Alliterate, literate or illiterate

  • Alliterate, literate and illiterate are words that are very close in spelling and pronunciation, but have very different meanings. They are often confused. We will examine the definitions of the words alliterate, literate and illiterate, where these words came from and some examples of their use in sentences.


    Alliterate means to use alliteration or to demonstrate alliteration. Alliteration is the use of the same consonant sound at the beginning of successive words or the beginning of successive syllables. Alliteration involves the repetition of sound, not letters. For instance, the phrase “catch a kettle of carp” shows alliteration, even though the “k” sound is spelled with both a k and a c. Alliteration in a literary work may be missed if the work is read silently. Alliteration is not rhyme, which involves successive words with the same ending sound, such as “the cat in the hat”. Alliteration is a literary device that is most often seen in poetry. The nursery rhyme Peter Piper is a good example of alliteration:Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. A peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked. If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, how many pickled peppers did Peter Piper pick?” Many examples abound in the lyrics of Gilbert and Sullivan. For instance this line in the Major-General Song from the Pirates of Penzance: “I am the very model of a modern Major-General…” Note that alliteration is used in tongue-twisters, which are poems or phrases that are difficult to pronounce, especially quickly. The word alliterate was coined in the 1770s as a back-formation of the word alliteration, which in turn was derived from the Latin word alliterare which means to start with the same letter. Alliterate is an intransitive verb, which is a verb that does not take an object. Related words are alliterates, alliterated, alliterating. The adjective form is alliterative.

    Literate describes someone who has the capability to read and write. The word literate may be used to mean being well-educated in a certain area. The amount of the world population who is literate has steadily risen over time, with better access to education and educational materials. The word literate is derived from the Latin word literatus, which means knowing letters, or educated. Literate is an adjective, related words are the noun literacy and the adverb literately.


    Illiterate describes someone who is unable to read and write. Illiterate may also be used to mean someone who is generally uneducated or ignorant about a particular subject. The word illiterate is a result of adding the prefix in- to the word literate. In- means not or the opposite of something. Illiterate is an adjective, related words are the noun illiteracy and the adverb illiterately.


    It would also be nice if that third adjective could alliterate with “free” and “fair”. (The Nation)

    There’s much online debate about why all the characters – Suzy Sheep, Pedro Pony, Rebecca Rabbit – are alliterated apart from Peppa’s brother. (The Mirror)

    If a child makes it past the third grade without mastering the ability to read, it is likely they will not be a highly literate adult. (The Park Record)

    The United Nations Children Education Fund says Nigeria is losing out on a literate and skilled workforce it needs to grow economically due to huge number of out of school children. (The Eagle)

    A dyslexic mother who has children in care has been branded an ‘illiterate’ complainant who makes ‘spurious allegations’ in an email sent to her in error by the head of Jersey’s Children’s Services. (The Jersey Evening Post)

    One in four students leaves school unable to read, and will be “functionally illiterate” throughout his lifetime, the association Change for Equality reports Thursday in La Dernière heure, after analysis of PISA survey figures. (The Brussels Times)

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