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Literary Terms and Figures of Speech

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Literary Terms and Figures of Speech

Note that this list is not exhaustive. If you know of a term or figure that you feel should be added, please inform the instructor.
Adynaton: The expression of impossibility by listing conditions that cannot conceivably be fulfilled.
Ex: That’ll happen when pigs fly and Hell freezes over.
Allegory: A description of one thing, often a set of events, under the guise of something else in a literary work. Elements of the literary work correspond to definite real-world equivalents
Ex: The Lord of the Rings is often read as an allegory of the World Wars (e.g. Saruman corresponds to Hitler), and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is often taken as an allegory of turn-of-the-century politics in America (e.g. the Cowardly Lion corresponds to William Jennings Bryant).
Alliteration: A series of words that begin with the same letter or that sound similar. More specifically, consonance involves the repetition of consonant sounds, while assonance involves the repetition of vowel sounds. Sibilance refers to the repetition of the letter “s.”
Ex: Cool, calm, and collected.
Allusion: A reference to an established mythos, ideology, literary/artistic work, or historical person/event.
Ex: The name of Pierre Boulle’s protagonist, Ulysse Mérou, is an allusion to The Odyssey.
Anadiplosis: The repetition of a word at the end of a clause at the beginning of the following clause.
Ex: O stealing time, the subject of delay, / Delay the rack of unrefrain’d desire –Sir Philip Sidney, Astrophil and Stella.
Anaphora: The repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses or sentences.
Ex: We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender – Winston Churchill.

Anastrophe: A change in the expected order of words.
Ex: “Take you to him, I can,” or pretty much anything else Yoda says.
Anthropomorphism: Attributing human characteristics to something that is not human, like an animal or a god.
Ex: The Greek and Roman deities are highly anthropomorphic in that they exhibit human virtues as well as human vices.
Antiphrasis: Expressing something by its exact opposite, often ironically.
Ex: This dog is missing one eye and two legs. Let’s name him Lucky.
Antithesis: Something/someone diametrically opposed to something/someone else.
Ex: In The Time Machine, the effete Eloi are the antithesis of the brutish Morlocks.
Antonomasia: The substitution of an epithet or phrase for a proper name.
Ex: “The City of Lights” for Paris, or “the Bard” for Shakespeare
Aphorism: A concise, pithy statement of a truth or doctrine. Can also be referred to as a maxim, proverb, or saying.
Ex: Whatever discoveries have been made in the land of pride, there are still uncharted territories – De La Rochefoucauld.
Apostrophe: When the speaker breaks off and addresses an absent person, an inanimate object, or an abstract quality or idea, often introduced by an exclamation.
Ex: Oh happy dagger! This is my sheath – Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
Apposition: A common construction in which two elements, normally nouns or noun phrases, are placed side-by-side, with one element defining the other.
Ex: Benjamin Franklin, the inventor of the lightning rod, was originally a printer by trade.
Archaism: The use of a deliberately outmoded word or phrase.
Ex: Forsooth, you spoke very well!
Chiasmus: From the Greek equivalent of “x” (chi), it denotes a reversal in the order of two terms and the juxtaposition of this reversal with the original. Yakov Smirnoff’s jokes were famous for it.
Ex: Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country – John F. Kennedy.
Circumlocution: Literally to talk around something. Examples of it include euphemism, giving something a more pleasant name, and periphrasis, which describes the thing in question without naming it.
Euphemism: We’re not laying people off, we’re downsizing! In fact, we’re not downsizing, we’re rightsizing!
Periphrasis: I wouldn’t say that, or the big man in the sky will be mad at you.
Connotation: A word or phrase’s connotation is not to be confused with its denotation, which is its literal meaning. A connotation is the subjective impression the word or phrase carries with it, often positive or negative.
Ex: “Public servant” and “paper-pusher” both denote the same person (a bureaucrat), but the former has a positive connotation, whereas the latter has a negative one.
Deus ex machina: In Latin, “A god from out of the machinery,” in reference to Greek and Roman plays whose plots would be resolved by the sudden appearance of a deity. In general, the term refers to the sudden and often incongruous resolution of a plot by something unexpected.
Ex: Jurassic Park ends with a deux ex machina when the T-Rex comes out of nowhere and eats the raptor that is about to attack the group.
Double entendre: A word or phrase that can be understood two ways, one of them often bawdy or obscene.
Ex: I feel like a million tonight… but only one at a time – Mae West
Ellipsis: The deliberate omission of one or more words, often denoted by a dash (-) or a set of three dots (…) also known as an ellipsis. A common example of it is aposiopesis, in which speech is broken off for dramatic effect.
Aposiopesis: Get down from there, or so help me, I’ll…

Epistrophe: The opposite of anaphora, in which words are repeated at the end of successive clauses or sentences.
Ex: And that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth – Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address
Epithet: An adjective or phrase expressing an attribute characteristic of a person or thing, such as “Charles the Bold” or “Ivan the Terrible.” Epithets consisting of compound adjectives are very common in Homer, to the extent that they are called Homeric epithets.

Ex: Shaggy-breasted Achilles

Foreshadowing: A hint as to what will occur later in the plot of a narrative, often through some sort of visual or auditory clue.

Ex: When Grant holds the baby velociraptor in Jurassic Park, the scene and the ominous music accompanying it foreshadows how the group will later be terrorized by those same dinosaurs.

Homeric/Epic simile: An extended simile in which the second of the two objects (usually the one to which a character is being compared) is described at length.
Ex: But swift Aias the son of Oïleus would not at all now take his stand apart from Telamonian Aias,
Not even a little; but as two wine-coloured oxen straining
With even force drag the compacted plough through the fallow land,
And for both of them at the base of the horns the dense sweat gushes;
Only the width of the polished yoke keeps a space between them
As they toil down the furrow till the share cuts the edge of the ploughland;
So these took their stand in battle, close to each other.
Hypallage: Also known as a transferred epithet, it involves the application of a modifier to a noun with which it normall does not belong.
Ex: A restless night (the night itself is not restless, the person experiencing it is)
Hyperbole: Exaggeration for the sake of emphasis.
Ex: It’s a rock, it’s a pike, it’s a peninsula! - Cyrano de Bergerac describing his own nose in Edmond Rostand’s play.
Internal rhyme: The use of rhyming words within a sentence.
Ex: Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary – Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven”

Invocation: An appeal to one’s deity or muse, commonly found at the beginning of epic poems, but also found elsewhere.
Ex: Sing, goddess, of the anger of Achilles, son of Peleus – Homer, The Iliad
Irony: There are several different types of irony, but the one thing they have in common is that they all express some kind of disparity.
Verbal irony: A disparity between what is said and what is meant.
Ex: “Well, that’s just great” (said to express disappointment)

Situational irony: A disparity between the intended outcome and the actual outcome of a situation.
Ex: When a hunter sets a bear trap, but forgets where it is and gets caught in it himself.
Dramatic irony: When the reader/spectator knows something that the characters do not.
Ex: In horror movies when the audience knows the killer is behind a door that an unknowing character is about to open.
Socratic irony: Largely specific to Plato’s dialogues featuring Socrates, Socratic irony is a way of revealing someone’s views to be incorrect by pretending to adopt them so as to reveal their flaws.
Litotes: A form of exaggeration expressed by a negative.
Ex: He’s a man of no small means (= He’s rich).
Metaphor: A comparison which states that one thing is another.


Ex: Love is a battlefield – Pat Benatar.

Metonymy: Describing something by naming it as something closely associated with it.
Ex: saying “Scotland Yard” to designate the London Metropolitan Police, or “the White House” to designate the American president and his staff

Note: A metonymy is not to be confused with a metaphor. A metonymy only indicates the association of two things, whereas a metaphor is a commentary on the essence of the two things. In other words, to say that Achilles is a lion in battle is to say something about Achilles as well as about the lion, namely that both are ferocious.

Microcosm: Literally, the world in miniature. A representation of large-scale events or concepts on a smaller scale.

Ex: The society the lost boys form in Lord of the Flies may be considered a microcosm of human society as a whole.

Neologism: A word either coined by its author or used in a completely new context.
Ex: In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, the neologism “substition” is used to describe things that are real, but that hardly anyone believes in, the opposite of “superstition.”
Non sequitur: In Latin, it literally means “Does not follow.” Used to designate the introduction of something with no apparent connection to what comes before it.
Ex: In Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, there is a series of non sequiturs when the maid, after being reproached by her employers, laughs, cries, and declares “I bought me a chamberpot” in rapid succession.
Onomatopoeia: When words sound like their meaning. Classic examples include “buzz,” “cuckoo,” and “murmur,” but more subtle instances of onomatopoeia may be achieved by consonant or vowel sounds.
Oxymoron: The union of two contradictory terms.
Ex: Jumbo shrimp, deafening silence, bittersweet
Parallelism: Parallelism can refer to similar structures in successive sentences, or, more generally, to parallels between characters, images, and/or plot elements.
Parody: The close imitation of a known work, often for humorous purposes. Not to be confused with satire, though a parody can be meant to satirize the work it imitates.
Ex: Airplane! is a parody of the disaster films that were so popular in the ‘70’s, and Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs is a parody of Star Wars.
Pedantry/Pedantic language: Overblown, pretentious language used to display (or to ridicule) learning.
Ex: No, Signor, for liberissimily, as soon as there illucesces some minutule sliver of daylight, I denigrate into one of these so well architectated minsters, and there, irrorating myself with fair lustral water, I mumble a snatch of some missic precation of our sacrificules – Rabelais, Pantagruel

Platitude: An empty, banal, or cliché statement offered as if it were profound.
Ex: Well, that’s life! You can’t win them all!
Pleonasm: The use of more words than are needed to express the intended meaning; redundancy of expression, often for effect.

Ex: This was the most unkindest cut of all – Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

Prosopopoeia: To speak as or through another person or object.
Ex: If I were Eugene O'Neill I could tell you what I really think of you two. You know, you’re very fortunate the Theatre Gill isn’t putting this on. And so is the Gill. Pardon me while I have a strange interlude: “Why you couple of baboons, what makes you think I'd marry either one of you? Strange how the wind blows tonight, it has a thin eerie voice that reminds me of poor old Marsden. How happy I could be with either of these two, if both of them just went away” – Groucho Marx (
Personification: Attributing the properties of a living being to an abstraction or an inanimate object.
Ex: O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; / It is the green-ey'd monster, which doth mock / The meat it feeds on – Othello
Personification in a French TV ad:
Pun: Also known as paronomasia or a play-on-words. Basically, a pun uses one expression to allude to another one that sounds similar.
Ex: Claudius: How is it that the clouds still hang on you?

Hamlet: Not so, my lord; I am too much in the sun (“sun” is a pun on “son,” a reference to the fact that Hamlet is the son of the dead king who has been replaced by Claudius).

Satire: The holding up of vices, follies, and injustices to ridicule. Not to be confused with parody.
Ex: Moliere’s Tartuffe is a satire of religious hypocrites and the gullible people who allow themselves to be taken in by them.
Simile: The comparison of two or more things using conjunctions (as, like, etc.).
Ex: quick as a whip, hanging over my head like a dark cloud, etc.
Symbol: Something that acts as a sign or an emblem for the concept it represents.
Ex: Scales are a symbol of justice; the caduceus (a staff entwined with snakes) is a symbol of medicine.
Synecdoche: Technically a kind of metonymy, it involves the substitution of a part for the whole.
Ex: “We live under the same roof,” or “All hands on deck!”
This is what happens when you take a synecdoche literally:
Tautology: Using a term to define itself.
Ex: Boys will be boys.
Zeugma: The use of one verb for two actions, often with a humorous effect.
Ex: Whether the nymph shall break Diana's law,

Or some frail china jar receive a flaw;

Or stain her honour, or her new brocade,

Forget her pray'rs, or miss a masquerade;

Or lose her heart, or necklace, at a ball

- Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock

Zoomorphism: The attribution of animal-like qualities to humans or gods.
Ex: He was a huge, hulking bear of a man.

Linguistic registers

There are different registers of language that are used in different settings, and which can tell us something about the characters (or the authors) who use them in certain circumstances. For example, the same object can be described three different ways depending on the level of formality:

- Formal language: automobile

- Common language: car

- Colloquial/Slang: wheels/ride
Linguistic registers are also reflected in dialects, as well as in various professional languages, such as technical jargon or legalese.
Types of Narration
First person: The narrator recounts the events in the first person (“I” or “we”).
Second person: The narrator speaks in the second person (“you”). This is exceedingly rare, but it does exist (e.g. Michel Butor’s Modification).
Third person limited: The narrator speaks in the third person (“he/she/they”), but only describes what happens as an impartial observer.
Third person omniscient: The narrator speaks in the third person and knows everything about the characters, including their backgrounds and what they are thinking.
Stream of consciousness: A type of narration that seeks to reproduce a character’s thought process, often through internal monologue.

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