Somewhere, buried deep in the pages of this rhyming dictionary, an entry waits like a tiny seed that could suddenly take root, erupt through the earth, and push that song that’s been stuck for months back into daylight. Or–better yet–it could sprout something entirely new and green and unexpected.
Whether or not you can unearth these new connections depends on your skill. Handled well, a rhyming dictionary infuses your writing with brilliant new imagery and ideas, helping you nest the perfect word in the perfect place. If used clumsily or hastily, though, a rhyming dictionary will reveal only the same old predictable rhymes.
Let’s make sure you’ve got every possible chance of uncovering something beautiful.
What a Rhyming Dictionary Is
A rhyming dictionary is a book or website that lists all possible rhymes for a given word. Simply that.
Yes, somewhere out there, helpful people have done the spadework of combing the entire English language meticulously for rhymes. The idea is that you, the artist, can save a bit of time while also discovering some rhyming connections that you might never have thought of otherwise.
Some songsters insist that if you use a rhyming dictionary, you’re somehow cheating–but songwriting doesn’t work that way. A song is not a math problem, and a rhyming dictionary is not the teacher’s answer book.
It’s really just a brainstorming tool. All a rhyming dictionary does is map out possibilities so you can pick and choose. You’ll look over a list of words–some will excite you; others will leave you cold–and ultimately choose only one of the many words found there. You might also decide that none of the choices quite fit; and in that case you can always dig deeper.
That’s what this article is about: digging deeper.
True rhyme is a kind of echo: a sound at the end of a word is repeated a short time after by another word. Like this:
This is the kind of rhyme that most people think of when you talk about rhyming. As we’ll see in a minute, there are lesser-known rhyming techniques you can take advantage of. To reach these deeper layers of rhyme, though, it helps to understand how a rhyming dictionary works.
How to use a rhyming dictionary
In the English language (and in a rhyming dictionary), you’ll find plenty of words that have identical sounds–yet they’re not necessarily spelled the same way:
Different spellings there, but if you speak “rude”, “glued”, and “brewed” out loud you’ll hear very obviously that they’ve all got that same “-ood” sound at the end.
Anyway, since differently-spelled words often rhyme, a printed rhyming dictionary is organized by sound, not spelling. Each section is labeled phonetically: in the “-oot” section you’ll find both boot and suit. Likewise, you’ll find “rude” and friends in the “-ood” section.
With true rhyme, the two rhyming words each start off differently, but they end in the same vowel sound and the same consonant sound. All words ending with an -ood sound–for example–are true rhymes to one another. So rhyming dictionaries are basically organized into lists of words that’re linked by true rhyme.
Beyond True Rhyme
One advantage of owning an actual printed rhyming dictionary is that you can flip through all of the long “o” sounds (all the -oo endings) and find a rich assortment of words that don’t quite rhyme… but come close enough to still be satisfying to you and your listeners.
Words connected by oblique rhyme share the same vowel sound but have slightly different consonant sounds after them. Here’s an example:
rude (from the -ood section)
loot (from the nearby -oot section)
These two aren’t quite the same; one ends in -ood and the other ends in -oot, but they do share that -oo vowel sound, so they’re still linked. They also sound quite alike because the consonants d and t sound very similar to each other. Same vowel, similar consonant: “rude” and “loot” are oblique rhymes.
In some online rhyming dictionaries you can check a box to include these kinds of almost-rhymes in your search results. In others, they show up by default. To learn how to look up oblique rhymes manually, we have to know a few things about the English language.
Consonants Hang Out in Groups
Linguists actually sort consonants into similar-sounding groups when they study language. For your own use, here are the groups:
p, t, k, b, d, and g.
Fancy-pants linguists call this group plosives.
f, th, s, sh, ch, z, and j.
This group’s called fricatives. They sound like maracas, shakers, and cymbals, don’t they? Chh! Sssss. Shhhhhhhh.
m, n, and ng.
This group’s called nasals. You know why? These consonants resonate in your nose. If you don’t believe me, plug your nose and try to make an “mmm”. Feels awkward and sounds awkward, right? Now keep holding your nose and pronounce some of those fricatives or plosives above. No problem there, right? I rest my case. Nasals resonate in the nose, and without that nasal reverb they don’t work.
Anyway. Let’s say you’re looking for a rhyme for the word tap, but none of the true rhymes in the “-ap” section are turning you on. None of them quite mesh with your song.
A quick glance at those consonant groups above shows that “p” is a plosive, so we can substitute any other plosive for the p in –ap. This means we can look into the -at, -ak, -ab, -ad, and –ag sections of the rhyming dictionary for more options. This spreads the possibilities wide, wide open–we’re talking hundreds of words to choose from. Which might sound overwhelming, but actually you can scan the columns visually very fast–much faster than the menial labor of sitting and thinking up rhymes on your own.
Write down any promising words you find along the way. You never know when they might come in handy elsewhere in the song or later on while you’re rewriting.
I’ve got to pause here a second to give credit to Pat Pattison, whose unusually literate Writing Better Lyrics book broke important ground by encouraging songwriters to recognize similar consonant sounds. Thank you, Pat.
Use Your Ear
As always, let your ear and your intuition guide you toward what’s right for the song.
When you haven’t got a clue what comes next, the deep-digging techniques above can help get you moving again. But if a word is perfect for the meaning of your song, and it sounds right to your ear, don’t worry about classifying what type of rhyme it is. As long as two words share that final vowel sound, you can’t go far wrong.
Don’t let these lists of syllable types constrain you. Don’t worry that your way is somehow “wrong” because it deviates from what you see here. These are just guidelines that can help you out when you’re stumped. Please feel free to return here anytime you need a review.
Take a word that you love the sound of and start searching for words that rhyme with it. Dig through your rhyming dictionary for:
-True rhymes (same ending vowel sound and consonant)
-Oblique rhymes (same ending vowel sound; different consonant from same family)
And if you’re feeling particularly frisky, you could also look up words that’re linked only by the vowel sound. Vowels get much more emphasis than consonants when sung, so words that ordinarily wouldn’t sound similar can hang together surprisingly well in a song.
…and no, none of this is cheating.
Note that the rhyming dictionary won’t help you choose which word fits best with your song. That’s up to you. And having decided on a word, you’ll still need to compose the line that leads up to that rhyme. You still have to trace your own path to the chosen word.
The end result shouldn’t sound like some quick fix that sloppily corks a hole in the rhyme scheme. Ideally you’ll find a word that fits within the context of your song. Something that doesn’t just sound good, but serves the meaning of your lyric.