I have a love-hate relationship with alliteration. Mostly hate. I am talking about when alliteration is used in sermon outlines and Sunday school lessons. I see the value in alliteration in poetry—when applied by a skilled writer.
Typically we think of alliteration as the use of the same beginning letter for the points in a message. This can be a consonant or vowel sound, though most of the time it is a consonant sound. Also, alliteration is usually related to the sound of the words. It is not necessary that the letters themselves be the same.
One of the benefits to alliteration is that it can actually be helpful in remembering the points of a message. There have been studies that show there is greater and quicker recall of information when paired with alliteration.
However, if words are manhandled to make them fit an alliteration scheme, then the whole idea usually does not work as well as the speaker or writer would hope. An example of this is the Sunday school lesson I am studying for tomorrow. There are 14 pages of notes! The short version of the notes—which will be handed out to the students—has 4 big points and 4 sub-points under each one. All of these points are alliterated to each set of 4 on their outline level. That makes 16 words that are alliterated. With that many words that are supposedly important, I doubt anyone will walk out of class tomorrow with the ability to remember even the 4 big points.
In my recent study of the book of James I looked at outlines written by various authors. Many of them had an alliterated outline. Certainly there is nothing wrong with alliteration if it stays true to the text. But some of these outlines seem to manipulate the meaning of the text so that the author can keep his cute alliteration.
Alliteration is also not helpful as a memory tool when the speaker uses an obscure or marginal word that the listeners aren’t going to remember anyway. By the way, multivocal means “having more than one meaning.” The fact that I had to look the word up and then have to explain it should be a sign that it is a terrible word to use for alliteration purposes.
I am not totally against alliteration. I use it myself sometimes. But it should not be forced to the point that you obscure the meaning of your message. And certainly the meaning of the Bible text should never be manipulated just so that it will fit with your alliteration.
[Yes, I intentionally did some bad alliteration with my paragraph headings. I would be curious as to how you might alliterate the points in this article: either better or painfully worse. Leave a comment below with your alliteration or comments on the subject.]