MetaEd Nov 29 '17 at 15:42
  • @MetaEd Q2. Yes I did base my question on neighbouring being adjacent because examples of alliteration are often adjacent words or words with only articles such as 'the' 'a' or words like 'of'. And for Q1., alliteration is a device used in English language so my question is about English. – Fabjaja Nov 29 '17 at 15:48
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    Alliteration is not unique to English. Is there something about your alliteration question which is so unique to the English language that the best people to answer it will be English experts, rather than experts in literature? – MetaEd Nov 29 '17 at 15:53
  • You're right, but since I am English and write in it I thought it would be relevant. So should I migrate it to literature, under the topic literary tropes? Will it be on topic then? – Fabjaja Nov 29 '17 at 15:54
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    You could ask on Writers, but I don't think you necessarily need to ask on StackExchange at all. This is covered by the general references on rhetorical devices. The famous Silva Rhetoricae has this to say: repetition of the same letter or sound within nearby words. Similarly, LiteraryDevices.net: It is a stylistic device in which a number of words, having the same first consonant sound, occur close together in a series.. I don't see call for the premise that the words must be seriatim. – Dan Bron Nov 29 '17 at 17:23
  • @DanBron I made minor edits to your comment to make the markdown work. – MetaEd Nov 29 '17 at 18:02
  • OK, thanks for all your help! – Fabjaja Nov 29 '17 at 18:05
  • @MetaEd Thanks! I saw the issue but I couldn't figure out how to correct it. Can I ask what you did to make that link work? – Dan Bron Nov 29 '17 at 18:23
  • @DanBron Feel like meeting me in English Language & Usage Chat? Fabjaja might not want a bunch of pings about markdown syntax. – MetaEd Nov 29 '17 at 18:35
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    I'm surprised at how off-topic people think the question is. It's a very reasonable question to have. It has a simple answer: 1) no they don't have to be adjacent 2) the number of intervening words depends/there's no good number. If it is hard to tell if it is alliteration then it's probably not. – Mitch Nov 29 '17 at 19:15
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Common ground

I originally commented this:

You could ask on Writers, but I don't think you necessarily need to ask on StackExchange at all. This is covered by the general references on rhetorical devices. The famous Silva Rhetoricae has this to say: repetition of the same letter or sound within nearby words. Similarly, LiteraryDevices.net: It is a stylistic device in which a number of words, having the same first consonant sound, occur close together in a series. I don't see call for the premise that the words must be seriatim.

But that was based on the question I remembered you asking, not the one as it exists today. I just visited your question, and you've edited since I first saw it.

Battleground

Now, you ask:

Is alliteration adjacent words and/or close together words starting with the same letter? If words between are permitted then how many?

That is, based on feedback from several comments under your question, you seem to accept that some interspersion of non-alliterative words between alliterative ones does not prevent the whole utterance from being alliterative.

But now, you ask: since variation is permitted, how much? How many words between buttery bunches and bananas may appear before buttery bunches .... bananas is no longer considered alliterative?

It is this question which has been closed as "primarily opinion-based", because it is. Allow me to explain.

Background

In one comment, you say:

Alliteration is a language device. I'm not asking for opinion, I am enquiring whether there is a linguistic rule for how apart the words have to be. I have been trying to find a rule for a long time and have been unsuccessful.

To which @tchrist responded:

What do you mean, "a linguistic rule"? This has to do with neither syntax nor morphology. It also has nothing to do with letters, only with sounds alone.

In other words, alliteration is a rhetorical device, and is not governed by grammar, aka the "rules of English" (I think Tom specifically said "syntax or morphology" to emphasize what exactly comprises "the rules of English" and thus what does not fall under that umbrella). In other words, you won't find analysis of alliteration in, e.g. CGEL, any more than you would find one of euphemism.

That is because both devices operate on levels separate from the syntactic one: euphemism works at the semantic level (or pragmatic), and alliteration operates at the phonetic level¹.

And, since such rhetorical devices are not governed by the rules of English (grammar, orthography, etc), disputes about what qualifies as use of a device cannot be resolved by reference to the rules of English.

High ground

So that is what the closure as primarily opinion-based was stating. That any answer to your question could not claim to be more than an opinion. At least so far as the rules of English (which is what this site concerns itself with) are concerned.

Now, closure stings, though no one wants it to, and despite the constant abjurations from the SE hivemind to not take question closure personally. And I rush to repeat that abjuration here: closing your question was by no means meant to be a personal insult directed at you, to disparage you, or even is it an indictment of your question. It simply means that the site is not equipped to answer questions of this sort.

The question is still very legitimate. But we cannot answer it (except insofar as this Meta-answer is an "answer" of sorts, though of course it's moved you no closer to guidance on "what qualifies as alliteration" than the closure of your question has; it merely provides the same service with more detail).

Hunting ground

So where, then, can you get an answer to your question? Who can answer it?

Well, two things to note:

  1. Alliteration is not unique to English. In fact, the word itself was coined in the 15th century in a Latin work analyzing its use in Ancient Greek (the etymology is itself Latin).
  2. As a rhetorical device, alliteration is assessed by its effect on the audience.

To elaborate on (2), "style" is the parts of language which are left over when all the rules have been accounted for; it's precisely the part that is hard to quantify. As timbre is to music, style is to writing and speaking: critical yet ill-defined.

Anyway, by (1), you might conclude you needn't restrict your search for guidance to English-focused resources. And by (2), you may decide that seeking prescription is misguided, and that resources focused on impact, rather than rules, would be more helpful.

Combining these insights leads us to two potential places to explore alliteration on StackExchange:

  • Writers.se, where you might ask "What makes for effective alliteration?" or "What transgressions of consonance or meter can cause an alliterative phrase to lose that character?"
  • Literature.se where you can ask for historical examples of effective alliteration by notable writers, and perhaps for examples of writers pushing alliteration to or beyond its limits. Maybe they can identify instances of extreme or borderline alliteration, with great gaps in the consonance, that just barely pass muster, and yet still work.

Proving ground

Or, ultimately, you may simply be satisfied with the benchmark "It counts as alliteration if you make it work as alliteration".

Tweet by @vinnycrack saying *T-pain was only 22 when he rhymed mansion with wiscansin* in response to @DavidLetternan saying *Sir Isaac Newton was only 23 when he discovered the law of gravity.*


¹ To clarify why the rules of grammar cannot govern phonetic devices, consider an question analogous to yours on a similar phonetic device: "What counts as onomatopoeia? How close does the word's pronunciation have to be to the sound imitated to qualify?"

This analogy should make it clear that the answer can't possibly be guided by the grammar of English or any other language (because human grammar is completely independent and ignorant of, e.g. the barking of dogs or the hissing of rain on the pavement), and that the answer must be "If it's similar enough that your audience knows what sound you're imitating without you having to explain it!", because that's the purpose of onomatopoeia, and thus the only benchmark possible or needed.

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    Thanks for clearing this up for me, it's fantastically explained. Yes, I did edit my question a few days ago after someone suggested I should, after my original question was answered. I'm new to this community so I'm sorry for causing all this confusion over my question, I did use the wrong terminology in some places which confused some people. I'll try on Literature instead. Thanks! – Fabjaja Nov 29 '17 at 21:28
  • @Fabjaja Sure, no problem. I understand why closure is frustrating, especially for new users who can’t possibly yet have the same mental model of the site and its proper use as regulars do. And of course many people who come here use technical words in a different sense than the linguistic experts who hang around the site, and sometimes our confusion or corrections to such usage seems pedantic or snarky. Just the natural result of two entities “getting to know one another”. In that vein, I’d advise you to check out Lit.se’s Meta b4 asking your Q there. And equally I hope you stick around here! – Dan Bron Nov 29 '17 at 22:06
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    Primarily-opinion based? No, there is a definite answer and that answer is that it is vague. It's not like different people who understand what 'alliteration' is thinks the answer is definitely 3, and others, definitely 5. It's not a matter like which rhyme scheme is best. The answer is definitely "a few but not too many". – Mitch Nov 29 '17 at 22:28
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    I'm somewhat disappointed by your answer not having a section labeled 'Playground' or 'Coffee Ground' – Mitch Dec 1 '17 at 21:50
  • @Mitch You misunderstand. The fact that some claim 3 and some claim 5 means that the answer you get on asking the question is not definitive, but POB. You can read POB here on ELU as 'some people will claim different answers to be true, even if others say there is no single correct answer, and there is no way of arriving at an undisputed single answer'. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 4 '17 at 23:53
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I like your question, which I'll loosely paraphrase as: "When does alliteration lose its echo?"

That question appeals to me as an English language enthusiast, and while answers wouldn't be able to clinically pinpoint the number of intervening words required to stop similar sounds from 'echoing' for alliteration, they would be able to say things like "when the words in between aren't stressed".

Also, although the question might not have a precise, authoritative and definitive answer in the sense that a hypothetical "You are or you is?" does, it's far more interesting, and I don't think it's any looser than, say, Barrie Englands's "Why is American English so wedded to the subjunctive?" or even Antony Quinn's "Do most languages need more space than English?", where the test-string (for 'how much space') is left unspecified.

Although I don't have any better answer to your alliteration question than "you'll know it when you hear it, and if you don't hear it, it's not there", I'd be interested to read answers from the more reflective among us as about how this can be or has been formalised.

I'd vote to reopen this question if I could, but it's been deleted by a mod, so I can't.

  • Oh, as some kind of synchronised move-delete, the delete portion now makes a lot more sense. Thanks for the comment! (Though if it can be reopened in ELU, it would still make for one of the more interesting questions here. As you say, c’est la vie.) – Lawrence Dec 1 '17 at 9:50
  • @Mari-LouA, Sorry about no update! I updated the people on Literature Meta just after I moved it and I thought I had done here too, my mistake. – Fabjaja Dec 1 '17 at 13:43
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    @Fabjaja Glad you got the question opened in SE.Literature. It looks quite popular, too! – Lawrence Dec 1 '17 at 13:59
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    I am too! Thanks for your help! – Fabjaja Dec 1 '17 at 14:04

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