Literary Terms

Here is a list of some of the literary terms we will be focusing on this year. By the end of the year you should be able to define and give examples of each one. I put a * next to the ones we have studied so far.

Literary Terms

* alliteration The repetition of identical or similar consonant sounds, normally at the beginning of words. “Gnus never know pneumonia” is an example of alliteration, because despite the spellings, all four words begin with the “n” sound.

allusion A reference in a work of literature to something outside the work, especially to a well-known historical or literary event, person, or work. Lorraine Hansberry’s title A Raisin in the Sun is an allusion to a phrase in a poem by Langston Hughes. When T. S. Eliot writes, “To have squeezed the universe into a ball” in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” he is alluding to the lines “Let us roll all our strength and all / Our sweetness up into one ball” in Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” In Hamlet, when Horatio says, “ere the mightiest Julius fell,” the allusion is to the death of Julius Caesar.

ambiguity Multiple meanings a literary work may communicate, especially two meanings that are incompatible.

apostrophe Direct address, usually to someone or something that is not present. Keats’s “Bright star! Would I were steadfast” is an apostrophe to a star, and “To Autumn” is an apostrophe to a personified season.

*assonance The repetition of identical or similar vowel sounds. “A land laid waste with all its young men slain” repeats the same “a” sound in “laid,” “waste,” and “slain.”

*blank verse Unrhymed iambic pentameter. Blank verse is the meter of most of Shakespeare’s plays, as well as that of Milton’s Paradise Lost:

Men called him Mulciber; and how he fell

From heaven, they fabled, thrown by angry Jove

Sheer o’er the crystal battlements: from morn

To noon he fell, from noon to dewy eve.

*connotation The implications of a word or phrase, as opposed to its exact meaning (denotation). Both China and Cathay denote a region in Asia, but to a modern reader, the associations of the two words are different.

*denotation The dictionary meaning of a word, as opposed to connotation.

*diction Word choice – specifically, any word that is important to the meaning and the effect of a passage. Often several words with a similar effect are worth noting, such as George Eliot’s use in Adam Bede of “sunny afternoons,” “slow waggons,” and “bargains” to make the leisure of bygone days appealing. These words are also details.

*figurative language Writing that uses figures of speech (as opposed to literal language or that which is actual or specifically denoted) such as metaphor, simile, and irony. Figurative language uses words to mean something other than their literal meaning. “The black bat night has flown” is figurative, with the metaphor comparing night and a bat. “Night is over” says the same thing without figurative language. No real bat is or has been on the scene, but night is like a bat because it is dark.

hyperbole Deliberate exaggeration, overstatement. As a rule, hyperbole is self-conscious, without the intention of being accepted literally. “The strongest man in the world” and “a diamond as big as the Ritz” are hyperbolic.

*iamb A two-syllable foot with an unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable. The iamb is the most common foot in English poetry.

*irony A figure of speech in which intent and actual meaning differ, characteristically praise for blame or blame for praise; a pattern of words that turns away from direct statement of its own obvious meaning. The term irony implies a discrepancy. In verbal irony (saying the opposite of what one means), the discrepancy is between statement and meaning. Sometimes, irony may simply understate, as in “Men have died from time to time . . .” when Mr. Bennet, who loathes Wickham, says he is perhaps his “favorite” son-in-law, he is using irony.

meter The pattern of repetition of stressed (or accented) and unstressed (or unaccented)syllables in a line of verse. Lines of verse that connect one or more feet.

*metaphor A figurative use of language in which a comparison is expressed without the use of a comparative term like “as,” “like,” or “than.” A simile would say, “Night is like a black bat;” a metaphor would say, “the black bat night.” When Romeo says, “It is the east, and Juliet is the sun,” his metaphors compare her window to the east and Juliet to the sun.

oxymoron A combination of opposites; the union of contradictory terms. Romeo’s line “feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health” has four examples of the device.

setting The background to a story; the physical location of a play, story, or novel. The setting of a narrative will normally involve both time and place. The setting of A Tale of Two Cities is London and Paris at the time of the French revolution, but the setting of Waiting for Godot is impossible to pin down specifically.

*simile A directly expressed comparison; a figure of speech comparing two objects, usually with “like,” “as,” or “than.” It is easier to recognize a simile that a metaphor because the comparison is explicit: my love is like a fever; my love is deeper than a well; my love is as dead as a doornail. The plural of “simile” is “similes,” not “similies.”

soliloquy A speech in which a character who is alone speaks his or her thoughts aloud. A monologue also has a single speaker, but the monologuist speaks to others who do not interrupt. Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” and “O! what a rogue and peasant slave am I” are soliloquies. Browning’s “My Last Duchess” and “Fra Lippo Lippi” are monologues, but the hypocritical monk of his “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” cannot reveal his thoughts to others.

*sonnet Normally a fourteen-line iambic pentameter poem. The conventional Italian, or Petrachan, sonnet is rhymed abba, abba, cde, cde; the English, or Shakespearean, sonnet is rhymed abab, cdcd, efef, gg.

*stanza Usually a repeated grouping of three or more lines with

*symbol Something that is simultaneously itself and a sign of something else. Winter, darkness, and cold are real things, but in literature they are also likely to be used as symbols of death. A paper lantern and a light bulb are real things, but in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” they are also symbols of Blanche’s attempt to escape from reality and reality itself. Yorick’s skull is a symbol of human mortality, and Melville’s white whale is certainly a symbol, but exactly what it symbolizes has yet to be agreed upon.

*theme The main thought expressed by a work, the meaning of the work as a whole. Essay questions may ask for discussion of the theme or themes of a work or may use the words “meaning” or “meanings.”

thesis The theme, meaning, or position that a writer undertakes to prove or support.

*tone The manner in which an author expresses his or her attitude; the intonation of the voice that expresses meaning. Tone is described by adjectives, and the possibilities are nearly endless. Often a single adjective will not be enough, and tone may change from chapter to chapter or even line to line. Tone is the result of allusion, diction, figurative language, imagery, irony, symbol, syntax, and style – to cite only the relevant words in this glossary.


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