Writing

Perfect vs. Imperfect Rhymes: Definition, Uses, and Differences

Written by MasterClass

Sep 10, 2019 • 5 min read

Rhymes build on two facets of language: the point of emphasis within any given word and the vowel and consonant sounds some words share.

Two of the most commonly used types of rhyme are perfect and imperfect rhymes. While distinct, they often rely on one another. An imperfect rhyme is defined by what it is not—a perfect rhyme. For this reason, it is necessary to understand the individual definition and purpose of a perfect rhyme.

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What Is a Perfect Rhyme?

A perfect rhyme—also sometimes referred to as a true rhyme, exact rhyme, or full rhyme—is a type of rhyme in which the stressed vowel sounds in both words are identical, as are any sounds thereafter.

For example, the words “dead” and “head” form a perfect rhyme—their entry point to the emphasized vowel is different (“d” and “h”), but the vowel sound (“eh”) and the sound that follows it (“d”) are identical.

3 Uses of Perfect Rhymes in Poetry

Perfect rhymes can be used in three different ways in poetry.

  1. Linking words to concepts. Perfect rhymes can form links between two words and the concepts they represent. These links feel particularly natural when the words perfectly rhyme. If a poet were to rhyme the words “lie” and “die,” for example, a reader could begin to see the relationship between these two words: like, say, seeing a lie as the death of truth.
  2. Creating a sense of anticipation. Once a poet establishes the expectation of perfect rhyming, a reader can sometimes begin to anticipate the words to come. If a poet were to write, for instance, “The dove, a white-winged symbol of—” a reader could intuitively complete the verse with the word “love” in their head before reading the line.
  3. Forming mnemonic devices. Perfect rhymes can also help form mnemonic devices that make it easier for readers, particularly children, to understand, anticipate, and even memorize a verse. Nursery rhymes offer simple verses filled with perfect rhymes, as in “Little Bo Peep/has lost her sheep.” The perfect rhyme makes it easy for a child to understand and remember the words and their significance: it is unlikely a child would remember Little Bo Peep losing her cows or her orangutans, for instance.

What Is an Imperfect Rhyme?

Imperfect rhymes—also known as half-rhymes, near-rhymes, lazy rhymes, or slant rhymes—link words together through similar (but not exactly the same) sounds and emphases.

Imperfect rhymes meet some of the criteria for perfect rhymes, but not all. They can, for example, capitalize on differing stress points within words that would otherwise form a perfect rhyme. Words like “sting” and “sharing” have a shared vowel and consonant sound at the end of the word (“ing”), but the natural stress in “sharing” is on the “ar” and not the “ing,” meaning the words are an imperfect rhyme.

Imperfect rhymes can also have similar consonant sounds after a differing emphasized vowel, as in “ridge” and “fudge.” The stress in both words is on the first syllable, and they further share an ending sound. But since their emphasized vowel sound is not the same, (“i” and “u”) the words form an imperfect rhyme.

3 Uses of Imperfect Rhymes in Poetry

Imperfect rhymes can be used in three different ways in poetry.

  1. Expanding word choice. Imperfect rhymes expand a poet’s diction; since there are fewer rules that must be obeyed in imperfect rhymes, far more words are available to a poet wishing to maintain rhythm and rhyme but not be constrained by the rules governing perfect rhymes. For example, there are a finite amount of words that perfectly rhyme with “dangerous” but that list greatly expands when allowing for imperfect rhymes—in the hands of one poet, “dangerous” can be rhymed with “angel dust,” albeit imperfectly. This expanded rhetorical toolkit allows for a freer range of expression and creativity.
  2. Defy readers’ expectations. Imperfect rhymes are often employed to defy readers’ expectations. Emily Dickinson was particularly adept at this rhetorical strategy setting readers up to complete verses in their heads as they read it, and then defying expectations by deploying an imperfect rhyme or even an off rhyme. This can be used to dramatic effect and emphasizes the words and concepts of a poem over its sounds.
  3. Make sentiments feel unique. Just as perfect rhymes can at times seem rote or cliched, imperfect rhymes can make verse seem particularly creative and unique. Consider William Shakespeare’s famed “Sonnet 18,” where in the same verse he perfectly rhymes “day” and “may” while imperfectly rhyming “temperate” and “date.” Illustrating the novelty and singularity of this love, Shakespeare chose to imperfectly rhyme words that had perhaps never been paired together while also maintaining the sonnet’s structure.

What Is the Difference Between Perfect and Imperfect Rhyme?

Perfect rhymes always obey two rules—a shared emphasized vowel sound and shared consonant sounds following that emphasized vowel—whereas imperfect rhymes obey one but never both.

  • While they are distinct, imperfect rhymes often build upon the expectation of perfect rhyme within the reader’s mind, meaning they are inextricably linked. “Sharing” and “caring” constitute a perfect rhyme as they have the same stressed vowel sound (“ar”) and the same consonant sounds following it (“ring”). This perfect rhyme naturalizes the connection readers form between these two distinct concepts, making them seem interrelated and even interdependent.
  • “Sparring” and “caring,” on the other hand, form an imperfect rhyme because the emphasized vowel sounds are different (“arr” and “ar”) but they end in the same consonant sound (“ring”). Placing these words together in an imperfect rhyme invites the reader to consider their links to one another and also proves unexpected as the conflict implicit in sparring is not generally associated with care.

Want to Become a Better Poet?

Whether you’re just starting to put pen to paper or dream of being published, writing poetry demands time, effort, and meticulous attention to detail. No one knows this better than former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins. In Billy Collins’s MasterClass on the art of poetry writing, the beloved contemporary poet shares his approach to exploring different subjects, incorporating humor, and finding a voice.

Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons on plot, character development, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including Billy Collins, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Dan Brown, Judy Blume, David Baldacci, and more.

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