What Is Onomatopoeia?

(View all literary devices)

Onomatopoeia occurs when the sound of a word mirrors the actual sound a thing makes. Animal sounds are the best and clearest example of this device. “Meow” may not be the sound your cat makes, but it is so distinctly a cat sound that many different languages have some close variant on this word. And in fact, onomatopoeia is found in languages around the world.

Onomatopoeia has a distinct purpose in literary writing. Because the dominant sense is vision, most written images cater to it. Onomatopoeia, on the other hand, targets hearing. It adds depth to poems and narratives and plays a big role in helping to establish the tone and rhythm of a piece, especially when combined with other literary devices like meter and alliteration.

How Do You Identify Onomatopoeia in Writing?

Is the word descriptive of the actual sound? The best way to tell is to read the passage aloud.

Examples of Onomatopoeia

Onomatopoeia Example 1. “Baa, baa black sheep, have you any wool?”

Onomatopoeia Example 2. “The moan of doves in immemorial elms,/and murmuring of innumerable bees.” — from Tennyson’s The Princess

Onomatopoeia Example 3. “And who was tolling, tolling, tolling,/In that muffled monotone,” — Poe’s “The Bells

Onomatopoeia Example 4. The shuffling of papers made the students anxious.

Onomatopoeia Example 5. The high-pitched shriek of the rat made Paula wish she had never set that trap.

Onomatopoeia Example 6. “Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way,/O what fun it is to ride in a one horse open sleigh!”

Onomatopoeia Example 7. “Ding dong, the witch is dead!” — from The Wizard of Oz

Onomatopoeia Example 8. “Boom boom boom, even brighter than the moon” — Katy Perry, “Firework”