English Figures of Speech and Literary Terms
We use figures of speech all the time in speaking and writing, often without even realising it. A figure of speech is a rhetorical device where words are used in a special way for effect. Think of phrases like ‘financial tsunami’ and ‘falling on deaf ears’: these are examples of metaphor. By using original figures of speech, one can convey meaning and experience in surprising and effective ways. Of course, figures of speech are most commonly associated with literature. Find a list of the more popular examples, and other literary terminology, below.
ALLEGORY – A narrative where the characters and setting have multiple layers of significance, pointing to some reality beyond that which they immediately portray. George Orwell’s Animal Farm is an allegory of the Russian Revolution.
ALLITERATION – The repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of words, often in stressed syllables.
‘Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle’ (Wilfred Owen, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’)
ANAPHORA – The repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses. Often used in speeches: ‘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, 1940)
ANECDOTE – A short tale told within a narrative for effect, which is often humorous, and biographical – i.e. about the person telling the anecdote.
ANTITHESIS – Juxtaposing contrasting ideas in balanced phrases or parallel words. For example Juliet says of Romeo: ‘My only love sprung from my only hate‘.
APOSTROPHE – An address to something inanimate, to an absent person or to an abstract quality – often used to convey extreme emotion: ‘Roll on thou dark and deep blue ocean’. (Byron, ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage‘)
ASSONANCE – The repetition of similar vowel sounds within words: ‘For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore’: (Edgar Allen Poe, ‘The Raven’)
ASYNDETON – A style in which conjunctions have been left out, giving a faster pace: ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’ (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar).
BALLAD – A narrative poem meant to be sung, which generally includes refrains (i.e. repeated verse/ chorus).
BLANK VERSE – Unrhymed lines of iambic pentameter (perhaps most notably used in Shakespeare’s plays). This verse most closely imitates the patterns of spoken English: ‘If music be the food of love, play on,/ Give me excess of it; that, surfeiting,/ The appetite may sicken and so die.’
CAESURA – A pause in the middle of a line of verse, dictated not by metrical patterns but by natural speech patterns: ‘Know then thyself //, presume not God to scan; / The proper study of Mankind // is Man.’ (Alexander Pope, ‘An Essay on Man’)
CHIASMUS – A figure of speech with two parallel clauses: the first clause is reversed in the second, often involving a repetition of words: ‘By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail‘ (Benjamin Franklin).
CONCEIT – An extended metaphor – a comparison of two dissimilar things continued throughout the text. For example, John Donne uses a conceit when he compares two separated lovers to the legs of a compass in ‘A Valediction: forbidding mourning’.
CONSONANCE – The repetition of a sequence of consonants, with a change in the intervening vowels: ‘And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain.’ (Edgar Allen Poe, ‘The Raven’) When the repeated sound is an ‘s’ this is known as sibilance.
COUPLET – Two rhyming lines of iambic pentameter. Frequently employed in the final lines of a sonnet, giving a sense of completion. ‘Hear it not Duncan; for it is a knell/ That summons thee to heaven or to hell‘ (Shakespeare, Macbeth).
DRAMATIC MONOLOGUE – A piece of writing giving insights into the feelings of the narrator. An audience or listener is implied but there is no direct dialogue: ‘That’s my last duchess painted on the wall,/ Looking as if she were alive’ (Robert Browning, ‘My Last Duchess’).
ELEGY – A poem dealing with the death of a person, for example in WH Auden’s ‘Funeral Blues’, beginning ‘Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone‘.
ENJAMBMENT – A poetic device where the sentence continues on to the next line, often to describe some significant movement within the content of the poem, or for emphasis of a particular word: ‘Here at a small field’s ending pause/ Where the chalk wall falls to the foam and its tall ledges/ Oppose the pluck/ And knock of the tide’. (WH Auden, ‘On this Island’)
EPIC – A narrative poem dealing with the life and actions of a great hero or heroine. Examples in the classics would be Virgil’s Aeneid and Homer’s The Odyssey. More contemporary examples would be JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and George Lucas’s Star Wars.
EUPHEMISM – Substituting a more harsh or offensive term with a milder or less direct term. For example, using the word ‘departed’ for ‘dead’.
FORESHADOWING – To indicate a future event within a narrative before it has happened. For example, in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Lennie kills his puppy which foreshadows his later accidental killing of Curly’s wife.
FREE VERSE (VERS LIBRE) – Poetry of varied line lengths, unrhymed, and lacking traditional meter. An example would be the majority of TS Eliot’s ‘The love song of J Alfred Prufrock’.
HYPERBOLE – Overstating using exaggerated language. An example would be from fictional news reporter Kent Brockman in The Simpsons: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve been to Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, and I can say without hyperbole that this is a million times worse than all of them put together.’
IRONY – A figure of speech in which words convey something very different, even opposite, to their literal meanings. An ironic situation is one where there is a significant difference between what is understood and what actually happens. Irony is often humorous, and can include sarcasm. Dramatic irony occurs specifically in drama, where the audience has recognised or understood a truth which is at present unclear to the character or characters. For example, in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, Oedipus swears to find and kill the man who killed his father, unaware that he himself was the killer.
JUXTAPOSITION – Placing two ideas side by side in order to achieve a special effect – usually relating to the disparity between the two ideas. For example in Matthew 22:14 ‘Many are called, but few are chosen.’
LITOTES – A figure of speech which uses understatement in order to emphasise its subject. In Beowulf, ‘the sword was not useless to the warrior now’, ie it was useful.
METAPHOR – An implicit comparison between two things, relying on a likeness between them though not using the words ‘like’ or ‘as’: ‘that little tent of blue/ Which prisoners call the sky’ (Oscar Wilde, ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’).
METER – A pattern within poetry made of stressed and unstressed syllables. Each line may be broken into ‘feet’, for example iambic (a stressed, followed by unstressed syllable); the number of feet is counted, for example as in pentameter (five feet) or tetrameter (four feet).
METONYMY – A figure of speech where something is referred to by one of its attributes or distinctive features, for example we might speak of a new play showing at the ‘West End’ (representing the theatre district in London), or a person speaking a particular ‘tongue’ (representing a language). Synecdoche is a similar technique, in which the whole is substituted for a part, for example the ‘wheels’ representing a car, or ‘all hands’ representing the crew on a ship.
MOTIF – A formula that recurs through a text, for example birds are a motif in the Sebastian Faulks’ novel Birdsong.
ODE – A lyrical poem of elevated style, often written to praise a person or object, for example Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn’. The rhyme scheme of the English Ode is generally ABABCDECDE.
ONOMATOPOEIA – A word which enacts the sound it describes; for example in James Joyce’s Ulysses, the narrator represents a train’s whistle as ‘frseeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeefrong’.
OXYMORON – A figure of speech combining two opposed elements, for example ‘deafening silence’ or ‘open secret’.
PARABLE – A short, fictive narrative which elaborates a moral teaching using analogy. These are commonly found in the New Testament, for example the parable of the prodigal son.
PARADOX – A statement which seems to contradict itself: ‘This statement is false’.
PARODY – A work that imitates another by exaggerating the style of the original, generally for comic effect. This is also known as lampooning. For example, Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey involves a parody of the Gothic genre that was popular at the time.
PASTORAL – A work describing the life of country folk, generally characterised as being peaceful and wholesome. In Virgil’s Eclogues, this involves simple shepherds who lead an idyllic, undramatic life of beauty and love. For example, Christopher Marlowe’s ‘The Passionate Shepherd to his Love’.
PERSONA – The voice that the author adopts in telling his or her story. The persona may or may not be named.
PERSONIFICATION – Endowing an inanimate object or some abstract quality with human attributes. For example, in political cartoons or propaganda England has been personified as a character named ‘John Bull’, and the United States as ‘Uncle Sam’.
PUN – A verbal play on words; this may involve a word spelled the same but with different meanings, or it may involve different words with similar sense or sounds. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, a cobbler (who mends shoes) is asked what he does, and he replies he is a ‘mender of men’s soles’.
QUATRAIN – A stanza with four lines.
RHETORICAL QUESTION – A question asked for dramatic effect, which does not require an answer. An example is illustrated in this dialogue from The Simpsons:
Marge: How many roads must a man walk down Before you can call him a man... Homer: Seven Lisa: No, dad, it's a rhetorical question. Homer: Ok, eight. Lisa: Dad, do you even know what 'rhetorical' means? Homer: Do I know what 'rhetorical means'!
SATIRE – A literary work that presents human failings or foibles in order to criticise them. Jonathan Swift satirises the cruelty and injustice in Ireland at the time in his satirical tract ‘A Modest Proposal’.
SCANSION – Applying an analysis of meter in poetic study.
SIMILE – An explicit comparison between two dissimilar things (usually employing the words ‘as’ or ‘like’) which have some attributes in common. In ‘Blackberry-Picking’, Seamus Heaney describes the fruit as looking ‘Like a plate of eyes’.
SOLILOQUY – A monologue in a play where the character is speaking to himself or herself, often revealing a complex state of mind or hidden intentions. Hamlet considers his feelings over the state of affairs in Denmark in a soliloquy beginning: ‘O that this too too solid flesh would melt’.
SONNET (PETRARCHAN VS. SHAKESPEAREAN….)
STANZA – A section of poetry, usually divided by a blank line from the following or preceding stanza. The stanza is categorised by its number of lines: a couplet is two lines, a tercet three, quatrain four, cinquain five, sestet six, heptatich seven, and octave eight.
STOCK CHARACTER – Typically a ‘larger than life’ character, recognised for its distinctive features which are carried over to multiple stories. The stock character tends to be based on a social stereotype. For example, in Medieval England, stock characters such as Everyman and Fellowship appeared in the Mystery plays. The Fairy Godmother and Evil Stepmother are stock characters common to fairy-tales.
SYMBOLISM – An object (place, person or thing) which represents something beyond its immediate presence. The thing being represented is typically more abstract or general than the representative object. In William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, the pig’s head becomes symbolic of the evil and violence that comes from within.
SYNTAX – The arrangement of words into clauses and sentences. The syntax can be important in expressing an idea; for example, brief and simple sentences might express an urgency within the narrative, or long and convoluted sentences could indicate the narrator’s disordered state of mind.
TERZA RIMA – A poem of stanzas with three lines in which the second line of the first stanza rhymes with the first and third line of the next. An example would be from Byron’s ‘Prophecy of Dante’:
Once more in man's frail world! Which I had left So long that 'twas forgotten; and I feel The weight of clay again, - too soon bereft Of the immortal vision which could heal My earthly sorrows, and to God's own skies Lift me from that deep gulf without repeal,
TRAGEDY – A drama in which a character of heroic attributes undergoes a dramatic reversal in fortune, owing to a fatal flaw (hamartia) in his or her character. Aristotle’s theories about tragic drama are very influential in today’s understanding of this genre. Examples would be Sophocles’ Antigone and Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure.
VILLANELLE – A verse of six stanzas and nineteen lines: five tercets followed by one quatrain, with only two rhyme sounds. The first and third line of the first tercet rhyme, and this rhyme continues through the other four tercets and in the final two lines of the quatrain. The word villanelle comes from the Latin villanus (rustic), indicating its origins with the medieval troubadours. An example is Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’, reproduced here in its entirety:
The art of losing isn't hard to master; so many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster. Lose something every day. Accept the fluster of lost door keys, the hour badly spent. The art of losing isn't hard to master. Then practice losing farther, losing faster: places, and names, and where it was you meant to travel. None of these will bring disaster. I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or next-to-last, of three loved houses went. The art of losing isn't hard to master. I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster, some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent. I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster. --Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident the art of losing's not too hard to master though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.