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How to Write a Limerick

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A limerick is a kind of short, light-hearted poem that is typically humorous and traditionally often ribald or lecherous.  The key characteristic is that there is some sort of "punch line" at the end.

Almost anyone can create a poem in the limerick format.  It's much trickier to create one that actually works; that is, one that that has a flawless meter, a free-flowing introduction, and a "surprise" at the end.  

The aim of this article is to provide some practical advice to help you write limericks.  Knowing how to write limericks -- even high-quality limericks -- will not increase your salary, help you meet beautiful women, or improve your golf game.  There is no value whatsoever in knowing how to write good limericks.  So, why are you wasting your time reading this?

First, let's look at the format.   Here's a well-known limerick, probably written in the early 1900s -- very topical at a time all the newspapers were reporting about Einstein's intriguing new Theory:

    There was a young lady named Bright,
    Whose speed was far faster than light.
       She went out one day,
       In a Relative way,
    And returned home the previous night!

Limericks are always exactly five lines with the rhyming scheme of:

   AA BB A

The first two lines rhyme (Bright, light) and they set you up for the final line (night).  The "middle two" (lines 3 and 4) are a bridge to get you from one part to the other.  They rhyme with each other (day, way).

It's all about the meter
One reason I use this as an example is that the meter is perfect.  Judging by the failed limerick attempts I've seen, the hardest thing to get right is the meter.  It absolutely must flow.  To verify the meter, you must read it aloud in a sort of sing-songy voice:

    dum DUM dum dum DUM-dum dum DUM
    dum DUM dum dum DUM-dum dum DUM
       dum dum dum dum DUM
       dum dum dum dum DUM
    dum DUM dum dum DUM-dum-dum DUM


Note the insertion of extra words to make the meter flow.  For instance:

    There was a young lady named Bright,
    Whose speed was far faster than light.

Both "young" and "far" are superfluous to the content.  But the final line is fixed -- every syllable of the punch line is required, and the first lines must match with it.  Let's try it without one of the insertions:

    There was a lady named Bright,
...
    And returned home the previous night!

It's close, but flawed.  Frankly, if you can't hear the difference, if you can't understand why "young" must be inserted, then you are doomed to a lifetime of writing second-class limericks.  I weep for you.

The first, second, and last lines should be longer than the two bridging lines (typically five or six syllables).  I recommend working with 8- or 10-syllable lines -- you need enough media to express the message.  There is some flexibility, as long as the meter is correct.  In any case, the first two lines must be a perfect sing-song setup for the final line.

That Don't Rhyme!
The lyrics of most Country Music make me cringe.  The writer thinks I won't notice minor (and often major) flaws in the rhymes.  I do notice, and it grates on my nerves.

   ...I can't breath?
   ... I wish I could be.

   Dating the boy on the football team
   But I didn't know at fifteen

Can't they tell that two words that only share a particular vowel are not rhymes?  Well... They get away with it because they are singing and they can stress the common sound enough to override the senses.  And anyway Taylor Swift could draw a crowd if she stood on the stage and mumbled Klingon love sonnets.

But in limericks, there is no room for that nonsense.  The lines absolutely, positively must rhyme exactly.  Even some "technical" rhymes are not good enough.  For instance,

   ... Tom would say,
   ... she can stay.

is clearly a rhyme, but a more perfect rhyme is:

   ... Lee would say,
   ... she could stay.

Seek the deeper rhyme, whenever possible.  The best limericks include additional, internal rhymes and alliteration.  The idea is the "tickle" the verbal centers of the brain.  
[step=""]Note: One exception to the rhyming criteria is when the punch line employs an intentional verbal mangling; for instance, if the comic target is regional dialect, "Lloyd" might rhyme with "bird" (Brooklyn) or "head tax" might rhyme with "Red Sox." (Boston).
[/step]
How to Write A Limerick
Now that you know the mechanics and the goal.... what do you do?  Just start putting words together and hope you end up with something funny?  That might work.  But the best technique is to use this little secret:

     Write the last line first.

Once you have a punch line, you have a chance at a winner.  How do you come up with the last line?  Just think of something that you heard or said that was funny.  If it actually elicited a laugh, then there was probably something unexpected about the concept or the phrasing.  It's probably counterproductive to over-analyze, but humor is formulaic.  Some words are funnier than others.  A large insect is not funny, but a "bug the size of a Buick" might be.

The rest of the limerick is all about setting the context and message so that the final line really sings.

     Write to your target audience.

An "in joke" is ideal subject matter for a limerick.  The reason is subtle:  The listener has already formed a context.  The punch line sort of "blooms" in his mind.  He "gets it" because he knows the special things that this group knows.

Star Trek fans will understand "in jokes" about Seven-of-Nine.  Accountants appreciate spreadsheet humor.  Web developers will laugh at stuff having to do with mouse-overs (go figure).  The biggest laugh I ever had from a limerick was specific to the EE Lounge, in particular, the sometimes scatological humor of "baldrick," one of EE's "Lounge Lizards"...

    Lounge points? I like to collect 'em.
    I pick 'em up, touch and inspect 'em.
        I caress their exterior
        against my posterior
    and insert them into my rect...<COUGH>

There are several near-gems in that lounge thread.  My reply was:

    baldrick throws out an apology
    For making me shout Oh! My! golly-Jee!
        But his sermon sure reaches us,
        When he wittily teaches us,
    A lesson on Lounge-style proctology!

What follows are a few original limericks I wrote for this article -- labeled by target audience.  I hope they act as examples for you to use as you waste your company's time on this.

=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= Experts-Exchange
    An Expert at E-E exerts...
    Time and effort for points and for certs.
        And a ladder location,
        Email notification,    
    And a drawer full of E-E TEE-shirts!

=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= Database programmers
    A database guru or geek will,
    Say: No DBA elsewhere's my equal.
        I can easily handle
        A "Bobby'; DROP TABLE" vandal,
    'cuz I always escape all my SQL!

=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= Jane Austen Fans
    Gal's love it: Liz Bennett's portrayed,
    As beautiful, smart, unafraid.
        But for guys, the suspense,
        Is just too intense,
    Until Fitzwilliam Darcy gets laid!

=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= ????????
    Eve, the prototype female,
    While surfing, heard God's angry yell!    
        Since she swam in the buff,
        His rejoinder was gruff:
    "Now the fishes are stuck with that smell!"

=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=
If you liked this article and want to see more from this author,  please click the Yes button near the:
      Was this article helpful?
label that is just below and to the right of this text.   Thanks!
=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=
19
Comment
Author:DanRollins
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31 Comments
 
LVL 18

Expert Comment

by:WaterStreet
Nice article.  Got my vote above.
0
 
LVL 60

Expert Comment

by:Kevin Cross
Genius! I say with glee:
another Dan Rollins masterpiece.
   Yoga to maintain the bod-E-E;
   "C plus plus" as a trick or threat.
Voted yes; a nice Article to me!
0
 
LVL 49

Author Comment

by:DanRollins
Ouch!  Thanks for the vote, but I have to suggest that you re-read the part of about "exact rhymes" :-)
0
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LVL 60

Expert Comment

by:Kevin Cross
I was tired. :) When you are tired, "masterpiece" and "threat" are exact rhymes.  I used to write a lot of poetry, and guess we take liberties with words and claim they rhyme. :) bod-E-E as three syllables too, that is just special.  Glee, "E", and me are all exact rhymes. :)

Everyone's a critic.

Guess I could have posted one from my kids:

Chips and dip;
Jelly and cheese.
Capri-suns, you sip;
Go-gurts, you squeeze.

Thanks again for the article!

P.S.

Genius! I say with glee:
voted yes; a nice Article to me!
   A bonus one I've read -
   "C plus plus" multi-thread.
And Yoga to maintain the bod-E-E!
0
 
LVL 18

Expert Comment

by:WaterStreet
m-1,

I don't think that's a limerick, according to the definition above.
0
 
LVL 60

Expert Comment

by:Kevin Cross
Yeah, clearly I lost the gift. :)
0
 
LVL 18

Expert Comment

by:WaterStreet
I meant the chips and dips one.

But, I think you have the gift with the one starting with "Genius! I say with glee:..."  It even contains an in-joke (the "Yoga," and maintaining the body, was in reference to a special article written by Dan)
0
 
LVL 60

Expert Comment

by:Kevin Cross
And he has a number of nice C++ tips and tricks.  Trying to incorporate it all was my downfall, but think my last attempt works in the right meter.
0
 
LVL 60

Expert Comment

by:Kevin Cross
Chips and dip; Jelly and cheese.
Capri-suns, you sip; Go-gurts, you squeeze.
   Some food for fun,
   Yum food for my tum!
Can it be snack time now, Daddy, please?
0
 
LVL 18

Expert Comment

by:WaterStreet
You are a rock star.
0
 
LVL 18

Expert Comment

by:WaterStreet
m-1,

My only claim to such fame, as it were, was my poem about emotions in EE postings from long ago.
See
http://www.experts-exchange.com/Other/Philosophy_Religion/Q_20919854.html#a11018962
0
 
LVL 60

Expert Comment

by:Kevin Cross
Very nice!
0
 
LVL 15

Expert Comment

by:Eric AKA Netminder
*chuckle*

Not to be picky, but

An Expert at E-E exterts...
    Time and effort for points and for certs.
        And a ladder location,
        Email notification,    
    And a drawer full of E-E TEE-shirts!

should be "exerts", I think...

=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= Old time LLs

Dan's treatise on lim'ricks is nice
And omitting dear Eve would suffice
    To tell someone how
    Without causing a row
To write verse and not be struck thrice.

So let us get into a groove
And of this tome EE-Approve
    We'll see if will_see
    Will tag it EC
But too bad -- up the list Dan can't move!
0
 
LVL 18

Expert Comment

by:WaterStreet
Oh my goodness; another one appears!
0
 
LVL 38

Expert Comment

by:lherrou
To WaterStreet's eyes this one came
With hope that DanRollins he would tame
   An article delirious
   He treated as serious
And EE Accepted was never the same

Got my YES vote!
0
 
LVL 18

Expert Comment

by:WaterStreet
ROTF.

This is getting too good.
0
 
LVL 15

Expert Comment

by:Eric AKA Netminder
There once was a lad named DanRollins
Who enjoyed his code (and Tom Collins?)
    When writing, he found
    Made the kudos abound
So since then his ass has been haulin.

=====

DanRollins had everyone vexxed
As he wrote of some subjects complex
   'Til he wrote of some verse
   For EE -- quite perverse.
Now one wonders if haiku is next.
0
 
LVL 1

Expert Comment

by:Vee_Mod
A crusty old geek name of Dan,
Came up with a fine writing plan.

It's simple to see,
(Even for me)

And I might even turn into a fan.
Anyone know how this formatting thing works?
I tried to bold certain words for the DUM dum dum part.
(No cracks please.)

Open in new window

0
 

Expert Comment

by:WhackAMod
There was a young lady from Nantucket
+ /* CARRIER LOST
0
 
LVL 18

Expert Comment

by:WaterStreet
WhackAMod,

That one has always been my first thought when hearing the word limerick.
0
 

Expert Comment

by:Taxciter
Dere wunse wuzza strawng cuppa joe
Dat cawzd me ta skwirt burn an blow.
Beefoe ah cud stoppit
Ah needed ta moppit
Frum mosta da wawlz an da flo.
-=King Fart=-
I wanted to post the above as an example of a more "perfect" scan than "The Young Lady named Bright", one in which the syllable counts and natural stresses match completely.
There are several excellent limerick writers who have posted for years on alt.jokes.limericks. If I had to pick my favorite two contributors to alt.jokes.limericks they would be Peter Wilkins and mr malo. Peter nearly always writes "perfectly", and mr malo is simply the funniest.
0
 
LVL 37

Expert Comment

by:ValentinoV
Some attempts by me:

Write nice articles here we must,
For other members come us to trust.
    YES button we love,
    Increases counter above,
And Yoda coughs since he got covered in dust!

Much greater knowledge it is we seek,
Questions we try to answer every week.
    "Thank you, you're great!",
    Says Asker, a little delayed.
Sure, there are those who refer to us as g-E-E-k!
0
 
 

Administrative Comment

by:Eric AKA Netminder
DanRollins,

It looks like there's cause to rejoice;
Someone actually heard my voice.
     I'm not sure quite how
     But you've earned a bow:
This now is an Editor's Choice!

Congratulations!

ep
PE
0
 
LVL 32

Expert Comment

by:awking00
I have long been a limerick fan
and write them whenever I can,
but I now take the time
to make sure that they rhyme,
and not garner the fury of Dan.
0
 
LVL 49

Author Comment

by:DanRollins
very nice! :-)
0
 
LVL 4

Expert Comment

by:macuser777
There was a place called EE
Filled with IT answers and glee
But when push came to shove
The word from above
Was dum de dum dum dum de dee
0
 
LVL 4

Expert Comment

by:macuser777
There was a sailor called Jim
Who always sported a big grin
One day on the boat
He slipped on a bar of soap
And now he can see behind him!


[That's one I tried to reconstruct from memory that a friend wrote in school when he was 10 and we were learning about limericks. He got told off by the teacher for some reason. But I thought it was priceless and trying to remember it made me laugh now.]
0
 
LVL 18

Expert Comment

by:WaterStreet
macuser,

I can't do limericks, which is odd, because ever since childhood, I've been like a low grade savant about recalling rhyming words and (mainly) sound-alike words while listening to people.

But, If inspired (that's a big "if"), I can do simple poetry.  I wrote the following (linked) poem about EE's old P&R zone almost seven years ago for one of the other participants and for my own entertainment.

See http://www.experts-exchange.com/blogs/WaterStreet/B_2915-Poem-About-Emotions-in-P-R.html
0
 
LVL 4

Expert Comment

by:macuser777
Occasionally artistic licence and historic accuracy calls for the special six line resolution limerick.

About 20 years ago a friend I was sharing a flat with who was a bit on the short side wanted to dat a call called Fia (fee-aa). On her birthday he had a card for her and asked for a suggestion what to write in it. I suggested ....

There was a girl called Fia
Who knew a young man who really wanted to meet her
The trouble was she thought
He was far too short
So he could never quite get the all clear!

He thought it was funny and gave it to her.

... and he ended up marrying her sister!

True story :_)

0
 
LVL 4

Expert Comment

by:macuser777
A bit of typing accuracy wouldn't go amiss either  :),

Should say,

... wanted to date a girl called ...

About 20 years ago a friend I was sharing a flat with who was a bit on the short side wanted to date a girl called Fia (fee-aa).
0
 
LVL 19

Expert Comment

by:Rob Hutchinson
I remember this old one from my dad:

If you kiss your honey
And her nose is runny
You may think it's honey
But it'snot
0

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