13 Essential Literary Terms


Aristotle wrote that mastery over the art of metaphor is a sign of genius, but what does this ubiquitous literary term mean in its most basic form? A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a term is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance, as in “She is a rose.” Excluding the possibility that the subject of this sentence is literally a flower, this example suggests that the subject possesses figurative extensions of qualities or attributes of a rose, such as exquisite beauty or perhaps a prickly disposition.


Metaphor is often confused with simile, a figure of speech in which two unlike things are explicitly compared. That explicit comparison often takes the form of the word like or as. To build on the example in the previous slide, “she is like a rose” and “as thorny as a rose bush” are examples of simile.


Simile and metaphor are both forms of analogy, the illustration of one idea by a more familiar or accessible idea that is in some way parallel. In his novel Cocktail Hour, P.G. Wodehouse uses the analogy of a man expecting to hear a rose petal drop in the Grand Canyon to illustrate the futility of a novelist hoping for swift success: "It has been well said that an author who expects results from a first novel is in a position similar to that of a man who drops a rose petal down the Grand Canyon of Arizona and listens for the echo."


Hyperbole is an obvious and intentional exaggeration, such as “I read a million books this summer.” Although teachers everywhere would likely rejoice if this were a true statement, plausibility is not the intended use of hyperbole: this literary device is often used for dramatic or comedic effect.


An allusion is an indirect reference to a person, place, event, or artistic work. Allusions assume a level of familiarity on the part of the reader with the work, person, or event referenced. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one of the con artists who claims to be an heir to the French throne makes allusions to three of Shakespeare’s plays in his jumbled rendition of Hamlet’s soliloquy, which opens with the humorously botched line “To be or not to be: that is the bare bodkin.”


Euphemism is the substitution of a mild, indirect, or vague expression for one thought to be harsh, blunt, or offensive. Break wind, the birds and the bees, and cold turkey are euphemisms for flatulence, sex and reproduction, and a quick, complete withdrawal from the use of an addictive substance, respectively. The opposite of euphemism is dysphemism, defined as the substitution of a harsh, disparaging, or unpleasant expression for a more neutral one.


A paradox is a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd but may in reality express a truth or tension. William Wordsworth offers an example of paradox in his poem My Heart Leaps Up with the line “the Child is the father of the Man.” This expression defies common sense on a literal level, but expresses a deeper truth that our dominant character traits are formed when we are young, and they continue to shape our experiences as adults. Paradox comes from the Greek word parádoxos, which means “beyond belief.”


Similar to paradox, the rhetorical device oxymoron uses contradiction, but an oxymoron is more compressed than a paradox. An oxymoron is a figure of speech that produces an incongruous, seemingly self-contradictory effect, such as in the phrase “cruel kindness” or “to make haste slowly,” or more famously in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet when Romeo utters the lines “O loving hate” and “O heavy lightness” in the opening scene.


Satire is a slippery concept that can sometimes be deeply embedded in a work’s themes or narrative, and sometimes closer to the surface in the actions or behavior of characters: simply put, satire is the use of irony, sarcasm, or ridicule in exposing, denouncing, or deriding vice or folly. Jonathan Swift’s 1726 novel Gulliver’s Travels is an example of satirical fiction. Written in the style of travel writing of its day, Gulliver’s Travels also provides an example of parody, defined as “a humorous imitation of a serious piece of literature or writing.”


Perhaps the most fun-to-say term on this list, onomatopoeia is defined as the formation of a word, as cuckoo, meow, honk, or boom, by imitation of a sound made by or associated with its referent. It comes from the Greek word onomatopoiía, which means “making of words.”


Alliteration is the commencement of two or more nearby words with the same letter or sound, as in the schoolyard staple “She sells seashells by the seashore.” Alliteration is often used in poetry and song writing, along with assonance, the repetition of vowel sounds in words with different consonants, and consonance, the repetition of consonants, often at the end of words.


An allegory is a story in which the characters or developments symbolize real people or events. George Orwell’s Animal Farm is an example of an allegory; on the surface it’s about a group of animals that overthrow their human masters to establish a more egalitarian society only to watch it devolve into tyranny, but below the surface it’s about Russia’s Bolshevik revolution and the corrupting nature of power.


Perhaps the most widely misunderstood term on this list, irony has a broad range of meanings and applications. Its primary definition is “the use of words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of its literal meaning,” sometimes called verbal irony. Responding “How nice!” to unpleasant news is an example of verbal irony. There is also situational irony, in which actions have an effect that is opposite from what was intended, so that the outcome is contrary to what was expected, and dramatic irony, which occurs when a situation is understood by the audience but not grasped by the characters in the play.