The snake hisses, the hyena cackles, and the wolf howls.
An onomatopoeia is a word that sounds like what it means. In other words, it’s a “sound word.”
For example, look at the first sentence of this article. All three animal noises sound like what they mean.
When a snake makes noise, it sounds similar to “hiss.” And the word “cackle” sounds like the noise that comes out of a hyena’s throat. And if you say the word “howl,” you’ll sound a bit like a wolf calling to the moon.
But onomatopoeias aren’t limited just to animal noises. Any word that sounds like its meaning counts! So, things like “sigh,” “buzz,” and “bang” are onomatopoeias too.
The word onomatopoeia comes from two Greek roots: onoma (name) + poiein (to make). Therefore, the word makes its own name – it produces a sound.
As we mentioned before, lots of words can be onomatopoeias. And they’re not just verbs either – onomatopoeias can be any part of speech. For instance, “sigh,” “buzz,” and “bang” can all be nouns or verbs. Take a look at these examples:
Noun: The car gave off a bang like a gunshot. / Verb: My cousin bangs on pots and pans.
When you write, you want to engage your reader. And one way to do that is to make it really easy for the reader to imagine what you’re talking about.
With regular words, the reader can visualize a scene. But when you use onomatopoeias as well, you give the reader access to another sense: sound! They can “hear” what’s happening in your writing, which will draw them further into the text.
Onomatopoeias can make your writing much more exciting, as well. Compare these two examples:
In the first example, two events occur: a box falls and glass breaks. In the second example, the exact same things happen, but it feels like there’s more action in the scene.
That’s because “crashed” and “shattered” are onomatopoeias, and the sounds of the words help bring you into the scene.
Therefore, onomatopoeias can create a better picture in your reader’s mind, without adding extra words.
You can describe almost anything with sound words, but there are several categories that have lots of onomatopoeias.
Many of the words we use to describe vocal sounds are onomatopoeias.
As well, many movements, whether made by humans, animals, or objects, have sound words associated with them.
Even verbs or adjectives that describe what something looks like can be onomatopoeias. They just need to suggest a sound or movement.
By using onomatopoeias, we get a clearer picture of the surroundings or atmosphere in a scene. In particular, there are lots of onomatopoeias associated with nature.
Animal sounds are often onomatopoeias! Here are some common examples:
Some sound words you might only find in comic books, but they’re examples of onomatopoeias too!
Lots of writers, poets in particular, use onomatopoeias to spice up their writing. Here are two examples from famous authors.
First, is Edgar Allan Poe. He makes great use of onomatopoeias in two of his poems. These lines are from The Raven:
Poe uses “rapping” and “tapping” to describe the light knocking the speaker hears. These verbs create a darker, hushed, more mysterious atmosphere than if Poe had simply written “knocking lightly.”
Now, take a look at this next excerpt from The Bells. Practically the entire poem is onomatopoeic!
A more contemporary author, Shel Silverstein, wrote a poem where every second word is an onomatopoeia. This poem, The Fourth, is extremely short, but it really captures the sounds of fireworks.
It’s not just English that has onomatopoeias! Lots of other languages have them too. So, when you’re learning a second language, or just hear some words in passing, listen to see if you can find onomatopoeias.
Once you start listening for examples of onomatopoeias, you’ll find them all over the place!
Here are some ways to practice using onomatopoeias:
1. Think about an action, and use as many words as you can to describe the sound you hear. For example:
2. Read other people’s writing, and try to find onomatopoeias. In particular, look at children’s poetry, as kids’ books often use sound. As well, comics are an interesting resource to consider because sound effects are often written down.
3. Practice! The best way to learn to use onomatopoeias is to practice adding them to your writing. Try out lots of different words to see what effects you can create. And always keep experimenting!
Before you know it, you’ll be using onomatopoeias like a pro. And in the meantime, check out the other great grammar articles on this site to help you pack more punch into your writing.