Literary Terms

Core Literary Terms

Note: Juniors (Modern Literature) are responsible for the terms in green.  Seniors (English Literature) are responsible for the terms in red, but are also expected to know the green terms.  Dear seniors: if you don’t know one of the green terms, please study it — I will assume you’ve mastered them already. 
NOTE: In memorizing a given term, you’re also supposed to memorize any sub-terms that go with it.  For example, if I give you the word character, please also study the sub-terms flat character, round character, stock character, etc. 

Accent (or Stress).  The emphasis or stress given a syllable in pronunciation.  For example, in the word “refrigerator,” the syllable “frig” gets stressed: re-FRIG-er-a-tor.

Act. A major division in the action of a play, typically indicated by lowering the curtain or raising the house lights. Playwrights frequently employ acts to accommodate changes in time, setting, or mood. In longer plays, acts are frequently subdivided into scenes, which mark the point where new characters enter or a location changes.  All Shakespearean plays have five and only five acts. 

Allegory. A story in which persons, places, and things form a system of clearly labeled equivalents, standing for other definite meanings which are often abstractions. Characters may be given names such as “Hope” or “Everyman” because they have few personal qualities beyond their abstract meanings.  John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is an example of an allegory.  Think of it as a work in which basically every single thing stands for something else: every character is a symbol with legs.

Alliteration. The repetition of the same consonant sounds usually at the beginning of a word or stressed syllable (dangling dew drops or keen careening crashing cars). See assonance and consonance. 

Allusion. A brief reference to some person, place, event, phenomenon, or object in history, in other literature or media, or in actuality.  For example, “That homework was a labor of Hercules” contains an allusion to the Greek myth of Hercules.  If your teacher drops something for the second time and then comments,  “Oops, I did it again,” she may be alluding to the Britney Spears song of the same name.

Ambiguity. Allows for two or more simultaneous interpretations of a word, phrase, action, or situation.  For example, in Keat’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the word still in the line, “Thou still unravished bride of quietness” could mean either unmoving, or to this present time. 

Analogy – A similarity or comparison between two different things or the relationship between them. An analogy can explain something unfamiliar by associating it with or pointing out its similarity to something more familiar. Analogies can also make writing more vivid, imaginative, or intellectually engaging.  For example, if your biology teacher uses the analogy of a factory to describe the functions of a cell (e.g., the lysosomes are the “cell factory’s” cleanup crew; the nucleus is the boss’ office, the mitochondria are the cell’s power generators), it will make the function of cell organelles easier to understand because it’s being compared (analogized) to a more familiar concept.

Anaphora – A sub-type of parallelism, when the exact repetition of words or phrases at the beginning of successive lines or sentences. MLK used anaphora in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech (1963), repeatedly beginning sentences with that phrase.

Antagonist. Any force in a story that is in conflict with the protagonist. An antagonist may be another person, an aspect of the physical or social environment, or a destructive element in the protagonist’s own nature. 

Antecedent – The word, phrase, or clause referred to by a pronoun. In the sentence, “Bill told Alexandra that he was most fond of ice weasels and their tricks,” the word Bill is the antecedent of the pronoun he. 

Antihero.  A protagonist who possesses few or none of the traditional qualities of a hero.  She or he may be ineffectual, corrupt, passive, criminal, paralyzed, or unsuccessful in some crucial way.  Anthony Burgess’ Alex in A Clockwork Orange provides a good example of an antihero. 

Antithesis – the opposition or contrast of ideas; the direct opposite.  Note that an antithesis does not always have to involve an opposite, but merely a contrast, as in these lines from A Midsummer Nights’ Dream: “Not Hermia, but Helena I love…” 

Aphorism – A terse statement of known authorship which expresses a general truth or a moral principle. (If the authorship is unknown, the statement is generally considered to be a folk proverb.) An aphorism can be a memorable summation of the author’s point. 

Apostrophe. A figure of speech in which someone absent or dead or something nonhuman (e.g., a personification of Death, as in John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud”) is addressed as if it were alive and present and could reply. 

Aside. A brief speech in which a character turns from the person he is addressing to speak directly to the audience, a dramatic device for letting the audience know what he is really thinking or feeling as opposed to what he pretends to think or feel. 

Ballad. A fairly short narrative poem written in a song-like stanza form. 

Blank verse. Unrhymed iambic pentameter.  Most of Shakespearean verse is written in iambic pentameter. 

Cacophony. A harsh, discordant, unpleasant-sounding choice and arrangement of sounds. 

Canon. The works generally considered by scholars, critics, and teachers to be the most important to study or read, which collectively constitute the “masterpieces” or “classics” of literature. 

Carpe diem. (Latin–“seize the day”) A theme, especially common in lyric poetry, that emphasize that life is short, time is fleeting, and that one should make the most of present pleasures.   Hey, if you want to see an intriguing YouTube clip about the idea of seizing the day, click here. 

Catharsis. (Greek–“purging”) The release of the emotions of pity and fear by the audience at the end of a tragedy. According to Aristotle, these negative emotions are purged because the tragic protagonist’s suffering is an affirmation of human values rather than a despairing denial of them. 

Character. (1) Any of the persons involved in a story. (2) The distinguishing moral qualities and personal traits of a character. 

  • Developing (or dynamic) character. A character who, during the course of a story, undergoes a permanent change in some aspect of his personality or outlook.
  • Flat character. A character who has only one outstanding trait or feature, or at the most a few distinguishing marks.
  • Round character. A character who is complex, multi-dimensional, and convincing.
  • Stock character. A stereotyped character: one whose nature is familiar from prototypes in previous fiction.
  • Static character. A character who is the same sort of person at the end of a story as s/he was at the beginning.

Chiasmus.   Repetition of ideas in inverted order or repetition of grammatical structures in inverted order.  Example: It is boring to eat; to sleep is fulfilling.  The pattern is present participle-infinitive; infinitive-present participle.  

Clause. A grammatical unit that contains both a subject and a verb. An independent, or main, clause expresses a complete thought and can stand alone as a sentence. A dependent, or subordinate clause, cannot stand alone as a sentence and must be accompanied by an independent clause. The point that you want to consider is the question of what or why the author subordinates. Consciousness of subordination must help one make effective use of subordination in one’s own writing. 

Climax. The turning point or high point in a plot. 

Colloquial. Casual conversation, informal, or regional writing, often includes slang expressions. 

Comedy. A type of drama, opposed to tragedy, usually having a happy ending, and emphasizing human limitation rather than human greatness. 

  • Scornful comedy. A type of comedy whose main purpose is to expose and ridicule human folly, vanity, or hypocrisy.
  • Romantic comedy. A type of comedy whose likable and sensible main characters are placed in difficulties from which they are rescued at the end of the play, either attaining their ends or having their good fortunes restored. Oftentimes, romantic comedies conclude with marriages.

Comic relief. A humorous scene or incident that alleviates tension in an otherwise serious work. In many instances these moments enhance the thematic significance of the story in addition to providing laughter. 

Conflict. A clash of actions, desires, ideas, or goals in the plot of a story. Conflict may exist between the main character and some other person or persons (person versus person), between the main character and some external force–physical nature, society, or “fate” (person versus nature, person versus destiny), or between the main character and some destructive element in his own nature (person versus him- or herself). 

Connotation. Implied, associated, or suggested meaning(s), usually derived in context. For example, the word “eagle” connotes liberty and freedom, which has little to with its dictionary definition.  Connotation deals mostly with how a word “feels” or the emotional impact the word carries.  Think about the differences between the word thin and the word emaciated.

Consonance. Two consonant sounds repeated in succession, but with a change in the intervening vowel, as in rider…reader, farer…fairer, heat…hot…hate. 

Couplet. Two successive lines, usually in the same meter, linked by rhyme. A heroic couplet is a couplet written in rhymed iambic pentameter. 

Denotation. Literal or dictionary definitions of words. 

Denouement. (French–“the untying of the knot”) That portion of a plot that reveals the final outcome of its conflicts or the solution of its mysteries. 

Detail. Similar to imagery, detail is a literal depiction of an action, object, or phenomenon intended to paint a picture in the readers’ minds and appeal to their senses.  Detail is not figurative language; it is literal 

Dialect. A variety of language spoken by a social group or spoken in a certain locality.  Here’s an interesting YouTube clip on Italian-American dialect words in English. 

Diction. An author’s choice of words. Diction is generally analyzed only one word at a time.  In an essay diction must be described, as in The scholar used impenetrable academic diction when simpler words would have done.  It is not sufficient to say The author uses diction any more than it is sufficient to say The painter uses paint. 

Drama (Greek–“to do” or “to perform”). Drama is a type of literature whose primary information is conveyed almost entirely through dialogue and action, and is intended to be spoken aloud and performed before an audience.  In short, a play.

Dramatization. The presentation of character or of emotion through the speech or action of characters rather than through exposition, analysis, or description by the author.  Think “showing” versus “telling.”

Editorializing. Writing that departs from the narrative or dramatic mode and instructs the reader how to think or feel about the events of a story or the behavior of a character. 

Elegy. A mournful or contemplative lyric poem written to commemorate someone who is dead, often ending in consolation. 

End-stopped line. A line of poetry or verse that ends with a natural speech pause, usually marked by punctuation.  It doesn’t “enjamb,” or flow over into the next line.  The meaning of the sentence or phrase stops when the line stops.  Often, end-stopped lines can sound pretty clunky.

Enjambment. One line of poetry that ends without a pause and continues into to the next; that is, a line which has no natural speech pause at its end, allowing the sense to flow uninterruptedly into the succeeding line.  The following lines are an example of enjambment:

There’s my last duchess painted on the wall

Looking as if she were alive.  I call

That piece a wonder now…

The sentence (or phrase) doesn’t stop when the line stops.  The sentence flows over from one line to another.

Epic. A long narrative poem told in a formal elevated style that focuses on a serious subject and chronicles heroic deeds and events important to a culture or nation. 

Epigraph. A brief quotation at the beginning of a book or chapter. 

Epigram. A brief, pointed, and witty poem that usually makes a satiric or humorous point, oftentimes written in couplets. 

Epiphany. Some moment of insight, discovery, or revelation by which a character’s life of view of life is greatly altered.  A “lightbulb moment.”

Ethos.  Short for “street cred,” Ethos names the persuasive appeal of one’s character, especially how this character is established by means of the speech or discourse.  It’s how trustworthy or credible a person is as a speaker.  Aristotle claimed that one needs to appear both knowledgeable about one’s subject and benevolent. Cicero said that in classical oratory the initial portion of a speech (its exordium or introduction) was the place to establish one’s credibility with the audience. 

Euphemism. From the Greek for “good speech,” euphemisms are a more agreeable or less offensive substitute for a generally unpleasant word or concept. The euphemism may be used to adhere to standards of social or political correctness or to add humor or ironic understatement. Saying “earthly remains” rather than “corpse” is an example of euphemism. 

Euphony. A smooth, pleasant-sounding choice and arrangement of sounds.  Eu=good, phon=sound.

Exposition. A narrative device, often at the beginning of a work, that provides necessary background information about the characters and their circumstances. 

Fable. A brief story that sets forth some pointed statement of truth.  For example, the fable “The Tortise and the Hare” illustrates the truth that very often, pride goes before a fall, or that slow and steady wins the race. 

Falling action. That segment of the plot that comes between the climax and the conclusion. 

Farce. A type of drama related to comedy but emphasizing improbable situations, violent conflicts, physical action, and coarse wit over characterization or articulated plot. 

Figurative language. Language employing figures of speech; language that cannot be taken literally or only literally. 

Figure of speech. Broadly, any way of saying something other than the ordinary way, more narrowly, a way of saying one thing and meaning another.  In other words, nonliteral language or figurative language uses figures of speech.  Some major figures of speech include simile, metaphor, irony, and personification.  

Folk ballad. A narrative poem designed to be sung, composed by an anonymous author, and transmitted orally for years or generations before being written down. It has usually undergone modification through the process of oral transmission.  Here’s an example of the English folk ballad “Scarborough Fair.” 

Foot. The basic unit used in the scansion or measurement of verse. Iambs, trochees, spondees, anapests, and dactyls are basic types of metrical “feet” in poetry. 

Form. The external pattern or shape of a poem, describable without reference to its content.  Sonnets, haiku, villanelles — all are forms that poems can take.  Understood another way, the form is the “pattern” of the poem — not what the poem says.

Generic conventions.  This term describes traditions for each genre. These conventions help to define each genre; for example, they differentiate an essay fromjournalistic writing, or an autobiography from political writing. Try to distinguish the unique features of a writer’s work from those dictated by convention. 

Genre. The major category into which a literary work fits. The basic divisions of literature are prose, poetry, and drama. However, genre is a flexible term; within these broad boundaries exist many subdivisions that are often called genres themselves. For example, prose can be divided into fiction (novels and short stories) or nonfiction (essays, biographies, autobiographies, etc.). Poetry can be divided into lyric, dramatic, narrative, epic, etc. Drama can be divided into tragedy, comedy, melodrama, farce, etc.  

Hamartia.  A tragic character flaw significant enough to be the underlying cause of a character’s downfall in classic Greek tragedy.  Hamartia usually involves excessive pride (see hubris), but hamartia can also include jealousy (Othello), ambition (Macbeth), or other serious flaws in a tragic hero’s personality. 

Homily. This term literally means “sermon,” but more informally, it can include any serious talk, speech, or lecture involving moral or spiritual advice. 

Hubris.  Excessive or overweening pride, a central character flaw in much of classic Greek drama as described by Aristotle.  See Hamartia. 

Hyperbole. A figure of speech in which exaggeration is used in the service of truth.  “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse” is probably not a literal truth — at least, one hopes so.  However, the exaggeration serves to communicate the truth of the person’s extreme hunger.

Imagery. Description that appeals to the five senses.  The words imagery and detail are often used interchangeably. One important element of this idea is that imagery is NOT figurative language; it is literal. If an author states that a rattlesnake “turned its head a little to see what I was doing,” she or he is giving visual detail or visual imagery and is doing so literally, not figuratively. 

Indirect presentation of character. That method of characterization in which the author shows us a character in action, compelling us to infer or guess what he is like from what he says or does, not from what the narrator tells us directly.  This is “showing,” not “telling.”

Intentional Fallacy. The judging of the meaning of success or a work of art by the author’s expressed or ostensible intention in producing it. 

Invective .  An emotionally violent, verbal denunciation or attack using strong, abusive language. (For example, in Henry IV, Part I, Prince Hal calls the large character of Falstaff “this sanguine coward, this bedpresser, this horseback breaker, this huge hill of flesh.”)  

Irony. A situation, or a use of language, involving some kind of incongruity or discrepancy. Three kinds of irony are distinguished: 

  • Verbal irony. A figure of speech in which what is said is the opposite of what is meant.
  • Dramatic irony. An incongruity or discrepancy between what a character says or thinks and what the reader knows to be true (or between what a character perceives and what the author intends the reader to perceive).
  • Irony of situation. A situation in which there is an incongruity between appearance and reality, or between expectation and fulfillment, or between the actual situation and what would seem appropriate.

Litotes (pronounced almost like “little tee”).  A form of understatement that involves making an affirmative point by denying its opposite. Litotes is the opposite of hyperbole. Examples: “Sailing on the Titanic? Not a bad idea,” “How many people were killed in the war?  Oh, not many…only a few hundred thousand…” “It isn’t very serious. I have this tiny little tumor on the brain” (Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye). 

Logos. Logos names the appeal to reason and logic.  It’s the tactic of choice for all Vulcans ;-D.  Aristotle wished that all communication could be transacted only through this appeal, but given the weaknesses of humanity, he laments, we must resort to the use of the other two appeals. The Greek term logos is laden with many more meanings than simply “reason,” and is in fact the term used for “oration.” 

Loose sentence/non-periodic sentence. A type of sentence in which the main idea (independent clause) comes first, followed by dependent grammatical units such as phrases and clauses. If a period were placed at the end of the independent clause, the clause would be a complete sentence. A work containing many loose sentences often seems informal, relaxed, or conversational. Generally, loose sentences create loose style. The opposite of a loose sentence is the periodic sentence.  

Lyric poetry.  Lyric poetry, unlike narrative poetry, does not tell a story.  It presents a speaker who expresses his or her ideas, thoughts, emotions, or reflections.  

Melodrama. A type of drama related to tragedy but featuring sensational incidents, emphasizing plot at the expense of characterization, relying on cruder conflicts (virtuous protagonist versus villainous antagonist), and having a happy ending in which good triumphs over evil. 

Metaphor. A figure of speech in which an implicit comparison is made between two things essentially unlike.  It does NOT use the words “like” or “as” to make the comparison.  A metaphor is a kind of analogy identifying one object with another and ascribing to the first object one or more of the qualities of the second. It may take one of four forms: 

(1) that in which the literal term and the figurative term are both named;
(2) that in which the literal term is named and the figurative term implied;
(3) that in which the literal term is implied and the figurative term named,
(4) that in which both the literal and the figurative terms are implied.

Example: My love is a red rose.

Metaphysical Poetry. Although sometimes used in the broad sense of philosophical poetry, the term usually applies to the work of seventeenth-century poets, such as John Donne. Metaphysical poetry is characterized by the use of conceits, condensed metaphorical language, unusual comparisons between medicine, science,  love, death, and religion.  Imagery in a metaphysical poem is typically complex. 

Meter. Regularized rhythm, an arrangement of language in which accented syllables occur at apparently equal intervals in time. The number of feet in a line forms a means of describing the meter. The standard meters are as follows: 

  • Monometer. A metrical line containing one foot.
  • Dimeter. A metrical line containing two feet.
  • Trimeter. A metrical line containing three feet.
  • Tetrameter. A metrical line containing four feet.
  • Pentameter. A metrical line containing five feet.
  • Hexameter (or Alexandrine). A metrical line containing six feet.
  • Heptameter. A metrical line containing seven feet.
  • Octameter. A metrical line containing eight feet.

The rhythmic unit within the line is called a foot. A foot is a grouping of accented and unaccented syllables that regularly repeats within a line of poetry. The standard feet are these:   

  • Iamb. (u’) A metrical foot consisting of one unaccented syllable followed by one accented syllable.
  • Trochee. (‘u) A metrical foot consisting of one accented syllable followed by one unaccented syllable (bar-ter).
  • Anapest. (uu’) A metrical foot consisting of two unaccented syllables followed by one accented syllable (un-der-stand).
  • Dactyl. (‘uu) A metrical foot consisting of one accented syllable followed by two unaccented syllables (mer-ri-ly). 
  • Pyrrhic. (uu) A metrical foot consisting of two unaccented syllables.
  • Dipod. (u’u’) The basic foot of dipodic verse, consisting (when complete) of an unaccented syllable, a lightly accented syllable, an unaccented syllable, and a heavy accented syllable, in that succession. However, dipodic verse accommodates a tremendous amount of variety.
  • Spondee. (”) A metrical foot consisting of two syllables equally or almost equally accented, e.g., true blue.

Metonymy. A part standing for a whole.  A metonymy is a figure of speech in which some significant aspect or detail of an experience is used to represent the whole experience, sometimes distinguished as two separate figures as in synecdoche (the use of the part for the whole) and metonymy (the use of something closely related for the thing actually meant).  For example, the oppressed workers in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times are referred to not as people, nor as workers, but as hands.  The part of their body responsible for performing the factory work becomes representative of their whole beings.

Modernism. Usually considered to begin with World War I in 1914 and marked by the sense of catastrophe and fin-de-siècle of that experience and the flowering of talent and artistic experiment that came during the boom of the Twenties and fell away during the ordeal of the economic depression. Modernism is marked by radical new formal innovations and the sense of dislocation and alienation, the sense that centuries-old accepted ways of understanding the world were disintegrating; standards of religion, politics, family, gender, science, economic progress, and increased urbanization were all called into question. 

Monologue. An extended speech in a play that occurs with other characters still present onstage, unlike a soliloquy, which is performed by the actor onstage alone. 

Mood.  The prevailing atmosphere or emotional aura of a work. Setting, tone, and events can affect the mood. Mood is similar to tone and atmosphere. 

Moral. A rule of conduct or maxim for living expressed or implied as the “point” of a literary work, usually a fable.  It is similar to theme in the sense that both terms express an author’s central argument or point. 

Motif: An important recurring idea within a work of literature.  The motif may be a repetition of imagery or figurative language (e.g., the motifs of darkness, light, and blindness in Oedipus Rex or bestial imagery in King Lear), a recurrence of similar characters or similar incidents (e.g., characters who go “down the rabbit hole” – often a literal descent into the ground – in the series Lost), or even similar symbols or objects .  For example, love is a motif in Romeo and Juliet and occurs in many forms including parental, romantic, platonic, and familial.  Be careful not to confuse motif with theme or subject.  It would be incorrect to say, “Love is a theme in Romeo and Juliet.” 

NarrativeThe telling of a story or an account of an event or series of events.  

Onomatopoeia. The use of words that supposedly mimic their meaning in their sound, e.g., boom, click, plop. 

Oxymoron. A compact paradox, one in which two successive words – usually a modifier and a noun — apparently contradict each other. From the Greek for “pointedly foolish,” an oxymoron is a figure of speech wherein the author groups apparently contradictory terms to suggest a paradox. Simple examples include “jumbo shrimp” and “cruel kindness.” 

Paradox. A statement or situation containing apparently contradictory or incompatible elements, a figure of speech in which an apparently self-contradictory statement is nevertheless found to be true. 

Parallelism.  Also referred to as parallel construction or parallel structure, this term comes from Greek roots meaning “beside one another.” It refers to the grammatical or rhetorical framing of words, phrases, sentences, or paragraphs to give structural similarity. This can involve, but is not limited to, repetition of a grammatical element such as a preposition or verbal phrase. (The opening of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities is an example: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of believe, it was the epoch of incredulity….”) The effects of parallelism are numerous, but frequently they act as an organizing force to attract the reader’s attention, add emphasis and organization, or simply provide a musical rhythm. 

Paraphrase. A restatement of the content of a poem designed to make its prose meaning as clear as possible. 

Parody.  A work that closely imitates the style or content of another with the specific aim of comic effect and/or ridicule. It exploits peculiarities of an author’s expression (propensity to use too many parentheses, certain favorite words, etc.) Well-written parody offers enlightenment about the original, but poorly written parody offers only ineffectual imitation. Usually an audience must grasp literary allusion and understand the work being parodied in order to fully appreciate the nuances of the newer work. Occasionally, however, parodies take on a life of their own and don’t require knowledge of the original. 

Pathetic Fallacy. A phrase coined by Ruskin to denote the tendency to credit nature with human emotions. In a larger sense, the pathetic fallacy is any false emotionalism resulting in a too-impassioned description of nature. It is the carrying over to inanimate objects of the moods and passions of a human being.  Almost anytime you have the weather parallelling or echoing the emotional turbulence of the characters, you usually have the pathetic fallacy in evidence. 

Pathos. (Greek–“feeling”) The quality in art and literature that stimulates pity, tenderness, or sorrow. Pathos names the appeal to emotion. Cicero encouraged the use of pathos at the conclusion of an oration, but emotional appeals are of course more widely viable. Aristotle’s Rhetoric contains a great deal of discussion of affecting the emotions, categorizing the kinds of responses of different demographic groups. Thus, we see the close relations between assessment of pathos and of audience. Pathos is also the category by which we can understand the psychological aspects of rhetoric. Criticism of rhetoric tends to focus on the overemphasis of pathos, emotion, at the expense of logos, the message. 

Pedantic. An adjective that describes words, phrases, or general tone that is overly scholarly, academic, or bookish (language that might be described as “show-offy”; that is, using big words for the sake of using big words). 

Periodic sentence. The opposite of loose sentence, a periodic sentence presents its central meaning in a main clause at the end. This independent clause is preceded by a phrase or clause that cannot stand alone. The effect of a periodic sentence is to add emphasis and structural variety. It is also a much stronger sentence than the loose sentence. (Example: After a long, bumpy flight and multiple delays, I arrived at the San Diego airport.) 

Personification. A figure of speech in which human attributes are given to an animal, an object, or a concept. 

Picaresque. A chronicle, usually autobiographical, presenting the life story of a rascal of low degree engaged in menial tasks and making her/his living more through wits than industry. A picaresque tale tends to be episodic and structureless, and the picaro, or central figure, tends not to develop or change in the course or her/his adventures.  Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones is an example of a picaresque novel: his hero, Tom Jones, is a young man who experiences a series of comic adventures.

Playwright. A maker of plays.  Note that this word is not spelled playwrite

Play. A play is a piece of literature intended to be performed onstage in front of an audience. A play tells its story primarily through dialogue and action. Plays are commonly broken down into acts, which are broken down into scenes. Classical Shakespearean plays are always broken down into five acts, though modern plays usually have fewer acts. There is no set number of scenes per act, though obviously there must be at least one. 

Plot. The sequence of incidents or events of which a story is composed; the meaningful manipulation of action.  A plot may be straightforward and chronological (e.g., have a clear beginning, middle, and end, told in that order) or may make extensive use of flashback or flash-forward (e.g., the entire last two seasons of Lost) in which chronological order is deliberately tampered with.

Poetry. Literature which uses heightened language (language whose meaning is deepened or enhanced by figures of speech, meter, rhythm, imagery, or other uses of language) to express experience and evoke an emotional response in the reader.  Poetry does not have to rhyme or possess a specific meter, though it often does.

Poeticizing. Writing that uses immoderately heightened or distended language to sway the reader’s feelings. 

Point: Identical with meaning or theme in a work of fiction and thesis in a work of nonfiction.  The author’s point is the major message, theme, thesis, or moral s/he wishes to communicate and wants you to understand or believe or agree with.

Point of view. The angle of vision from which a story is told. The four basic points of view are as follows: 

  • First person point of view. The story is told by one of its characters, using the first person.  It’s an “I-story,” as in, “I went to see the doctor, who told me that I was too short.”
  • Second Person Point of View. The story is told by one of its characters using second-person pronouns.  This is pretty rare except in casual conversation.  In fiction, it’s almost never used.  A second person story would be a “you-story,” as in, “You are not one of those people who normally would be in a place like this, but you find yourself there…”
  • Third Person Omniscient Point of View. The author tells the story, using the third person; s/he knows all and is free to tell anything, including what the characters are thinking or feeling and why they act as they do.  This is a “he, she, it” story, as in, “She went downstairs to the deserted garage, feeling a moment of apprehension…”
  • Third Person Limited Omniscient Point of View. The author tells the story, using the third person, but limits her/himself to a complete knowledge of one character in the story and tells only what that one character thinks, feels, sees, or hears.  This is a “he, she, it” story focusing primarily on one person’s thoughts and actions.
  • Third Person Objective (or Dramatic) Point of View. The author tells the story, using the third person, but limits her/himself to reporting what his characters say or do; s/he does not interpret their behavior or tell their private thoughts or feelings.This is a “he, she, it” story focusing on more than one person’s thoughts and actions.

Prose.  One of the major divisions of genre, prose refers to fiction and nonfiction, including all its forms. In prose the printer determines the length of the line; in poetry, the poet determines the length of the line. 

Prose poem. Usually a short composition having the intentions of poetry but written in prose rather than verse. 

Protagonist. The central character in a story.  The protagonist is not always “the good guy” — see the definition of “antihero” for a further explanation — but is the most important character in  the story, the one with whom we, the readers, identify the most and are supposed to care the most about.

Pun. A play on words based on the similarity of sound between two different words with different meanings. 

Quatrain. A four-line stanza or a four-line division of a sonnet marked off by its rhyme scheme.  For example, in a sonnet with the rhyme scheme ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG, the first three groupings (ABAB, et cetera) would be considered quatrains.  (The last two lines would be a couplet – a pair of rhyming lines.)

Refrain. A repeated word, phrase, line, or group of lines in a song, poem, or other work. 

Repetition. The duplication, either exact or approximate, of any element of language, such as a sound, word, phrase, clause, sentence, or grammatical pattern. 

Rhetoric. The art of persuasion.  From the Greek for “orator,” this term describes the principles governing the art of writing effectively, eloquently, and persuasively. 

Rhetorical modes. This flexible term describes the variety, the conventions, and the purposes of the major kinds of writing. The four most common rhetorical modes (often referred to as “modes of discourse”) are as follows: 

(1) The purpose of exposition (or expository writing) is to explain and analyze information by presenting an idea,  relevant evidence, and appropriate discussion. 

(2) The purpose of argumentation is to prove the validity of an idea, or point of view, by presenting sound reasoning, discussion, and argument that thoroughly convince the reader. Persuasive writing is a type of argumentation having an additional aim of urging some form of action. 

(3) The purpose of description is to recreate, invent, or visually present a person, place, event or action so that the reader can picture that being described. Sometimes an author engages all five senses in description; good descriptive writing can be picturesque. Descriptive writing may be straightforward and objective or highly emotional and subjective. 

(4) The purpose of narration is to tell a story or narrate an event or series of events. This writing mode frequently use the tools of descriptive writing. 

Rhetorical questions.  The rhetorical question is usually defined as any question asked for a purpose other than to obtain the information the question asks. For example, “Why are you so stupid?” is likely to be a statement regarding one’s opinion of the person addressed rather than a genuine request to know. Similarly, when someone responds to a tragic event by saying, “Why me, God?!” it is more likely to be an accusation or an expression of feeling than a realistic request for information. 

Rhyme (or rime). The repetition of the accented vowel sound and all succeeding sounds. 

  • Double Rhyme. A rhyme in which the repeated vowel is in the second last syllable of the words involved (politely-rightly-sprightly); one form of feminine rhyme.
  • End Rhyme. Rhymes are end-rhymed when both rhyming words occur at the ends of the lines.
  • Feminine Rhyme. Rhymes are feminine when the sounds involve more than one syllable (turtle-fertile, spitefully-delightfully) and the stress is NOT on the final syllable.
  • Identical Rhyme. If the preceding consonant sound is the same (for example, manse-romance, style-stile), or if there is no preceding consonant sound in either word (for example, aisle-isle, alter-altar), or if the same word is repeated in the rhyming position (for example, hill-hill).
  • Internal Rhyme. An internal rhyme occurs when one or both rhyming words occur within one line, as in “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary…”
  • Masculine (or Single) Rhyme. Rhymes are masculine when the sounds involve only one syllable (decks-sects or support-retort). A rhyme in which the repeated accented vowel sound is in the final syllable of the words involved (dance-pants, scald-recalled).
  • Slant rhyme.  A rhyme in which the sounds are only similar, not identical, e.g., loads…lids, groaned…crooned, et cetera.
  • Triple rhyme. A rhyme in which the repeated accented vowel sound is in the third last syllable of the words involved (gainfully-disdainfully)

Rhyme scheme. Any fixed pattern of rhymes characterizing a whole poem or its stanzas.  For example, the well-known song “Twinkle, Twinkle…” is written in an AABB rhyme scheme. 

Rhythm. Any wavelike recurrence of motion or sound  Rhythm is the pattern of “beats” in a song or poem.  In a poem, rhythm is usually indicated by stressed syllables giving the lines a constant pattern of stressed sound.

Rising action. That development of plot in a story that precedes and leads up to the climax. 

Sarcasm. Bitter or cutting speech; speech intended by its speaker to give pain to the person addressed.  Sarcasm usually involves verbal irony; that is, when a speaker means the opposite of her or his spoken statement.  Said sarcastically, the statement, “You look nice today” actually means quite the opposite: you don’t look nice today at all.

 Satire. A kind of literature that ridicules human folly or vice with the purpose of bringing about reform or of keeping others from falling into similar folly or vice. 

Scansion. The process of measuring verse, that is, of marking accented and unaccented syllables, dividing the lines into feet, identifying the metrical pattern, and noting significant variations from that pattern. 

Semantics – The branch of linguistics that studies the meaning of words, their historical and psychological development, their connotations, and their relation to one another. 

Sentimentality. Unmerited or contrived tender feeling; that quality in a story that elicits or seeks to elicit tears through an oversimplification or falsification of reality.  OPTIONAL: An effective example of cloying sentimentality can be found in the anonymous turn-of-the-century poem “Papa’s Letter,” reproduced in this blog entry.  Note: The blog writer likes the poem; however, I respectfully disagree: the cutesy-pie dialect and the inevitably tragic ending push this poem completely into nauseating sentimentality, in my opinion.  You be the judge.

Sestet. A six-line stanza or the last six lines of a sonnet.

Setting. The context in time and place in which the action of a story occurs.  For example, in Star Wars, the setting is “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.”  The setting of True Grit is the  Oklahoma Territory in the late 1800s.

Shared line. In a play written in verse (such as most of Shakespeare’s plays), a shared line is a line begun by one character which contains fewer than the expected number of syllables per line. The “missing syllables” are supplied by the next speaker’s line. The two short lines together equal one complete line. 

Short line. In a play written in verse (such as most of Shakespeare’s plays), a short line is a line which has fewer than the expected number of syllables per line.  In Shakespeare’s plays, for example, most lines are written in iambic pentameter, with ten syllables per line.  A short line, therefore, would be fewer than ten syllables. A short line may indicate a pause in which action takes the place of words, or when a character’s statement is interrupted, e.g., “My lord –“

Simile. A figure of speech in which an explicit comparison is made between two things essentially unlike. The comparison is made explicit by the use of some such word or phrase as like, as, than, similar to, resembles, or seems.  For example, a poet such as Robert Burns might say, “My love is LIKE a red, red rose.”   Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130” begins with a negative simile when he says, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.”

Soliloquy. A speech in which a character, alone on the stage, addresses himself; a soliloquy is a “thinking out loud,” a dramatic means of letting an audience know a character’s thoughts and feelings. 

Structure. The internal organization of a poem’s content; that is, the organization of lines, stanzas, et cetera in a poem.  For example, if you were asked to discuss the structure of a haiku, you might mention that is has three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables.  If you were asked to discuss the structure of a novel such as The Lord of the Rings, you might mention that the novel is broken up into three books.

Style. The characteristic way in which an author writes; that is, his or her characteristic diction, syntax, tone, subject matter, and organizational structure. The consideration of style has two purposes: (1) An evaluation of the sum of the choices an author makes in blending diction, syntax, figurative language, and other literary devices. Some authors’ styles are so idiosyncratic that we can quickly recognize works by the same author.  We can analyze and describe an author’s personal style and make judgments on how appropriate it is to the author’s purpose. Like diction and tone, the term style should always be described. It is not sufficient to say that an author uses style to convey her point.  Styles can be called flowery, explicit, succinct, rambling, bombastic, commonplace, incisive, laconic, etc.  (2) Classification of authors to a group and comparison of an author to similar authors. By means of such classification and comparison, we can see how an author’s style reflects and helps to define a historical period, such as the Renaissance or the Victorian period, or a literary movement, such as the romantic, transcendental, or realist movement. 

 Subject complement.  The word (with any accompanying phrases) or clause that follows a linking verb and complements (that is, completes) the subject of the sentence by either (1) renaming it (the predicate nominative) or (2) describing it (the predicate adjective). These are defined below: 

    (1) Predicate nominative – a noun, group of nouns, or noun clause that renames the subject. It, like the predicate adjective, follows a linking verb and is located in the predicate of the sentence.  Example: Julia Roberts is a movie star. Movie star = predicate nominative, as it renames the subject, Julia Roberts.

    (2) Predicate adjective — an adjective, a group of adjectives, or adjective clause that follows a linking verb.  It is in the predicate of the sentence, and modifies, or describes, the subject.  Example: Warren remained optimistic.  Optimistic = predicate adjective, as it modifies the subject, Warren. 

Subordinate clause. Like all clauses, this word group contains both a subject and a verb (plus any accompanying phrases or modifiers), but unlike the independent clause, the subordinate clause cannot stand alone; it does not express a complete thought. Also called a dependent clause, the subordinate clause depends on a main clause (or independent clause) to complete its meaning. Easily recognized key words and phrases usually begin these clauses, including (but not restricted to) although, because, unless, if, even though, since, as soon as, while, who, when, where, how and that.   Note: Some students have been told that they “cannot begin a sentence with because.”  This is obviously untrue: Example: Because the students had been misinformed about subordinate clauses, they rarely began sentences with because. 

Syllogism – From the Greek for “reckoning together,” a syllogism (or syllogistic reasoning or syllogistic logic) is a deductive system of formal logic that presents two premises (the first one called “major” and the second called “minor”) that inevitably lead to a sound conclusion. A frequently cited example proceeds as follows: 

                 Major premise: All men are mortal. 

                 Minor premise: Socrates is a man. 

                Conclusion: Therefore, Socrates is a mortal. 

 A syllogism’s conclusion is valid only if each of the two premises is valid. Syllogisms may also present the specific ideafirst (“Socrates”) and the general second (“all men”).  Here’s a video tutorial explaining how this works. 

Symbol. A figure of speech in which something (object, person, situation, or action) means more than what it is. A symbol, in other words, may be read both literally and metaphorically. 

Syntax.  The order of words in a sentence.  The order of words in a sentence. Like diction, style, and tone, the word syntax is not sufficient without description, because all authors use syntax if they write more than one word. For example, syntax may be loose or periodic; it may be inverted, it may be in parallel structure, et cetera.  The Star Wars character Yoda’s weirdly inverted syntax is why he sounds so odd.

Theme. The central idea or unifying generalization implied or stated by a literary work. A theme always involves an author’s opinion or judgment ABOUT his or her central topic or subject.  A theme is never one word or a short phrase.  For example, “The theme of Romeo and Juliet is love” is NOT a correct statement because “love” by itself is not a theme.  Even “The theme of Romeo and Juliet is the passionate love between two teenagers and the hatred  of their families” is still not a theme because the author of this sentence makes no claim about what the message or point ABOUT this passionate love (and hatred) may be.  “The theme of Romeo and Juliet is that love can be as destructive an emotion as hate” IS a theme: it makes a claim or an argument ABOUT love. 

Thesis.  The central or controlling idea in a nonfiction work such as an essay.  A thesis is to a nonfiction work what a theme is to a fictional one. 

Tone. The writer’s or speaker’s attitude toward or feeling about subject matter, audience, or her/himself; the emotional coloring, or emotional meaning, of a work.  Note: In describing tone, one must use an emotion word.  As with diction, tone should not appear by itself without descriptors.  All writing has some tone just as all writing uses diction; therefore, it is crucial to describe what kind of tone appears in the literary work.  It is therefore too vague to assert, “An author uses tone.”  Instead, specify what kind: “The melancholy, brooding tone of the poem’s speaker…” 

A helpful collection of terms for tones is found on p. 5 of this PDF file from Poetry Out Loud. 

Tragedy. A type of drama, opposed to comedy, in which the protagonist, a person of unusual moral or intellectual stature or outstanding abilities, suffers a fall in fortune because of some error of judgment, excessive virtue, or flaw in her/his nature. 

Tragic Flaw.  An important flaw or failing in the personality of the protagonist of a drama.  This personality flaw leads directly to his or her tragic downfall.  See Hamartia.  OPTIONAL: In this clip from the television show Everwood, a character discusses his tragic flaw, which he defines as his own inability to change.  Note: Clip shows consumption of alcohol by adult.  You are not required to see this clip.

Tragic Hero. According to Aristotle, a tragic hero must have two main qualities: First, he must be noble, above the norm in intelligence, bravery, charisma, or success; secondly, however, he must also possess a tragic flaw (such as hubris) which causes his ultimate downfall.  The audience simultaneously feels pity (because the audience empathizes with the hero and admires his qualities) and fear (because such great flaws could also be possessed by oneself).  This identification ultimately leads to the sense of catharsis (emotional purge) so crucial to tragedy. 

Understatement. A figure of speech that consists of saying less than one means, or of saying what one means with less force than the occasion warrants. “Hitler was not a nice guy” would be one example of understatement, as would, “Yeah, Hurricane Katrina made New Orleans a bit damp.”

Verisimilitude. The semblance to truth or actuality in characters or events that a novel or other fictional work possesses. To say that a work has a high degree of verisimilitude means that the work is very realistic and believable.  Even if the work takes place in a clearly fictional location (e.g., a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away), it can possess a convincing degree of verisimilitude: in other words, it can “feel real” due to the clarity and consistency of the details.

Versification. Generally, the structural form of a verse, as revealed by scansion (that is, marking up the stressed and unstressed syllables in a poem). Identification of verse structure includes the name of the metrical type and the name designating number of feet: 

* Monometer: 1 foot
* Dimeter: 2 feet
* Trimeter: 3 feet
* Tetrameter: 4 feet
* Pentameter: 5 feet
* Hexameter: 6 feet
* Heptameter: 7 feet
* Octameter: 8 feet
* Nonameter: 9 feet

The most common verse in English poetry is iambic pentameter. See foot for more information. 

Zeugma. Any of several similar rhetorical devices, all involving a grammatically correct linkage (or yoking together) of two or more parts of speech by another part of speech. Thus examples of zeugmatic usage would include one subject with two (or more) verbs, a verb with two (or more) direct objects, two (or more) subjects with one verb, and so forth. The main benefit of the linking is that it shows relationships between ideas and actions more clearly.  Example: “You are free to execute your laws — and your citizens — as you see fit” (Star Trek: The Next Generation).  In this case, the verb “execute” has had two objects “yoked” to it — one direct object (“laws”)  and the other direct object (“citizens”).  Listening to this sentence, the hearer is compelled to “do the math” — that is, to make the connection between laws and citizens both being executed.  The connection takes place within the audience’s mind and therefore acquires a stronger persuasive power than if you’d just said, “You’re free to enforce your laws and kill your citizens.”   

The above terms were adapted from AP English page at Eau Claire High School and the Internet site Silvae Rhetoricae ( 


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