You might be thinking that limericks, which have only 5 lines, are easy, don’t be fooled!

Limerick poems can be tricky business.

But, what are limericks anyway?

Apart from the 5 lines already mentioned, a limerick is generally a funny poem. This article takes an in-depth look at the definition of limerick poems, so if that’s why you are here, keep reading!

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What are Limericks?

A limerick is a rather light-hearted poem of usually around five lines. It typically follows an AABBA rhyming scheme. Limericks were made famous during the 1800s by Edward Lear, here’s a sample of his work. was known for using this form of poem back in the 1800s.

“There was an Old Person of Dean,
Who dined on one pea and one bean;
For he said, “More than that would make me too fat,”
That cautious Old Person of Dean.”

Limerick poems are characterised by the accentual verse. This means that the structure of a line is determined by the amount of accents regardless of how many syllables are in it. However, because syllables are not counted, the limerick poem has great flexibility.

In limerick poems, the accents tend to work as follows:

  • Line 1: three accents
  • Line 2: three accents
  • Line 3: two accents
  • Line 4: two accents
  • Line 5: three accents

Bear in mind that a limerick is just one of many different types of poetry and it offers great flexibility. For instance, the first line could look like, There was a man from Brazil, or it could go like, There was once a man from Brazil. The next line could be who swallowed a bright coloured pill, or it could be, he swallowed a very big pill.

Regardless of the version that you choose, what is important when it comes to the limerick poems is creating a pattern of strong-weak-weak.

The limerick poems used by Edward Lear in the 1800s are slightly different from the limericks that are created today. Typically, Lear would use the fifth line of his limerick poem as more of a paraphrase of the first or second line. Often, he would also use the same word at the end of line 5 that he used at the end of line 1.

Alternatively, as is common in modern limericks, Lear often used the final line as a humorous punchline.

Rules for Limerick Poems

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Limericks are usually funny. - Source: Unsplash

In answering the question, what are limericks, it is important to note that while they are flexible, they also have rules, such as these, to follow:

  • Limericks consist of five lines.
  • Lines 1, 2, and 5 of the limerick poem rhyme with one another.
  • Lines 3 and 4 should rhyme with each other.
  • The limerick poem has a distinctive rhythm.
  • A limerick is usually funny!

Rhyming a Limerick

The rhyming structure of a limerick is known as AABBA. This means that the final words of lines 1,2 and 5 should rhyme and those are the A’s of the rhyme structure. The B’s are the final words of both lines 3 and 4.  

Still wondering, what are limericks? Take a look at this example:

“There was a young fellow named Hall
Who fell in the spring in the fall.
‘Twould have been a sad thing
Had he died in the spring,
But he didn’t—he died in the fall.”

— Anonymous

You’ll notice that “Hall,” “fall,” and “fall” rhyme. These are the “A” words in the “AABBA” structure, while the ‘B’ words “thing” and “spring” also rhyme.

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Rhythm

As already mentioned, a limerick is characterised by a pattern of strong-weak-weak which is known as anapaestic which sounds a lot fancier than it is!

It simply means that limericks contain beats to them. Three beats usually appear in the first two lines and again in the last line. The third and fourth line of a limerick usually has two beats.

It can feel something like this:

ba BUM ba ba BUM ba ba BUM
ba BUM ba ba BUM ba ba BUM
ba BUM ba ba BUM
ba BUM ba ba BUM
ba BUM ba ba BUM ba ba BUM

A limerick will not always strictly follow this rule, however, they are usually very close to this kind of rhythm which makes them light-hearted and fun to read.

Examine this famous, yet anonymous limerick.

“There was an old man of Nantucket
Who kept all his cash in a bucket;
But his daughter named Nan,
Ran away with a man,
And as for the bucket, Nantucket.”

— Anonymous

If we follow the rhythm rules and emphasize the beats when we read it, it comes out like this:

“there WAS an old MAN of Nantucket
who KEPT all his CASH in a BUCKet;
but his DAUGHTer, named NAN,
ran aWAY with a MAN,
and AS for the BUCKet, NanTUCKet.”

See? It’s really simple!

Some Examples of Limericks

Here are other examples of anonymous limericks that you may have heard.

“There once was a man from Peru
Who had a lot of growing up to do,
He’d ring a doorbell,
then run like hell,
Until the owner shot him with a .22.”
- Anonymous

“There once was a young lady named bright
Whose speed was much faster than light
She set out one day
In a relative way
And returned on the previous night.”
- Anonymous

While the authors of these two were anonymous, you might recognise these by Edward Lear:

“There was a Young Lady whose chin
Resembled the point of a pin:
So she had it made sharp,
And purchased a harp,
And played several tunes with her chin.”
- Edward Lear

“There was a young lady of Lucca
Whose lovers completely forsook her;
She ran up a tree
And said "Fiddle-de-dee!"
Which embarrassed the people of Lucca.”
- Edward Lear

Or this modern one:

“Few thought he was even a starter;
There were many who thought themselves smarter,
But he ended a PM
CH and OM
An earl and a Knight of the Garter.”
- Clement Attlee

You will notice that when they are read they tend to have similar sounds and rhythms. You will also notice the light-hearted feel to them which is what makes a limerick so fun!

Writing a Limerick: Tips

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Try your hand at writing poetry. - Source: Unsplash

So you have read about all the rules and rhyming structures of a limerick, why not try to write one for yourself? Here are a few tips to get you going.

Two Neat Tricks

Here are two neat tricks to help you write a limerick.

  1. The first line often finishes on a name or the name of a place.
  2. The final line is usually humorous.

As the first line is about a name or name of a place it should be easy. To begin, simply pick any name or place! Dave! New York!

There was an old man from New York

Or

There was a small girl named Dave.

After that, simply think about words that rhyme with “Dave” and “York” like “cork,” “fork,” “stork,” “stork,” or “gave,” “wave,” until you find enough words to finish off your limerick.

Once you have your rhyming words, you can write a funny ending for your limerick!

Of course, you may need to swop around your rhyming words to fit in with a funny ending. That’s fine, just play around until you find a combination that works for you.

Your Turn

So how about taking a stab at writing your own limerick? See if you can follow these tips and write your own!

In summary, here are a few key steps to follow:

  1. Choose the name of a place or a person to write the first line.
  2. Find rhyming words to go with your place or person (use a rhyming dictionary if possible).
  3. Ensure that lines two and five rhyme with the first line.
  4. Write lines three and four using a different rhyme.

When you are finished, read your limerick poem out aloud to double-check that it sounds right and also has just the right rhythm.

Try to achieve the rhythm, rhyming, and humour in just five lines, with a bit of practice you will have mastered limerick writing in no time.

Poetry is a diverse and magical art that boats many different styles. Once you have mastered the limerick, why not find out how to write a Haiku, or study epic poetry?

You could also follow in the footsteps of the great William Shakespeare and try expressing your emotions in a 14-line sonnet. And if you are a music fan, you may prefer the lyrical ballad poem.

Finally, once you have mastered all of these, why not ditch the rules altogether and try writing some free verse or slam poetry?  Let’s face it, there are so many different types of poetry to enjoy, write and ponder.

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Niki

Niki is a content writer from Cape Town, South Africa, who is passionate about words, strategic communication and using words to help create and maintain brand personas. Niki has a PR and marketing background, but her happiest place is when she is bringing a story to life on a page.