To Wit: An E-zine On How To Be a Wit

This is an E-zine from Thomas Christopher on how to be witty.


I'm offering T-shirts and other self-expression products designed using the techniques discussed here. I've set up an on line "store" at My portal site to CafePress is I expect to use many of the designs as examples in this e-zine.

Wit makes its own welcome, and levels all distinctions.


Repetition of sounds can add delight to speaking and writing. Alliteration, the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of syllables, has created memorable expressions for ages. Anglo-Saxon poetry was accentual-alliterative: there were a fixed number of heavy stresses per line, and several of the accented syllables on the line would alliterate. Our delight in alliteration has not diminished.

Use a thesaurus to replace words that don't alliterate with equivalent ones that do. To give yourself material to work with, look up synonyms and antonyms for the concepts in your statement. In a thesaurus in Roget’s order, related and opposite concepts are usually within a few pages of each other, so the search is relatively easy. You will need to rephrase the statement in several ways to try out the various options.

Alliteration is a form of consonance, the repetition of consonant sounds. Any repetition of consonants makes an expression attractive. Consonance works best with short vowels. Long vowels can take attention away from it. As a reminder, vowel lengths in English are given in the following table.

Short vowels:Long vowels:


alone (first sound) A schwa, ə, has been defined as "a neutral midcentral vowel in an unstressed syllable."

father’s car


at bat


ate cake


ten berries


be eve


is hit


like ice


look good

all law


cut up


go alone


new tool


toy oil


shout loud


earn fur

Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds. Assonance with consonance at the ends of stressed syllables has another name: "rhyme."

A so-called "perfect masculine rhyme" consists of four things

  1. two stressed syllables

  2. with the same vowel sound,

  3. the same trailing consonant sounds, if any, and

  4. different initial consonant sounds.

A perfect feminine rhyme is all that plus one or more identical trailing unstressed syllables.

Rhyme is one of the most powerful techniques for making words memorable. It a feature of formal poetry. It is present in most popular song lyrics. It makes lines of prose memorable as well. For example,

We will have no truce or parley with you [Hitler]... You do your worst, and we will do our best.


This contains several rhymes, one perfect: you/do, and three “slant”: truce/you, your/our, worst/best.

Perfect rhyme sounds best, but it is sometimes hard to find in English. Many poets have given up on rhyme contending that it makes it too difficult to express themselves, and besides, classical poetry was unrhymed. On the other hand, rhyme brings delight, and eliminating rhyme eliminates that delight.

Feel free to use slant rhymes. A slant rhyme diverges from a perfect rhyme in at least one of the four characteristics, and some forms of slant rhymes are nearly as good as perfect rhymes.

Here are several forms of slant rhyme:

Additive / subtractive: bad / dad’s

Additive/subtractive rhymes have the same trailing consonant sounds, but one of the syllables has additional consonant sounds.

Family rhymes: bad / crab, sag, cat

Family rhymes have the same stressed vowel sound followed by consonants in the same family. Consonant families are shown in the following table. Family rhyme works best with long vowels, which distract attention from the slight mismatch of consonants. "Crab" and "sag" use voiced consonants in the same family as  "bad." "Cat" uses the unvoiced "d" sound.

Consonant families:


























Assonance rhymes: bad / craft

Assonance rhymes have the same vowel sound, but differing consonant sounds. They work best with long vowels, especially when used in lyrics on sustained notes.

Alliterative: bad / bid, bud

Alliterative rhymes have the same leading and trailing consonant sounds, but different vowels. They might be called double-consonant rhyme: same neighboring consonant sounds, different vowels. It works best for short vowels, where the consonants are more prominent. For example, in 

live, love, laugh

live and love are perfect alliterative rhymes, while love and laugh are alliterative with family rhymes

Weak syllable: Baltic / Adriatic

In weak syllable rhymes, one or both syllables are unstressed, for example:

From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.


Rhyming dictionaries are indexed by vowel and trailing consonants. A rhyming dictionary based on phonetic spelling can be used for perfect, additive, family, and assonance rhymes. 

The perfect rhymes are in the same vowel/consonants section.. Additive rhymes are in near by sections, and of course, plurals, possessives, and third person are trivial to construct.

Similarly, family rhymes require searching sections for consonants in the same family, which are spread out among the sections for the same vowel. Finding all assonance rhymes requires searching all the sections for the same vowel.

Weak syllable rhymes can be found among the feminine (or "multi syllable") rhymes. They will be organized by the vowel of the preceding syllable, so except for obvious endings (-tion,-ment, ...)  the effect may not be worth the effort.

These are the kinds of repetition of sounds that are relatively easy to find and use. If you want to make a statement to be especially memorable, they are worth trying.

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Thomas Christopher, Ph.D.: Seminars, Speeches, Consulting
1140 Portland Place #205, Boulder CO 80304, 303-709-5659,
Books through Prentice Hall PTR, albeit not related to wit: High-Performance Java Platform Computing, ISBN: 0130161640, Web Programming in Python, ISBN: 0-13-041065-9, Python Programming Patterns, ISBN: 0-13-040956-1