The Basics of Limerick Composition

2011-11-16 by . 11 comments

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It is difficult to judge someone’s language proficiency. There are plenty of standardised tests, but in my humble opinion, they just prove someone can pass a test, not how good they are at using a language.

Two things that can indicate a good grasp of a language, at least in the case of English, are the abilities to pun and to rhyme.

Punning is probably more difficult than rhyming, since it requires not only a good grasp of pronunciation and a swift vocabulary, but also knowledge of the meaning of a great many words and idioms.

One of my favourite British pastimes that involves a lot of rhyming and occasional punning, is that of writing limericks. I won’t be concentrating on puns, since they are not essential to limericks.

I can see you’re all wondering what this wondrous thing, a limerick, is. Limericks are a type of verse, invented as a parlour game. They follow a simple pattern:

  • They have five lines.
  • The last words of the first, second and fifth lines must have the same rhyme.
  • The last words of the third and fourth lines must have the same rhyme.
  • The first, second and fifth lines have the syllable stress pattern of duh DA duh duh DA duh duh daaa (approximately).
  • The third and fourth lines have the syllable stress pattern of duh duh DA duh duh DA (approximately).

I say that they have five lines, but often limericks are written with the third and fourth lines combined into one. It is simpler to learn how to write limericks by thinking of them as having five lines. The stress patterns should be adhered to as well as possible, but can be fudged somewhat in order to include a rhyme. The only strict rule is the rhyming pattern of AABBA.

I think an example will be most illustrative. One of the great British poets, Edward Lear, was famous for his limericks. Here is an example:

There was an old man who said, ‘See!
I have found the most beautiful bee!’
When they said, ‘Does it buzz?’
he answered, ‘It does,
I never beheld such a bee!’

You can often tell an Edward Lear limerick by how two of the lines, usually the first and fifth or second and fifth, make the rhyme using the same word (in this instance, bee).

As an example of how being able to rhyme can demonstrate one’s proficiency in English, if you look at the third and fourth lines of Lear’s limerick, you can see that does rhymes with buzz. While the pronunciation of does is probably one of the earlier things learnt in English, it might not be obvious to all due to how the spellings differ.

Another point is the ability to know which words will best fit the stress patterns for the limerick. This is something that can only be learnt through extensive practice. In our above example, the words fit the stress patterns almost exactly. The fourth line, however, does rely on a pause at the end to keep the rhythm.

Some say that for a limerick to be a true limerick it must be salacious or rude in some way. I do not agree. I think that beyond the structure of the limerick, the main semantic rule is that they should be light hearted. A serious limerick is a pointless thing.

So if you’re wondering how well your ability in English is coming along, try composing a few limericks. The easier you are finding it, the better your grasp of English is.


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  • says:

    There once was a post by Matt Ellen Describing how limericks are written I’d hoped for a sample Of his talents ample But he posted not even one specimen

    • Matt Ellen says:

      I thought about adding my own in But didn’t want to seem self promotin I left it to Lear to explain this idea His limericks are better for quotin

  • T.E.D. says:

    Limericks do tend to be dirty, but that aside they must be humerous in some way (or at least attempt to be so). I’m sorry, but your example is just not a real limerick for that reason.

    Along these lines, you might also consider “Burma Shave”-style poetry. The scheme is simpler and easier to construct, but proper ones are supposed to sport puns of some kind, which would hit your other bullet as well.

    • Matt Ellen says:

      Oh, T.E.D., are you saying you don’t find Lear’s Limerick LOLable? Not even a small smirk or smile? Then I’m afraid there’s no hope for you 😉

      Having just looked up Burma Shave, I quite like it.

    • Piskvor says:

      I don’t see a connection between / the arm bone, and what we have seen / even though your error / looks somewhat humorous / on spotting the typoes I’m keen. (Sorry, couldn’t resist)

  • Eric Wilson says:

    There once was a man from San Fran Whose limericks, they never would scan. When asked why the thing Never went with a swing He said “I try to get as many words in the last line as I possibly can!”

  • Shreevatsa says:

    There used to be a website at run by Randall Munroe (the author of the webcomic xkcd). Users could submit limericks, and vote on them.

    Sadly it seems down now, but you can look at the archives:

    Given the audience, most of the limericks are geek/nerd in-jokes (some having to do with xkcd comics themselves), but… I like them.

  • loostro says:

    As I stumbled upon this blog entry, I was certified in english language on level C, So I thought, “Challange accepted!” And thus this comment was created, A little occasional practice won’t hurt me!

    Greetings from Poland! 🙂 I hope I didn’t get it all wrong 😛 I’m not 100% sure about rhymes and I probably messed up the syllable stress 😛

    But I liked this blog entry.. it’s going into my favourites and I promise to learn more about limerick composition 🙂

  • Mohit says:

    I woke up one mornin, said to my love while holdin, ‘You ‘re the sweetest my dear, there is nothing for you I can’t bear’ She gave a smirk and came into my arms mouldin

  • CCs_captaincookoo says:

    Actual Poem

    There was an Old Man in a tree, Who was horribly bored by a Bee; When they said, ‘Does it buzz?’ He replied, ‘Yes, it does!’ ‘It’s a regular brute of a Bee!’

    Edward Lear

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