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Literary Devices

Literary Devices, Pt. I

Learn different terms used in English that would enable your effective communication with other scholars and team mates. Read more information in "Literary Devices, Part II".
Every academic discipline has its own vocabulary, and English is no different. Authors use all kinds of verbal gymnastics to tell stories that are effective and beautiful, and all those tricks have specific names that you need to know before you can write a good English paper. Authors choose their words carefully, and when they use figures of speech or pick particular words for the way they sound, you need to be able to talk about what those choices mean using the appropriate vocabulary. Below are some of the most common literary devices you might be asked to discuss in a literature paper.


An allegory is an extended metaphor in which concrete characters, places, and objects stand in for concepts or ideas.
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis is a Christian allegory.


Alliteration is the repetition of the same sounds at the beginning of words
trifling treats, happy home


When an author refers to another piece of art in his writing without explicitly explaining the work he's referring to it's known as an allusion.
"April is the cruelest month:" this line, which opens T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, is an allusion to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, which begins with the line "When April with his showers sweet with fruit."


An analogy is a device that shows the relationship between two ideas or objects by comparing them to similar ideas or concepts.
Just like you can't have flowers without rain, you can't have growth without a little bit of pain.


When the normal order of language is inverted it's known as anastrophe.
"This is the forest primeval" (from Evangeline by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow). In normal usage, the adjective primeval would come before the noun forest.


Anthropomorphism is giving human qualities to inanimate objects or ideas.
The clouds danced across the sky.


An archetype is a universally understood symbol or idea. In literature, archetypes are common characters that occur across styles and time periods.
orphans, fools, and star-crossed lovers are all common literary archetypes


Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds within a phrase.
Hear the mellow wedding bells. (Edgar Allen Poe)


When the conjunctions are left out of a sentence on purpose it's call asyndeton.
We were taught we should "reduce, reuse, recycle" to help the planet.

Authorial Intrusion

Authorial intrusion is when the author of a piece of writing interjects the work to speak to the reader in his own voice.
"The girl kept the letter, but never wrote back (can you really blame her, dear reader?). "


A bildungsroman is a story that details the personal growth of the main character, usually as he or she matures to adulthood or overcomes a series of struggles.
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce and The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger are examples of bildungsroman.


Cacophony refers to the use of unpleasant, harsh sounding words to create a negative tone in the text. It's the opposite of euphony.


A caesura is a deliberate pause within a sentence designed to create dramatic impact. It is usually indicated with a punctuation mark such as a dash or colon.
It's impossible-there's no way she would do such a thing.


A chiasmus is a figure of speech in which two or more related clauses have an inverted structure.
You can take the girl out of the city, but you'll never take the city out of the girl.


Circumlocution is when an author intentionally uses long, complicated sentences to say something that could have been stated more clearly. Often this is to intentionally confuse the reader or for comedic effect.
She said she wanted to tell me something, but for the life of me I couldn't figure out what could be so important that she'd call me on Sunday, of all days, to come over to her house for tea and sandwiches.


Consonance is the repetition of consonant sound within a piece of writing.
Tell Allie she'll never spell well.

Deus ex Machina

A deus ex machina (literally, the machine of god) is a contrived or implausible character or narrative trick used to resolve the conflict at the end of a story. It's generally considered a sign of poor writing because it appears out of nowhere and doesn't fit with what's happened in the story up to that point.
At the end of Euripides play Medea, the main character is taken out of the action by a flame-drawn chariot sent by one of the gods.


Ekphrasis is the verbal description of a work of art, for example a painting, film, or song.
In the poem Ode to a Grecian Urn, the poet John Keats describes the beauty of the painting on a Grecian urn.


A euphemism is a figure of speech that describes something unpleasant or embarrassing in language that is less harsh and negative.
Saying "passed away" instead of died.


Euphony refers to using pleasant sounding language in prose or poetry. It's the opposite of cacophony.


Foreshadowing is the use of phrases, images, and symbols to suggest an action that is going to happen further along in the story. It implies something may happen but does not state it outright.
He felt a cold wind when he entered the room, but when he checked he found that all the windows were closed.


When words that normally belong together are separated for emphasis or to create a lyric effect it's called hyperbaton.
"Object there was none. Passion there was none." (The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe)


Hyperbole is intentional exaggeration. The over- or understate is used for emphasis, comedic effect, or to make an idea seem ridiculous.
"I'm starving" or "This bag weighs a ton."


The use of words and phrases to build an image for the reader. Imagery relies on activating the reader's five senses.
The warm sunlight streaming in the window brightened the room, and the clean smell of grass wafted in.

Internal Rhyme

When a rhyme occurs within the same line or phrase it's called an internal rhyme.
We ate late.


Inversion is when words are intentionally put out of their normal order. It's often used interchangeable with the term anastrophe.


There are several different types of irony, but it usually refers to a phrase in which the literal meaning of the words is different from what the words actually mean in context.
Saying "That's beautiful" about something that is obviously ugly.


Juxtaposition simply means to place two things next to each other. In literature, this effects is usually used to compare and contrast or for emphasis.
The play was enjoyed by the young and the old.


When a compound word is used figuratively in place of a concrete noun. Kennings are used widely in Old Norse and Old English poetry.
whale-road (meaning ocean)


A malapropism is when words or phrases are replaced with similar sounding words that have very different meanings. It's usually used for comedic effect or to show that a character is flustered or not very intelligent.
In Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, a character says "Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons," when they meant to say apprehended two suspicious person.


A metaphor is a comparison between two things that doesn't use the words like or as.
The dancer was a graceful swan on the stage.


Metonymy is the use of a related word in place of a larger item or concept.
Hollywood (to refer to the film industry); crown (to refer to the monarchy)


Words that imitate like the sounds they describe are onomatopoeias.
slap, pop, buzz


An oxymoron is when two words with opposite meanings are paired together to form a phrase that still makes sense.
jumbo shrimp, living dead


A paradox is the juxtaposition of two ideas that should be opposites, but when paired together reveal a deeper truth.
You have to be cruel to be kind.

Pathetic fallacy

The pathetic fallacy is the attribution of human emotions or thoughts to inanimate objects. It's similar to personification. Unlike in the sciences, where the term has a negative connotation, in literary criticism it's a neutral term.
"The stars will awaken / Though the moon sleep a full hour later." (Percy Shelley)

Periodic structure

When a sentence has periodic structure, it means the main clause has been placed at the end of a sentence instead of at the beginning.
Excited and full of hope, on Christmas the boy opened all his presents.


Periphrasis refers to when a long, wordy description is used in place of a shorter, more obvious word or phrase.
Using "The room where we do all the cooking" in place of "kitchen."

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