14 Literary Terms and Techniques to Deepen your Understanding of English

One of the enjoyable challenges you’ll face as you become increasingly familiar with English is reading some of the great works of literature written in this fascinating language.

Having some understanding of some of the different literary devices an author, poet or playwright has used will help you gain a deeper appreciation of a work of literature, empowering you with the knowledge you need to be able to interpret the writer’s thoughts and ideas. What’s more, by getting to know some of the more sophisticated ways in which the English language can be used, you’ll further develop your own language skills and learn to think more deeply about how subtly words can be used. And as if that wasn’t reason enough, having some literary terms at your disposal is a sure-fire way to impress your English teachers. We’ve compiled this introductory list to help you learn some of the most common terms, so remember to look out for them next time you reach for a volume of Shakespeare, Bronte or Keats!

1. Iambic Pentameter

‘Antony and Cleopatra’ by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, showing Cleopatra in her barge as Shakespeare described it.

Made famous by Elizabethan playwrights, notably Shakespeare himself, iambic pentameter is a particular metre (rhythm) used in the writing of verse. It uses ten syllables with emphasis on every other syllable, giving it a distinctive, lilting rhythm, sounding like this: “de-DUM-de-DUM-de-DUM-de-DUM-de-DUM”. An example of this is the line, “If music be the food of love, play on” from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Sometimes, poets and playwrights will disrupt this rhythm if they want to emphasise a particular word, swapping or dropping emphasis of certain syllables unexpectedly, a device that can feel jarring to the reader. Another famous Shakespearean line does this: “Now is the winter of our discontent”. The emphasis on the first two syllables has been swapped around from what we would expect, so that the word “Now” is stressed; this heightens the sense of immediacy and reinforces the idea that it’s something happening in the present moment.

2. Litotes

Litotes is understatement used for rhetorical effect, and usually makes use of double negatives for emphasis. For example, rather than stating overt enthusiasm for something, one might say that it was “not bad”. Another example might be “He’s not unintelligent”, as a means of saying that someone is intelligent (or even a genius). While understatement might at first seem a peculiarly British trait, the use of litotes is common in a number of European languages, and was a strong feature of Old English poems and Icelandic sagas. There are also instances of its use in the Bible, and even as far back as Homer’s epic The Iliad, in which Achilles is described by Zeus as “neither unthinking, nor unseeing”.

3. Rhyming couplet

The Ellesmere manuscript of the Canterbury Tales.

A rhyming couplet is two lines of poetry with the words at the end of each rhyming. Typically, a rhyming couplet summarises a particular thought, but entire works can be written in rhyming couplets, such as Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Poets often choose the rhyming words very carefully, so that even these two words encapsulate an idea. Rhyming couplets are used at the end of sonnets; here’s an example from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 27:
“Lo, thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind,
For thee, and for myself, no quiet find.”
This summarises the theme of the sonnet, which is that the writer is unable to rest for thinking of the object of his desire.

4. Personification

Personification is when human qualities are attributed to inanimate objects, animals or even abstract ideas, such as deities. Another word for this is “anthropomorphism”, and human traits used can include emotions, speech and physical actions. An example is “the cruel wind” and “The trees seemed to wave us goodbye”. Personification is a commonly used device in literary works, but we’re introduced to the concept from an early age in children’s television and books, which often use animals or even inanimate objects as characters who can speak and act in human ways.

5. Onomatopoeia

This hard-to-spell word, pronounced “on-o-mat-o-pee-a”, refers to words that imitate the sound of what they are referring to. “Thump” is an example, and so are most of the words we use to describe animal noises, such as “oink”, “meow” or “moo”. Another example is words associated with collisions, which often sound like various noises associated with two things colliding; “bang”, for instance, or “clash”, or “wallop”. In works of literature, particularly poems, onomatopoeia can be used to evoke certain ideas or to create an atmosphere very concisely, as in Robert Frost’s poem Gathering Leaves:
“I make a great noise
Of rustling all day”
The word “rustling” is onomatopoeic, reflecting the sound dried leaves make when they brush gently together; this evocative word immediately conjures up such images in the reader’s mind.

6. Alliteration

Alliteration is the use of a sequence of two or more words each beginning with the same letter or sound. The “Automobile Association” is a well-known example of alliteration. Alliteration is commonly used in marketing, branding and newspaper headlines because it’s memorable, helping concepts stick in the minds of readers or viewers. In a literary context it’s often used in poetry to reflect a particular feeling; for instance, a poem about a snake might make use of words beginning with ‘S’ to reflect the sound of the snake’s hiss, creating an onomatopoeic effect. Here’s an example from James Joyce’s The Dead, with the alliterative words underlined:
“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
Here the repetition of the ‘s’ sounds at the beginning of the sentence slow down the rhythm, reflecting the ‘slowness’ mentioned. The repeated ‘f’ sounds are soft, like the gentleness of falling snow. This is the last line of the story, and the alliteration certainly draws it to a memorable conclusion.
As a side note, closely related to alliteration is assonance, which also involves the repetition of vowel sounds, and consonance, which involves the repetition of consonant sounds; they differ from alliteration in that the sounds don’t have to be at the beginning of each word.

7. Pathetic fallacy

Heathcliff from ‘Wuthering Heights’; engraving by Fritz Eichenberg.

Pathetic fallacy is a literary device in which human emotions are attributed to aspects of nature, such as the weather. For instance, the weather can be used to reflect a person’s mood, with dark clouds or rain present in a scene involving sorrow. It’s a form of personification, a term we’ve already encountered earlier in this article. A novel that famously makes use of pathetic fallacy is Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte, the stormy characters and tumultuous relationships of which are reflected in the novel’s setting: the bleak Yorkshire Moors. Ferocious thunderstorms mirror Heathcliff’s aggression, and elsewhere reflect the turmoil Cathy must go through in choosing between Edgar and Heathcliff. Pathetic fallacy is even present in the name of the novel, which is also the name of the farmhouse in which the story is set; the word “wuthering” refers to wind so strong that it makes a roaring sound, or to a place characterised by wind that roars. Such threatening weather is used to create a sense of foreboding, forming a menacing backdrop to a story populated by characters whose violent and jealous temperaments are hugely destructive to themselves and others.

8. Metaphor

A metaphor is a type of analogy, used to describe something by comparing it with something otherwise unrelated. A famous example is Shakespeare’s “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”, and another is Victor Hugo’s line “Laughter is the sun that drives winter from the human face”, in Les Miserables. Metaphors have long been used for effect; take this example from the Greek philosopher Plato: “…as poets love their poems and fathers their children, just so do money-makers love their money…”.

9. Simile

Pronounced “sim-il-ee”, this term refers to likening something directly to something else, and it’s a form of metaphor used to add colour to writing of any kind – from poetry to novels to songs. You can recognise a simile by spotting the words “as” or “like”. For example, “bright as a summer’s day”. “My love is like a red red rose” is a famous example of a simile, used in the poem of the same name by the 18th century Scottish poet Robert Burns.

10. Aside

An aside is a device that has been used in plays for centuries, involving a character directly addressing the audience without the other characters being able to hear. It’s part of the story, usually kept brief and often used comically to gossip or make a comment about another character behind their back. Some films make use of this technique too, with a character looking directly into the camera to address viewers, known in this context as ‘breaking the fourth wall’. This is something Amelie, the eponymous heroine of the French film that bears her name, does frequently by whispering conspiratorially to the audience.

11. Allegory

‘Christian Reading in his Book’ by William Blake, an illustration for Pilgrim’s Progress. The weight on Christian’s back is the knowledge of his own sin.

An allegory is a kind of story that has a meaning deeper than its obvious one, and it’s a sort of extended metaphor. A famous example is Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, which ostensibly tells the tale of the journey of its protagonist Christian, but has a symbolic meaning that describes the journey of a Christian from Earth to Heaven. In Medieval times, allegory was commonly used to communicate religious messages, but later it became a way of commenting on politics or society. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift and Animal Farm by George Orwell are both examples of allegories that use bizarre stories as parallels for real political and social situations; Swift was commenting on everything from particular politicians to entire countries, while Orwell’s tale reflects events in the run-up to the 1917 Russian Revolution.

12. Hyperbole

Pronounced “hipe-ER-bowl-ee”, this term comes from a Greek word meaning “excess” and describes exaggeration used for rhetorical effect. It’s not meant to be taken literally, but it is used to make a point particularly forcefully. We often use it in everyday language, for example “I’ve told you a million times” or “I love you to the moon and back”. Hyperbole is often used in literature, such as in the celebrated 20th century Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s Living to Tell the Tale, in which he writes: “At that time Bogota was a remote, lugubrious city where an insomniac rain had been falling since the beginning of the 16th century.” Clearly he doesn’t literally mean that it hasn’t stopped raining since the 16th century; he’s just exaggerating to show readers that it’s somewhere in which a lot of rain falls!

13. Connotation

A word that conjures up other meanings or sparks thoughts of something else has “connotations”. For example, the word “white” has connotations of purity, peace, good, innocence, and cleanliness. Writers often choose certain words because they know that readers will associate them with other things, and they can enrich writing with many layers of meaning. An example of connotations used in literature is George Orwell’s Animal Farm, in which certain animals have been chosen for particular characters because of the connotations those animal species have. This applies most especially to the pigs, who are powerful and corrupt, playing on the idea of “greedy pigs”. Another example is Boxer the workhorse, who represents labourers; the image of the working horse has connotations of working the land, going out and doing an honest day’s work, physical labour and so on. These associations help heighten the effectiveness of the allegory in this memorable and influential novel.

14. Stream of consciousness

This literary technique describes a character’s interior monologue: a continuous flow of thoughts going on in the character’s mind. It’s a technique that came to the fore in the 20th century, famously championed by Virginia Woolf in To The Lighthouse and, more bafflingly, by James Joyce in his groundbreaking novel Ulysses, in which the idea of a stream of consciousness is taken to its extreme. Trying to represent the randomness of human thought processes literally, Joyce penned paragraphs like this:
“My missus just got an. Reedy freckled soprano. Cheesparing nose. Nice enough in its way: for a little ballad.”

If you’re currently trying to learn English or develop your existing skills, we suggest you might want to avoid Ulysses for the time being!

If this list has you itching to find out more about literature and the English Language, why not sign up for an English as a Foreign Language summer school and learn even more about the language of some of the world’s most famous writers?

Image credits: banner; Cleopatra; Chaucer; Heathcliff; Christian