What Is Sibilance? | Definition, Meaning & Examples

Rhetoric updated on  May 28, 2024 4 min read
Sibilance is the repetition of “s” sounds in a series of neighboring words, such as “silent whispers in the shadows.” This deliberate repetition creates a hissing sound that contributes to the musicality and mood of a text. Sibilance is used in poetry, prose, and song lyrics.
Sibilance examples
The squirrel shook the snow off its coat.
Her sister fell off the seesaw and into the sand.
Snails hide their slimy bodies in their shells.
Sam felt refreshed thanks to the ocean breeze.

What is sibilance?

Sibilance is a literary device in which hissing or hushing sounds known as “sibilants” are repeated in a line or sentence. In English, the sounds “s” (“bus,” “Lucy”), “z” (“rose”), “sh” (“shine”), and “zh” (“vision”) are sibilants. Because these sounds are all produced by consonant letters, sibilance is a subtype of consonance.

It is important to note that sibilance is the repetition of the “s” sound, not necessarily the letter “s.” For example, the letter “c” is sometimes pronounced as “s,” like in “Cinderella.” However, there is disagreement as to what kinds of sounds produce sibilance:

  • According to some, sibilance can also include other sounds that produce a similar effect, such as “f” (“flowers fading”), “sh” (“a ship is safer at the shore”), soft “th” (“through the thunderstorm”), hard “th” (“there and then”), “z” (“zebras at the zoo”), and “v” (“seventh heaven”).
  • Others believe that only “s” sounds constitute true sibilance ,and therefore “sh,” “th,” “f,” “z,” and “v” sounds do not create sibilance.
Regardless of which sounds one accepts as sibilant, repetition creates the hissing effect of sibilance. The repeated sound can occur anywhere in the word, whether it’s the beginning, middle, or end. Moreover, the words producing the “s” (or similar) sounds do not need to be placed directly next to each other. They need to be close enough for the repetition to be perceptible.

How sibilance is used in writing

The effect of sibilance depends on the context in which it is used. It can serve different purposes, such as:

  • Emotional impact. Sibilance can evoke a specific atmosphere or mood, like a sense of quietness or softness. Conversely, it can also create a threatening mood or a feeling of unease, depending on the overall tone and purpose of the text.
  • Symbolism. Sibilant words often mimic the thing that is being described, instead of simply talking about it. For example, hissing sounds can be reminiscent of a snake, whereas the whispering quality of sibilant sounds may evoke vivid imagery related to wind or water.
  • Rhythmic quality. The repetition of hissing or hushing sounds can create a pleasing rhythm, similar to other devices like alliteration or consonance. Soothing sibilant sounds contribute to the overall flow of a literary work.
  • Emphasis. Sibilance draws attention to specific words or ideas. The emphasis created forces the reader to spend more time thinking about those words.

Sibilance vs alliteration

Sibilance and alliteration are both literary devices involving the repetition of consonant sounds, but they should not be confused.

  • Sibilance refers to the repetition of hissing or hushing sounds, usually pronounced as “s,” “sh,” “zh,” and “c” sounds. These can occur anywhere in a word and create a specific auditory effect.
  • Alliteration, on the other hand, involves the repetition of the initial consonant sound in a series of words, regardless of the type of sound. It can include any consonant, so not just sibilants. For example, “a paper plane passed over the pond.”
In short, sibilance involves the repetition of specific consonant sounds in any position within a word, whereas alliteration involves the repetition of the initial consonant sounds, regardless of the sound.

Sibilance examples

Sibilance is a valuable tool for writers and can be found across literary genres.

Sibilance in literature

In Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven,” there are several examples of sibilance, contributing to the sorrowful and mysterious mood of the poem.

Sibilance in literature example
  • “Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow/From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore.”
  • “And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain…”
  • “Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer…”

In this passage from Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5), sibilance creates a rhythmic and melancholic effect. The soft, hissing sounds contribute to the contemplative and somber mood of Macbeth's soliloquy, making his words more impactful.

Sibilance in literature example
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

Do you want to know more about commas, parts of speech, email, or other language topics? Check out some of our other language articles full of examples and quizzes.


US vs UK

Rhetoric

Verbs

Honor or honour

Onomatopoeia

Participles

Practise or practice

Palindrome

Intransitive verbs

Color or colour

Anachronism

Simple past tense

Toward or towards

Portmanteau

Regular verbs

Behaviour or behavior

Paradox

Past progressive


Frequently asked questions about sibilance

What is the difference between assonance and sibilance?

Both assonance and sibilance are literary devices that involve the repetition of sounds. However, they differ in the type of sound that is repeated.

Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in a series of words (e.g., “sweet dreams”), while sibilance is the repetition of sibilant sounds or letters producing an “s” sound (e.g., “she sellsseashells”).

What is the difference between consonance and sibilance?

Sibilance is a subset of consonance. Whereas consonance is the repetition of any consonant sound in nearby words (e.g., “Big Ben”), sibilance is the repetition of specific consonant sounds called sibilants. These produce an “s” sound and are usually pronounced as “s,” “sh,” “zh,” and “c” sounds.

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Kassiani

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex information into easily accessible articles to help others.

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