Angst About Alliteration

“Three Things Can Happen When You Throw a Forward Pass, And Two of Them are Bad” – Woody Hayes – “Four Things Can Happen When You Alliterate a Sermon, and Four of Them are Bad” – Don Sunukjian.

Donald Sunukjian

Woody Hayes, legendary coach at Ohio State (1951-1978), ran an offence which the sportswriters dubbed “three yards and a cloud of dust.” When asked, “Woody, why don’t you ever throw a forward pass,” Hayes replied, “Three things can happen when you throw a forward pass, and two of them are bad.”

In that same vein, I would like to suggest: “Four things can happen when you alliterate, and four of them are bad.”

Alliteration, in ordinary writing, is the literary device of repeating the same initial sound or letter several times in rather close succession (e.g. “conspicuous consumption,” “nattering nabobs of negativism,” and, as in the abstract above, “the speaker’s cleverness . . . the Scripture’s content”).

In homiletics, alliteration is most frequently used to convey the major outline points of a sermon.

There are times, of course, when alliteration is appropriate and effective in preaching. Succinct and accurate words can crisply communicate the concepts of a short outline – e.g., “Today we’re going to look at the cause and the cure of our problem.” (Note-crisply communicate the concepts, another serendipity.)

But when a sermon outline extends to multiple main points, the use of alliteration runs the risk of “four bad things.”

-It may use a word nobody knows, and thus be unclear.

-It may change the author’s meaning, and thus be biblically inaccurate.

-It may highlight the outline more than the central truth and its relevance.

-It may draw more attention to the cleverness of the speaker than to the truth of God’s word.


First, alliteration may cause the speaker to use a word nobody know, and thus to be unclear. In order to sustain the same alphabet letter, the speaker searches his thesaurus. Unfortunately, the only word which accurately conveys his concept is a word few of his listeners are familiar with:


I. The purpose of prayer

II. The power of prayer

III. The perspicacity of prayer


The speaker may be accurate with the text, but he is unclear to the listener. Second, alliteration runs the danger of changing the author’s meaning. If the speaker resolves to alliterate with only familiar words, he may find himself finessing or manipulating the true meaning of the text in order to remain intelligible to the listener. The speaker may be clear, but now he is biblically inaccurate.


(I Samuel 17:17-54)

I. Cooperative (17:17-24)

II. Curious (17:25-27)

III. Courageous (17:31-37)

IV. Careful (17:38-40)

V. Confident (17:41-47)

VI. Conclusive (17:48-51)


“Cooperative,” “consistent” and “careful” do not accurately reflect what is happening in the text. “Obedient,” “persistent” and “wise” come closer to describing David’s actions in those verses.

Worse than changing the meaning of a small paragraph within the text, alliteration sometimes violates the author’s entire flow of thought as the speaker turns the biblical “progression” of ideas into an artificial David Letterman “list” of parallel points.

It is doubtful that the author of I Samuel said to himself as he came to chapter 17, “I will now write about the seven characteristics of leadership.” Such an approach to preaching is far from the intent of the author—i.e., a young man from the tribe of Juday, believing the covenant promises of God, finishes the task God gave his tribe by removing the ‘uncircumcised’ from ‘Gath’, thus qualifying himself for leadership among God’s people.

Alliterated “list-preaching’ not only violates the author’s theological intent, but also inevitably presents supposed “truths” which are easily contradicted elsewhere in Scripture. Abundant examples could be found of biblical leaders who are uncooperative (Peter refusing the Sanhedrin), inconsistent (Joshua changing strategy at Ai), fearful (Gideon preparing for the Midianites), rash (Jonathan charging the Philistine outpost), and uncertain (Daniel’s friends explaining to Nebuchadnezzar).

Alliteration runs a third danger. Not only may it lead the speaker to be unclear or unbiblical, it also suggest to the listener that the most important thing in the message to remember is the outline. It subtly says to the listener, “Get this outline! Remember it!”

But what the listener really needs to “get” is the central truth and its relevance for his life. He should walk away from the message, not with an outline, but with an awareness of how a biblical truth bears on his life. His mind should be engaged, not with “points,” but with how he, in some concrete way, is going to think or act differently as a result of his time with God.

Worse yet, the alliterated outline, which has been unwisely high-lighted, all too often is “content-less” – it communicates no content. If the listener does manage to remember it, he still doesn’t know anything.


I. The process for preaching

II. The practice in preaching

III. The product of preaching


Taken from I Thessalonians 1:4-8, the speaker’s message conveys the following thoughts:

-When preaching the gospel, we must remember that God elects and the power of the Spirit saves.

-We must practice what we preach.

-The gospel cuts through human suffering, causing joy and growth.


But none of these thoughts are accessible by remembering the outline. The alliterated outline terms are unnecessary “middle-men” which the listener must mentally jump over in order to form the concepts in his mind.

If remembering the outline is important, a non-alliterated, “content-ful” set of points (i.e., in complete declarative sentences) would be more effective:


I. We don’t need to sell it.

II. But we must live it.

III. It will change lives.


The final “bad thing” that can happen when we alliterate is that the listener’s attention may be drawn more to our cuteness and cleverness than to the truth of God’s word. He may appreciate our skill more than he absorbs God’s message.

The words of an ancient divine still ring true: “No man can at one and the same time give the impression that he is clever and that Christ is mighty to save.”


Alliteration? We could say:

-It misproffers

-It misleads

-It misdirects

-It mishonors


But it might be better to say:

-It may be unclear

-It may be unbiblical

-It may highlight the outline more than the truth

-It may draw attention to the cleverness of the speaker


2 thoughts on “Angst About Alliteration

  1. I agree with Donald Sunukjian’s critique. I’d add one more criticism–make that two. Alliteration is rarely used in non-sermonic communication in American society, so when a preacher uses it, the alliteration strikes non-churchgoers as odd. The alliteration can reinforce the idea that Christians and preachers are not in touch with ordinary life. In addition, alliteration frequently comes across as contrived, even hokey, at a time when our culture sees naturalness as a sign of authenticity.

  2. I also feel that these alliterations are not effective in speaking. However, in the defense of an OUTLINE they keep the flow going. Does one HAVE to bring out the outline each time a message is given? Naw! I like it because it’s a place in my prepared message that I can go to another point, and that prayerfully is a smooth transition.
    I think this practice came from some deacon who wants to know before hand what is going to be the message. Better to announce that you will speak according to what the Holy Spirit leads you to.
    This BTW can keep me from being “locked” into a series before hand!

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