Simple Explanation How to Write a Limerick, and a Good One

Limericks are, without question, the most entertaining forms of poetry written. No one has say for certain where exactly the name ‘limerick’ stems from, however, many people make the assumption that it has something to do with the Irish town of Limerick.

Limericks are so entertaining because they are catchy, short, rhyming, fun, and have an engaging rhythm that makes people want to memorize and repeat them.

There are a few limerick rules or guidelines that all limericks share.

THE GUIDELINES FOR LIMERICKS

Like other forms of poetry, there are a few rules that one must follow when writing a limerick. They are fairly straightforward:

  • All limericks are exactly five lines in length
  • The first, second and fifth lines rhyme with each other
  • The third and fourth lines rhyme with each other
  • Limericks have a distinct rhythm
  • They are typically funny or catchy

EXAMPLES OF FAMOUS LIMERICKS

To better explain the rules of a limerick poem, let’s explore two examples of famous limericks that might be familiar to you.

Hickory Dickory Dock

Hickory dickory dock (1)
The mouse ran up the clock (2)
The clock struck one (3)
And down he run (4)
Hickory dickory dock (5)

Othello, Act II, Scene III

And let me the canakin clink, clink (1)
And let me the canakin clink, clink (2)
A soldier’s a man (3)
A life’s but a span (4)
Why, then, let a soldier drink (5)

You will notice some distinct similarities in the above referenced limericks. For starters, the last words in lines 1, 2, and 5 rhyme. And, the last words in lines 3 and 4 rhyme.  However, if you take a closer look, you will also notice that the lines 1, 2, and 5 contain 8 to 9 syllables each and lines 3 and 4 contain 5 to 6 syllables each.

There is a very specific reason for this.

LIMERICK RHYME SCHEME

The rhythm that a limerick follows is known as AABBA. This is because, as mentioned earlier, the final words in line 1, 2, and 5 rhyme. Those lines are categorized as A’s in the rhythm scheme. The B’s are the final words in lines 4 and 3. Here is another example of this structure.

Ogden Nash

A wonderful bird is the pelican (A)
His bill can hold more than his beli-can (A)
He can take in his beak (B)
Food enough for a week (B)
But I’m damned if I see how the heli-can (A)

Note that words ‘pelican’, ‘beli-can’ and ‘heli-can’ all rhyme and that words ‘beak’ and ‘week’ rhyme.

RHYTHM OF A LIMERICK

Next, let’s look at the rhythm of a limerick. The technical term for this is ‘anapaestic’. What you need to pay particular attention to  when you read or write a limerick is how the first two lines and the final line have three ‘beats’ whereas the third and the fourth lines only have two. More specifically, if the rhythm of a limerick where to be defined by words, it would look something like this:

la LO la la LO la la LO
la LO la la LO la la LO
la LO la la LO
la LO la la LO
la LO la lo LO la la LO

It should be said that the rhythm does not have to mimic this exactly, but it should be close enough that it sounds similar when it is read. For example, using the limerick of Ogden Nash, if we were to place emphasis on the beats, it would read like this:

A WONDerful bird IS the peliCAN
His BILL can hold MORE than his beli-CAN
He can TAKE in his BEAK
Food enough FOR a WEEK
But I’m DAMNed if I see HOW the heli-CAN

There are two other common tricks that can be seen in most limericks. They are:

  1. The starting line most often ends with the first name of a person or the name of a place
  2. The ending line is typically humorous

Given that the first line normally ends with the name of a person or place, writing that line tend to be the easiest. Simply choose the name of a person or a place. For example, Steve or Toronto.

There once was a cat from Toronto

Or

I had a little sister named Steve

From here, you will open your rhyming dictionary (or use one online)  and start selecting words that rhyme. For instance, if we were rhyming with Steve, we might choose words like ‘believe’, ‘weave’, ‘leave’, ‘sleeve’, ‘deceive’ or even ‘thieve’.

After you’ve selected a couple of rhyming words, next you should start thinking about a silly or humorous ending for your poem. Most people find it easiest to write lines 1, 2, and 5 first and then work to finish lines 3 and 4.

Learn How to Write a Limerick

A limerick is simply a condensed, but silly, poem that is fast and easy to write. Below you will find a few tips to help you get started on writing your own.

FIVE LIMERICK WRITING TIPS

  1. Where did the word ‘limerick’ originate? No one really knows the answer to this, however, many believe that it has some association with the Irish town of Limerick. The form of poetry was first made popular by poet Edward Lear, however, he was not the one who coined the term ‘limerick.’
  2. They can make a little sense, or none at all.Limericks are often referred to as ‘nonsense poems’ because they tell a goofy story using quirky or even unrefined words that quite often do not make any sense. Be encouraged to make up your own words, just be careful that the audience can guess their intended meaning. This is something that Shakespeare did quite regularly.
  3. First impressions really are everything.The very first line of a limerick needs to introduce the character or the setting of the poem so that the reader can quickly tell what or who it is about.
  4. Lines must rhyme.A limerick is only five lines in length and they all follow the AABBA rhythm scheme. This means that line 1, 2 and 5 rhyme and the lines 3 and 4 rhyme. Easy enough, right?
  5. Make it catchy.Limericks are famous for having musicality. They need to come across as being bouncy. Typically, the first two lines will have eight beats, and the third and fourth will have six, and then it goes back to eight beats for the final line. Most children’s nursery rhymes are limerick because their rhythm makes them easy for children to recite and remember.

Here is an example of a child’s limerick. Pay attention to the beat.

There once were two cats from Kilkenny
Each thought that was one cat too many
So they started to fight
And to scratch and to bite
Now, instead of two cats, there aren’t any

Do you notice how the final words from lines 1, 2, and 5 follow the same rhyme scheme and how the final words from lines 3 and 4 follow the same rhyme scheme?

Now try repeating the poem, line by line. But count out the syllables as you do. What do you notice?

So What is a Limerick Actually?

Limericks where made popular over the years for their delightful and humorous nature. The beauty of limericks is that they can be about anything, or nothing at all.

Many of the famous ‘mother goose’ nursery rhymes that we heard when we were children are, in fact, limericks. This is because the short and bouncy nature of these poems make them not only enjoyable for children, but also easy to recite and follow along with.

Throughout history, there were many examples of limericks used in literature and in poetry. In fact, famous poet Edward Lear and notable playwright William Shakespeare both have created written work that falls into the realm of the limerick.

Limerick Definition – What Kind of Poem Is It By Definition?

By definition, a limerick is a funny piece of poetry that consists of exactly five lines. Lines one, two and five must have seven to ten syllables while having the same verbal rhythm and also the last words must rhyme. Lines three and four follow the same pattern, however, they only consist of five to seven syllables.

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What is Correct Limerick Format?

Writing a limerick is easy if you break it up into a process. Pay attention to the AABBA rhyme scheme, and use a rhyming dictionary if you need help.

Here is an easy to use template to help get you started.

LIMERICK TEMPLATE

Before you start, remember to brainstorm!

Choose the name of your subject (or a place)

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Write down a few ideas for the first line

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Create a list of words that rhyme with the last word in the first line

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Start the second line, remember the last word needs to rhyme with line one

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Write two more lines that offer more detail about your topic. They need to rhyme with each other

_____________________________________________________________________________________

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Write your last line. It needs to rhyme with lines 1 and 2

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Now, write out your complete limerick

_____________________________________________________________________________________

_____________________________________________________________________________________

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Note: If you would like to continue to practice your limerick writing skills, you can find other templates online.

Famous Limerick Examples

The most famous and best  limericks examples come from poet Edward Lear. Most of his limericks used an ‘old man’ as the subject.

There was an old man with a beard
Who said, “It is just as I feared!”
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four larks and a wren,
Have all build their nest in my beard!”

And he writes another about a ‘young lady’.

There was a young lady of Dorking
Who bought a large bonnet for walking;
But, its colour and size,
So bedazzled her eyes,
That she very soon went back to Dorking.

Here is an example from the famous Mother Goose collection, which includes limericks for kids.

Little Miss Muffet
Sat on her tuffet
Eating her curds and whey
Along came a spider
Who sat down beside her
And frightened Miss Muffet away

And another, which interestingly, is actually two limericks written into one.

Mary had a little lamb
Its fleece was white as snow
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go
He followed her to school one day
That was against the rule
It made the children laugh and play
To see a lamb at school

Limericks are not just a thing of the past, either. In fact, popular children’s television show Spongebob Squarepants once included quite a funny limerick that went like this:

There was an old man from Peru
Who dreamt he was eating his shoe
He awoke in a fright
In the middle of the night
And found it was perfectly true