Brian Dean Humor

How to Write Limericks: Part 1

Introduction

Writing a limerick is a real challenge. The poet must express a complete idea in just thirty-nine syllables, and the best limericks are also funny!

This tutorial will teach you the anatomy of a limerick — rhyme and meter. You will also learn creative techniques for generating ideas and overcoming problems with rhyming and construction. Finally, you'll see two detailed examples of how a limerick is created, step-by-step, using the techniques you learned in the first part of the tutorial.

If you already know something about limericks, you can skip the early topics and go right to creative techniques. Here's a menu that directs you to specific parts of the tutorial:

What is a Limerick?

Basically, a limerick is a five-line poem with a specific rhyming scheme. The birth of the limerick is murky...a great first line, eh? It most likely started in Ireland, perhaps as a parlor game. Early limericks usually began with a person and a place, and the rest of the limerick said something about the person. Here's an example from the man who popularized the limerick in the 1800s, Edward Lear:

There was an Old Man of the Isles,
Whose face was pervaded with smiles,
He'd sung high dum diddle,
And played on the fiddle,
That amiable man of the Isles.

Since it's very difficult to rhyme the name of a city, many of Lear's limericks repeated the first line, with slight variation, as the last line. Modern limericks usually use three different rhymes for lines 1, 2, and 5, and the subject matter has moved on from place names.

CAUTION: Some people think limericks should be “dirty” (about sex). If you're a young student, try to avoid books or websites that promote dirty limericks. For one thing, they're usually boring, and quite often vulgar. You have better things to do with your time — like trying to rhyme Zimbabwe.

Rhyme and Meter

All limericks follow a specific rhyming scheme:

In the future, the worst kind of crime,
Will be working the streets as a mime,
If you paint your face white,
They'll arrest you on sight,
An example of justice sublime.

Lines 1, 2, and 5 have the same rhyme: CRIME, MIME, and SUBLIME. Lines 3 and 4 have a different rhyme: WHITE and SIGHT. English teachers call this an AABBA rhyming scheme. You'll learn more about rhyming later. For now, notice that rhyming is all about finding words that sound similar.

If you read this limerick out loud, you will hear that it has a certain rhythm, called a meter. Limericks are written in a meter called anapest. Each chunk of anapest — the technical name is a foot — sounds like Da Da DAH, and a line can have two or three feet. A little confusing? Read on.

Here's how a complete limerick sounds:

Da Da DAH   Da Da DAH   Da Da DAH,
Da Da DAH   Da Da DAH   Da Da DAH,
Da Da DAH   Da Da DAH,
Da Da DAH   Da Da DAH,
Da Da DAH   Da Da DAH   Da Da DAH,

Now read the mime limerick again, out loud. When you read a yellow part, give it a little stress — that is, say it a little harder or louder:

In the future, the worst kind of crime,
Will be working the streets as a mime,
If you paint your face white,
They'll arrest you on sight,
An example of justice sublime.

Do you see how the stressed parts match how you would normally say these words? A good limerick sounds natural, but it fits into a specific meter. It's part of the challenge of writing limericks.

NOTE: you will sound like a robot if you recite a limerick — or any poem — with heavy emphasis. The important idea is that the words should flow gracefully and sound natural. (We're just using emphasis here to get you used to the meter.)

Variations in Meter and Syllable Number

Matching a meter exactly is very difficult, so sometimes you're allowed to use a slightly different meter.

One variation is to use a line that starts with an iamb, which sounds like Da DAH. This kind of line sounds like:  Da DAH  Da Da DAH  Da Da DAH.

Here's an example, where the first line uses that handy iamb, and the rest use standard anapest:

A woodpecker breeder named Finn,
Built a hatchery made out of tin,
When the chicks reached two weeks,
They went wild with their beaks,
And the breeder went deaf from the din.

This variation works well when you're writing a limerick about a single person or thing. Such a limerick often starts with A or AN — a word without stress — followed by a word with stress. Many traditional limericks began with this variation:

There once was a fellow from Kent,

Using “There once was a...” has gone out of style, because people got sick of so many limericks starting the same way. Still, the iamb variation works well, mainly because it sounds natural. Here are some first lines that use the iamb:

A barber named Billy McNair,

An unlucky diner named Dawn,

I went to the vampire bank,

The Beauty still misses King Kong,

Did you notice that these first lines with the iamb variation have only 8 syllables? (If this is going to keep you from sleeping tonight, you'd better quit right now.) For singular subjects, 8 syllables works, and it even sounds right when lines 2 and 5 have the standard 9 syllables. Remember, this is poetry, not rocket science.

Hand with numbersHANDY TIP: If you count syllables on your fingers, start with your thumb and remember to use your little finger twice, to count 5 and 6.

While traditional limericks had exactly 9, 9, 6, 6, and 9 syllables, a more modern approach lets you use something called the trailing unstressed syllable. You use this extra syllable at the end of the line, so you can use longer words.

The TUS sounds like this:

Standard anapest, but ten syllables:  Da Da DAH   Da Da DAH   Da Da DAH Da  Example:

An inventor who came from Zimbabwe,

Iamb variation, with nine syllables:  Da DAH   Da Da DAH   Da Da DAH Da  Example:

A free-thinking woman named Donna,

Standard anapest, line 3 or 4, seven syllables:  Da Da DAH   Da Da DAH Da  Example:

He's a true narcoleptic,
And if you are a skeptic,

With a little practice, you'll be able to create limericks with a correct meter. After all, the anapest meter is very close to the way people speak English, so you just need to select words that sound natural with the stress on the correct syllable. After a while, you won't need to count syllables, and you'll be able to wash the numbers off your fingers.

NEXT: Quick and Easy Rhymes