Literary Terms and Devices

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AGE OF REASON  — American enlightenment period of late 18th century.  Overturned the Puritan belief in predestination in favor of blank slate theory.  Emphasized logic, reason, science, mathematics.  Analogy- the world was a machine and God, the mechanic.

ALLEGORY  — A figurative work in prose or verse in which characters, actions, or settings carry a secondary or symbolic meaning.

Edmund Spenser's "The Faerie Queene;" Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" 

ALLITERATION  — The repetition of similar beginning sounds, usually consonants, in a group of words.

        “While I nodded, nearly napping…” –Edgar Allan Poe

ALLUSION  — A reference to a person, a place, an event, or a literary work that a writer expects a reader to recognize. An allusion may be drawn from history, geography, literature, religion, mythology, politics, sports, science, or pop culture.

        Stephen Vincent Benet's story "By the Waters of Babylon" contains a direct reference to Psalm 137 in the Bible.

AMBIGUITY  — A technique by which a writer deliberately suggests two or more different, and sometimes conflicting, meaning in a work.

AMERICAN DREAM  — A uniquely American vision of the country consisting of three central ideas: American as a new Eden, a feeling of optimism by ever expanding opportunity, and confidence in triumph of the individual.

ANALOGY  — A comparison made between two things to show the similarities between them.  Often are used for illustration (to explain something unfamiliar by comparing it to something familiar) or for argument (to persuade that what holds true for one thing holds true for the thing to which it is compared).

ANTAGONIST  — The opponent who struggles against or blocks the hero or protagonist.

        Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello

APHORISM — A terse, pointed statement expressing some wise or clever observation about life.

        "He that lives upon hope will die fasting."    — Benjamin Franklin

ARCHETYPE  — a very old, imaginative pattern that appears in literature across cultures and is repeated through the ages.  An archetype can be a character, a plot, an image, a theme, or a setting.

ARGUMENT  — a form of persuasion that appeals to reason, rather than emotion, to convince an audience to think or act in a certain way. 

ASSONANCE — The repetition of vowel sounds in a sequence of words with different endings.

        "Old age should burn and rage at close of day”       –Dylan Thomas



BLANK VERSE — Poetry written in unrhymed iambic perimeter. It is the major verse form used in Shakespeare’s plays.



CHARACTERIZATION — The personality of the character is made known by his physical description and by his dress, how he acts, what he says, what others say about him, and by what he thinks and feels.

He was bald, wrinkled old man about seventy. He wore the same tattered suit to church every Sunday. He didn’t care what people thought about it. “Shouldn’t judge a man by what he wears,” he often was heard to say as he scuffled down the main street. On the street he chewed on globs of brown tobacco that he used to spit at children. And everyone said, “Old Jones, he’s too proud to accept charity. Won’t take money to buy himself decent clothes. And he sure never liked children.”

CLICHÉ  — A word or phrase, often a figure of speech, that has become lifeless because of overuse.

CLIMAX  — Also called the turning point, the point at which the action in a story or play stops rising and begins falling or reversing.

CONCRETE LANGUAGE  — A term for language that uses specific words and details to describe a particular subject.

CONFLICT — A struggle or clash between opposing forces or characters in a piece of literature.

CONNOTATION — The suggestions and associations that surround a word as opposed to its explicit, literal meaning; it is the implied meaning depending on the context in which it is used.

        “Home” denotes a place where one lives; but connotes privacy, intimacy, coziness.

Consonance  — The repetition of final consonant sounds.

        “He struck a streak of bad luck.”



DEDUCTIVE REASONING  — Reasoning that moves from the general to the specific or particular.  You start with a generalization (already reasoned through inductive reasoning) and apply it to a new situation in order to draw a conclusion about that situation.

DEISM  — An eighteenth-century philosophy based on rationalism and the idea that God created the world and its natural laws, but takes no other part in it.

DENOTATION  — The direct and specific meaning, or literal meaning, of a word as distinct from an implied or associated meaning.

DENOUEMENT  — The final resolution of the intricacies of a plot.

DIALECT  — The characteristic speech of a particular region or social group.

DICTION  — A writer’s choice of words, particularly for clarity, effectiveness, and precision.  Diction can be formal or informal, abstract or concrete; it must also by appropriate to a writer’s subject and audience.



EMILY DICKENSON  — Diva of 19th century American poetry from whom all modern poetry came.

EPIC — An extended narrative poem recounting actions, travels, adventures, and heroic episodes and written in a high style (with ennobled diction, for example). It may be written in hexameter verse, especially dactylic hexameter, and it may have twelve books or twenty four books. Characteristics of the classical epic include these:

         Examples: Homer's, Iliad and Odyssey; Virgil's Aeneid; Milton's Paradise Lost

EPITHET  — A descriptive word or phrase that is frequently used to characterize a person or thing.

    "The Father of our Country" or "The Big Apple."

ETHOS  — In the case of persuasive writing, ethos refers to the overall expertise and character a writer conveys to the reader through the reasonableness of the argument, by the use of strong evidence, and by tone.

EUPHEMISM — The substitution of a mild or less negative word or phrase for a harsh or blunt one, as in the use of "pass away" instead of "die." The basic psychology of euphemistic language is the desire to put something bad or embarrassing in a positive (or at least neutral light). Thus many terms referring to death, sex, crime, and excremental functions are euphemisms. Since the euphemism is often chosen to disguise something horrifying, it can be exploited by the satirist through the use of irony and exaggeration.



FALLACIES  — Inappropriate emotional appeals and flaws in reasoning.

FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE  — Language that is not intended to be interpreted in a literal sense.

FLASHBACK  — A scene in a short story, a novel, a narrative poem, or a play that interrupts the present action to show an event that happened earlier.

FOIL — A character who acts as a contrast to another character.

        Mutt and Jeff; Jesus and Beelzebub (Satan); Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader; Othello and Cassio; Romeo and Mercutio

FORESHADOWING  — The use of hints or clues in a narrative to suggest what action is to come.

FREE VERSE  — Poetry that does not conform to a regular meter or rhyme scheme.



GENRE  — A category or class of artistic endeavor having a particular form, technique, style, or content.

        Novel, short story, essay, epic, poetry, etc.



HARLEM RENAISSANCE  — A cultural movement of the early 1920’s led by African American artists, writers, musicians, and performers, located in Harlem.

HYPERBOLE  — A figure of speech that uses an incredible exaggeration or overstatement for effect.

        “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.”



IAMB  — A metrical foot in poetry that has an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable

        Such as the word "protect."

IAMBIC PENTAMETER  — A line of poetry or text that contains five iambic feet.

IDIOM  — An expression particular to a certain language that means something different from the literal definitions of its parts.  (I fell in love, hop to it, I lost my head)

    "I fell in love." "Hop to it." "i lost my head." "He kicked the bucket.”

IMAGERY  — Words or phrases that create pictures or images in the reader’s mind.  Images can also appeal to senses other than sight, touch, taste, smell, hearing.

"His wet red and black patent- leather shoes, sloshed and squeaked across the glossy linoleum. He plopped down on a wooden chair; and when he took off his shoes, the steam from his thick woolen socks rose up in the air and clouded the sweet smell of my breakfast. My oatmeal began to taste like chunks of old rotting steak."

INCONGRUITY  — The deliberate joining of opposites or of elements that are not appropriate to each other.

INDUCTIVE LEAP  — The movement from particular to general in the case of Inductive Reasoning.

        "The stove at home is hot.. The stove at Grandma’s is hot."  (Inductive Leap) "All stoves are hot."

INDUCTIVE REASONING  —  Reasoning that moves from the particular to the general, from evidence to a generalization or conclusion about the evidence.

INTERNAL RHYME — A poetic device in which a word in the middle of a line rhymes with a word at the end of the same metrical line.

"I awoke to black flak."

IRONIC PERSONA  — when a writer uses an invented narrator who is smug, self-confident or foolish.  The irony is at the expense of the narrator, who is used to express all manner of foolish social ideas and prejudices.

IRONY — Contrast between expectation and reality, between what is said and what is really meant, between what is expected to happen and what really does happen, or between what appears to be true and what really is true. Three types of irony are:



LAI (plural lais, also spelled lay) — A short narrative or lyrical poem, usually in octosyllabic couplets, intended to be sung. The typical theme and content deals with courtly love and the other concerns of medieval romance.

Chaucer's "Franklin's Tale" and "Wife of Bath's Tale."

LOCAL COLOR  — The use of specific details describing the dialect, dress, customs, and scenery associated with a particular region or section of the country.

LOGOS  — Writing that appeals to the rational capabilities of the reader or the reader's capacity to reason logically about a problem.



MAGIC REALISM  — A genre developed in Latin America that juxtaposes the everyday with the marvelous or magical.

METAPHOR — Figure of speech that makes a comparison between two unlike things, in which the one thing becomes another thing without the use of the word like, as, than, or resembles.

        “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”

    "Juliet is the sun."

METER — Generally regular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in poetry.

METONYMY  — Something very closely associated with a thing that is used to stand for the thing itself.

    Sails for ships, crown for king, hard hats for construction workers

MOOD — A story’s atmosphere or the feeling it evokes.

MORALITY — Of or relating to principles of right and wrong, good or evil, usually in reference to matters of personal behavior.

        The choice to stand and do nothing as another human being is being brutally attacked

MOTIF  — A recurring feature or pattern in a work of writing.

Blood is an important "motif" in A Tale of Two Cities, appearing numerous times throughout the novel.

MOTIVATION — The reason for a character's behavior.

        Love, vengeance



NARRATION — Type of writing or speaking that tells a story or about a series of related events.

NATURALISM  — An extreme form of realism inspired by Darwinism.



ONOMATOPOEIA — A word capturing or approximating the sound of what it describes.

        “Buzz” or “sizzle”

OXYMORON — A figure of speech that combines two apparently contradictory elements or terms.

        “Wise fool (sophomore)”   "Sweet sorrow"



PARADOX  — A statement that reveals a kind of truth, although it seems at first to be self-contradictory and untrue.

PARALLELISM  — (Repetition of patterns/structure.) The use of phrases, clauses, or sentences that are similar or complementary in structure.

PARODY— The humorous imitation of a work of literature, art, or music. Parody often achieves its humorous effect through use of exaggeration or mockery.

PATHOS  — The quality in a work of literature that arouses a feeling of pity, sorrow, or compassion in the reader.

PERSONIFICATION — Figure of speech that gives human qualities to something non-human like animals or objects.

        “Smiling moon” or “Jovial sun”

PERSUASION  — The type of speaking or writing that is intended to make its audience adopt a certain opinion, or perform an action, or do both.

PLOT — Series of related events that make up a story or drama. A plot is what happens in a story, novel, or play.

POINT OF VIEW — Vantage point from which a writer tells a story.

POSTMODERNISM  — A term for the dominant trend in the arts since 1945 characterized by experiments with nontraditional forms and the acceptance of multiple meanings.

PROTAGONIST — Main character in fiction or drama. The protagonist is the character we focus our attention on, the person who sets the plot in motion. The character or force that blocks the protagonist is the antagonist.

PUN  — A play on words based on the multiple meanings of a single word or on words that sound alike but mean different things.

PURITANISM  — Puritanism lasted approximately 100 years, ending in the early 18th century.  It emphasized the Calvinist belief of original sin and predestination.  The 3 dominant beliefs were Plainness, Grace, and Divine Mission.



REALISM  — The attempt in literature and art to represent life as it really is, without sentimentalizing or idealizing it.  Often called “Slice of life.”

REGIONALISM  — Literature that emphasizes a specific geographic setting and that reproduces the speech, behavior, and attitudes of the people that live in that region.

REPETITION  — Repetition of words and phrases, often used as emotional persuasion.

RHETORICAL QUESTION  — A question that is asked for effect and that does not actually require an answer.

ROMANTICISM  — A movement that flourished in literature, philosophy, music, and art in Western culture during most of the nineteenth century, beginning as a revolt against classicism.  It essentially upholds feeling and the imagination over reason and fact. Where realism attempts to show life as it really is, romanticism attempts to show life as we might imagine it to be, or think it should be.



SATIRE  — A kind of writing that holds up to ridicule or contempt the weaknesses and wrongdoings of individuals, groups, institutions, or humanity in general.  The aim of satirists is to set a moral standard for society, and they attempt to persuade the reader to see their point of view through the force of laughter.  Often, irony is used as a tool for satire.

SETTING — The time and location in a story or play. Includes time period, time of day or season, geographical location, physical description of location, mood or atmosphere, and the characters way of life in the particular place.

SIMILE — Figure of speech that makes a comparison between two unlike things, using a word such as like, as, resembles, or than.

        “He eats like a pig.”

SOLILOQUY — Long speech in which a character who is onstage alone expresses his or her thoughts aloud. 

STYLE  — A writer’s characteristic way of writing, determined by the choice of words, the arrangement of words in sentences, and the relationship of the sent3nces to one another.

SYMBOL — A person, place, thing, or event that has meaning in itself but also stands for something more then itself, such as a quality, an attitude, a belief, or a value. (EX. Heart=love, sun=happiness, clearness, vision, power, dove=peace)

        Heart=love; Sun=happiness; Dove=peace; Owl=wisdom

SYNECDOCHE — Figure of speech that uses a part to represent the whole.

        “Lend me your ears” (give me your attention)”

SYNTAX — The way in which words are put together to form phrases or clauses.



THEME — Central idea of a work of literature.  A theme is not the same as a subject.  The subject of a work can usually be expressed in a word or two: love, childhood, death.  The theme is the idea the writer wishes to reveal about the subject.  The theme is something that can be expressed in at least one complete sentence.

TONE — Attitude a writer takes towards a subject, a character, or the audience.

TRAGEDY  — In general, a literary work in which the protagonist meets an unhappy or disastrous end.

TRAGIC FLAW — The single characteristic (usually negative) or personality disorder which causes the downfall of the protagonist.

Othello’s "tragic flaw" is his jealousy, which consumes him so thoroughly that he is driven to murder his wife rather than accept, let alone confirm, her infidelity.

TRANSCENDENTALISM  — A philosophy which holds that basic truths can be reached through intuition rather than through reason, and to arrive at these truths, people must go beyond, or transcend, what their reason and their senses tell them.  Transcendentalist thinkers stress the beauty of nature, the essential divinity of all people, and the primary importance of the human spirit.  American transcendentalism was developed in the 1830’s and 1840’s by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Hentry David Thoreau, and the thinkers who met with them in Concord, Massachusetts.



UNDERSTATEMENT  — A restrained statement in which less is said than is meant.

        "10 degrees below zero is a bit cool."

UNRELIABLE NARRATOR — A narrator who describes what he or she witnesses accurately, but misinterprets those events because of faulty perception, personal bias, or limited understanding. Often the writer or poet creating such an unreliable narrator leaves clues so that readers will perceive the unreliability and question the interpretations offered.

Montresor from Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado"



VERNACULAR  — The everyday spoken language of people in a particular locality, and writing that imitates or suggests such language.

VOICE — The writer’s or speaker’s distinctive use of language in a text.