How To Write A Limerick

By Madeleine Begun Kane

My topic today is a verse—
One that’s five lines in length — yes it’s terse.
What’s the rhyme scheme, you say?
A, A, B, B, and A.
Make it witty, for better or worse.

I’m referring, of course, to the limerick — the form popularized by Edward Lear. A limerick is a five-line poem which is based on the rhythm “da-da-DUM” (soft-soft-loud, often referred to as an anapest metrical foot) and which has two different rhymes. Lines 1, 2, and 5 rhyme with each other, and lines 3 and 4 have their own separate rhyme. Lines 1, 2, and 5 have something else in common: each has three audible stressed syllables (three “DUMs”). Lines 3 and 4 have two “DUMs” each.

A few words about limerick content, before I get back to rhyme and meter: The best limericks are humorous and witty, featuring clever word play. Some may be bawdy or even obscene, while many others are perfectly clean. Limericks can be whimsical or downright silly. They can use humor or satire to send a message, as I frequently do in my political limericks. They can even be used to define words, the speciality of the excellent OEDILF Limerictionary. But above all else, limericks should amuse your readers and, ideally, they should have a humorous twist at the end.

Getting back to Edward Lear, here’s one of his classic limericks:

“There was an old man in a tree,
Whose whiskers were lovely to see;
But the birds of the air
Pluck’d them perfectly bare
To make themselves nests in that tree.”

Notice that Lear’s lines 1 and 5 end with the same rhyme-word: “tree.” In fact, Lear’s 1st and 5th lines usually used the same rhyme-word, something we’d never do today.

Now the popular and prolific Lear could get away with repeating the rhyme-word “tree.” But these days, that would be a serious no-no. And oddly enough, I nearly made that very error in the limerick that begins this article.

Here’s my original line 5 for my opening limerick: “And it’s witty, and sometimes perverse.” So what’s the problem? The second syllable of “perverse” is “verse,” the very word that ends line 1. Hence, my rewrite, changing my line 5 rhyme-word to “worse.”

I’m going to return to the topic of rhyming in a bit, but first I want to spend some time on the limerick’s “da-da-DUM” meter. When you write a limerick, you may start line 1 with either 1 or 2 unstressed syllables. (On rare occasions, a limerick may begin without any unstressed syllable at all. But such limericks tend to sound abrupt and are best avoided, at least at first.) Moreover, you also have some flexibility with the use of unstressed syllables at the transitions from one line to the next.

So for instance, your first line could have any of the following rhythms:

(a) da DUM da da DUM da da DUM

(b) da da DUM da da DUM da da DUM

(c) da DUM da da DUM da da DUM da

(d) da da DUM da da DUM da da DUM da

Returning to that Lear classic, you can see that his first line starts with a single unstressed syllable, using meter option (a):

“There WAS an old MAN in a TREE”

And so does line 1 of my own opening limerick:

“My TO-pic to-DAY is a VERSE”

If I’d wanted to use meter option (b), I could have started my limerick like this:

“What’s my TO-pic to-DAY? It’s a VERSE”

Or, using meter option (c):

“My TO-pic to-DAY will be ME-ter”

Or, using meter option (d):

“What’s my TO-pic to-DAY? It is ME-ter”

Here’s another limerick I wrote to help explain meter. Notice that line 1 utilizes meter option (b), starting with two unstressed syllables. Try reading it out loud, paying special attention to the soft-soft-loud (anapestic) meter used throughout. And be sure to breathe at the end of lines 1, 2, and 5, where you see the word “[REST].”

Here’s the LIM-er-ick’s ME-ter in SUM: [REST]
Da Da DUM, Da Da DUM, Da Da DUM. [REST]
With a MID-dle that’s TIGH-ter,
The LIM-er-ick WRI-ter
Keeps BEAT like a DI-sci-plined DRUM. [REST]

Read it aloud once again, this time noting the short natural pauses that occur at the end of lines 1, 2, and 5, where I told you to breathe. These are what I like to call “silent stressed syllables.”

Now I realize that the words “silent” and “stressed” sound contradictory. But if you read that limerick aloud once again, this time saying the word “REST” out loud, I think you’ll understand what I mean.

Here’s another way to get a feel for limerick meter: Read my limerick again, this time clapping your hands whenever you utter a stressed (capitalized) syllable, including the word “REST.” Done correctly, lines 1, 2, and 5 will each get four claps (one per metrical foot) while lines 3 and 4 will each get 2. (Limerick articles that say lines 1, 2, and 5 have only 3 metrical feet aren’t counting the natural pauses at the end of those lines — the “silent stressed syllables.”)

So lines 1, 2 and 5 (the A-rhyme lines) each contain 3 audible stressed syllables and one silent stressed syllable, while lines 3 and 4 (the B-rhyme lines) each contain just 2 audible stressed syllables.

(If you know how to read music, here’s one more way to think about it: A limerick, if written in song form, would fit into four 12/8 measures and would begin with one or two eighth-note pickups. Lines 1, 2 and 5 would each be one bar long, while lines 3 and 4 would each be one-half bar long.)

By now, you may be wondering why I haven’t mentioned counting syllables per line, a technique that’s frequently recommended in otherwise good articles.

Unfortunately, syllables-per-line counting is an over-simplification that can lead to metric mistakes. You may diligently count out the so-called “right” number of syllables on each line. But if the wrong syllables are stressed, your meter will still be bad. And that’s why I do NOT recommend this technique.

As I mentioned earlier, limericks do have some unstressed syllable flexibility. Here’s a slight rewrite of this limerick, by way of illustration. Let’s call it Version 2:

The LIM-er-ick’s ME-ter in SUM [REST]:
Is Da DUM, Da Da DUM, Da Da DUM [REST].
Its MID-dle is TIGH-ter.
The LIM-er-ick WRI-ter
Keeps BEAT like a DI-sci-plined DRUM [REST].

Note how the versions differ: Line 1 in Version 2 starts with just one unstressed syllable, as does line 3.

Here’s a more extensive rewrite, which we’ll call Version 3:

The LIM-er-ick’s ME-ter I’m SHOW-ing [REST]
Is Da DUM, Da Da DUM. Watch it FLOW-ing. [REST]
Its MID-dle is TIGH-ter.
The LIM-er-ick WRI-ter
Keeps BEAT like a DRUM keeps it GO-ing. [REST]

Notice that in Version 3 I’ve added an unstressed syllable to the end of line 1. Notice also, that I have to do the same for lines 2 and 5, since those three end words must rhyme: “showing,” “flowing,” and “going.”

And that leads me right back to the topic of rhyming. As I noted earlier, a limerick’s rhyme pattern is A, A, B, B, A. I have two pieces of rhyming advice for people new to limerick writing:

1) Try to pick rhyme words that have lots of rhyming potential. For instance, many words rhyme with “ate” or “wide” or “flight” or “fit.” But words like “soft” or “conk” will leave you with fewer rhyming options.

2) It’s easier to rhyme words that end in a stressed syllable. So for your initial limericks, try to write lines that end with a stressed syllable. In other words, try to stick with line 1 meter options (a) or (b):

(a) da DUM da da DUM da da DUM

(b) da da DUM da da DUM da da DUM

Here’s an example using line 1 option (a):

A PO-et who LIKES to use RHYMES
May en-JOY writing LIM-‘ricks at TIMES.
I sug-GEST that at FIRST
You pick END words not CURSED
By few RHYMES, to pre-VENT bad-rhyme CRIMES.

Rhyming gets more challenging when a line ends with an unstressed syllable. Why? Because the last STRESSED syllable must rhyme — NOT the last syllable. So if, for instance, your last word is “rhyming,” you don’t rhyme “ing” but, rather, “rhym.” Potential limerick rhyme words would be “climbing” or “timing,” rather than “ring” or “sting.”

Here’s another example, where the last word is “willful,” making the rhyme sound “will:”

My MUSE is an-NOY-ing-ly WILL-ful.
At TEAS-sing, my MUSE is quite SKILL-ful.

Now sometimes the last stressed syllable isn’t even within the final word of a line. But that doesn’t get you off the hook. You still have to rhyme the last stressed syllable. For instance, imagine this as your first line:

“The casting director harassed me.”

There are two natural ways to say that line, only one of which would be acceptable in a limerick. You could say it conversationally like this:

“The casting director harassed ME.”

However, that wouldn’t fit the required limerick “da-da-DUM” rhythm. Here’s how you’d say in limerick meter:

The CAST-ing di-REC-tor ha-RASSED me.

As you can see, “RASSED” is the last stressed syllable, making it the sound that must be rhymed.

As for the “me” sound that follows it, it must be repeated and not rhymed, just as we did with the “ing” words and the “ful” words.

Here’s that line again with an acceptable second line:

“The CAST-ing di-REC-tor ha-RASSED me.
Even WORSE, he’s re-FU-sing to CAST me…”

Before I close with a limerick, I’d like to invite you all to participate in my weekly Limerick-Off challenges. They’re lots of fun, and they’ll give you regular opportunities to use what you’ve learned here. And you’re also welcome to email me with questions and/or subscribe to my weekly newsletter.

A writer who likes to use rhyming
May enjoy learning limerick timing.
Add some wordplay and wit.
Any topic can fit.
Here’s hoping your int’rest is climbing.


Copyright © 2012, Madeleine Begun Kane. All rights reserved.

(This is a slightly expanded version of an article of mine that was published by on March 22, 2012.)