Onomatopoeia is a literary device that uses words which emulate the sound an object makes. The words are chosen on the basis of how they sound in order to create an effect similar to the subject being described.
An example would be the following sentence: “The snake went to the tree” feels lifeless, but changing it to “The snake slithered to the tree” imitates the hiss that a snake makes.
Onomatopoeic words are not limited to making sounds; many of them have also evolved to have their own meanings. One example is the word “whisper.” Although it refers to the breathy or wispy sound that people make when they talk quietly, the word itself means the act of speaking quietly.
What Is an Example of Onomatopoeia?
One common use of this literary device is to describe the sound that certain actions make. For example, “banging a book on the table,” or “the boom of the drum.” A favorite children’s nursery rhyme, “The Wheels on the Bus” uses onomatopoeia in its lyrics:
The horn on the bus goes beep beep beep…
The wipers on the bus go swish-swish-swish…
The baby on the bus goes wah-wah-wah…
The mommy on the bus goes shhh-shhh-shhh…—From “The Wheels on the Bus”
Other examples would be the sound of nonliving things. Moving water and the leaves on trees are common subjects that use onomatopoeic words a lot, as shown in bold below:
- The rustling leaves reminded me of my old home near the woods.
- The boy fell into the lake with a splash.
- The gurgling brook made me want to dive in and swim.
The following categories will help you find specific onomatopoeia depending on your need:
The most common examples of onomatopoeia are the sounds that animals make. We teach children these sounds from a young age, and we use these words in writing out these sounds as well:
- Bees buzz.
- Cows moo.
- Cats meow and purr.
- Horses neigh.
- Birds tweet or chirp.
- Pigs oink.
- Lambs baa or bleat.
- Dogs bark or woof.
- Roosters cock-a-doodle-doo
- Doves coo.
- Frogs croak.
- An owl hoots.
- Ducks quack.
Machines such as cars and equipment make sounds such as:
The following words have been used to describe the sound of water:
The sound that an object makes when coming into contact with another object can be called an impact sound. Common words from this category include:
- ding, ding-dong
Action sounds may be made by animate or inanimate objects. Other action sounds include:
- tick, tick-tock
When describing the way a person speaks, writers may also use different words that emulate the sound:
Exclamations and Interjections
These common interjections also sound as they are spelled:
The following words also mimic the sound of the action that human beings make:
Onomatopoeic words are also sometimes used as names for animal species. Many birds’ names are related to the way their bird call sounds. Some animals are also named for the sounds that they make. For example:
Examples of Onomatopoeia in Literature
Writers frequently use onomatopoeia in literature. For one thing, it helps give rhythm to the text. These words also make the descriptions more interesting and appealing to the reader’s senses.
Example 1: Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey
Little Bear’s mother heard Sal walking along behind and thought it was Little Bear and she said, “Little Bear,” munch, munch,“Eat all you—” gulp, “can possibly hold!” swallow. Little Sal said nothing. She picked three berries and dropped them, kuplink, kuplank, kuplunk, in her small tin pail.—Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey
Example 2: Storm by Olisha Starr
Booming and banging thunder in the air
Crashing and rumbling waves against wet rock
Bombing and scraping, lighting the sky
Swishing and sloshing rain on a windscreen
Metallic thuds on a tin roof
Swishing and swooshing the flooding roads
Howling and moaning, wind attacking
Wavering, crashing and sizzling
Thudding and banging hail on every window
Slamming and echoing
doors in the house
Example 3: Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith
“Flam-a-dee! Flam-a-dee! Flam-a-dee-dee!” rattled the drums, sounding their doleful call to death. They entered the woods. A wounded horse screamed in agony. Stifling an impulse to turn and run, he clenched his teeth and kept advancing, dreading what lay ahead because he couldn’t see it, nor imagine what it was like…
…Thud! Down went a man at Jeff’s elbow. Thud! Thud! Men were dropping all around him
Now they had reached the fringe of the timber and were stumbling through the brush. Thud! Thud! Thud! Jeff saw comrade after comrade pitch to the ground, but Noah was still at his right elbow, panting and grunting as he plowed laboriously through the greenbrier and the shinnery.
Example 4: For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
He saw nothing and heard nothing but he could feel his heart pounding and then he heard the clack on stone and the leaping, dropping clicks of a small rock falling.
Example 5: The Bells by Edgar Allan Poe
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the throbbing of the bells–
Of the bells, bells, bells–
To the sobbing of the bells;
Keeping time, time, time,
As he knells, knells, knells,
In a happy Runic rhyme,
To the rolling of the bells–
Of the bells, bells, bells–
To the tolling of the bells,
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells–
Bells, bells, bells
To the moaning and the groaning of the bells.
Example 6: The Tempest by William Shakespeare
Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices…
Test Yourself: Finding Onomatopoeia
Now, it’s your turn to practice. Can you find the onomatopoeia in the following passages:
Test 1: The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle
Sweet was the greenwood as he walked along its paths, and bright the green and rustling leaves, amid which the little birds sang with might and main: and blithely Robin whistled as he trudged along, thinking of Maid Marian and her bright eyes…
If you answerd rustling leaves, and Robin whistled, you’re correct! Now try this next one:
Test 2: The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame:
He thought his happiness was complete when, as he meandered aimlessly along, suddenly he stood by the edge of a full-fed river. Never in his life had he seen a river before—this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again. All was a-shake and a-shiver—glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble. The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spell-bound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.
Did you find several? The writer effectively describes the river as chuckling, and uses the following words: gurgle, laugh, sparkles, rustle, swirl, chatter and bubble. Then he describes the mole as trotting, and the river again chattered in a babbling procession.
Onomatopoeia in Writing
The ability of onomatopeia to stimulate the auditory sense makes it a very useful tool for both writers and speakers. This literary device has the unequaled power of evoking meaning by mimicking the sounds it represents.
Since the written text is limited in its ability to convey sensory details, you need to know how to use onomatopoeia to bring life to your writing.
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