Literary Devices: Definitions and Examples

     

If you would like to use a literary device that is not represented by this list, you should check with your instructor. Also, a good online resource is literarydevices.net – especially the “function” section at the bottom of each term page.


Allusion - a brief and indirect reference to a person, place, thing that is commonly known. The writer expects the reader to recognize the reference.

Example: Don’t act like a Romeo in front of her.  (“Romeo” is a reference to Shakespeare’s Romeo from Romeo and Juliet.)

 

Ambiguity - Allows for two or more simultaneous interpretations of a word, phrase, action, or situation, all of which can be supported by the context of the work.  

Example: The passerby helps dog bite victim. (Is the passerby helping a dog bite someone? Or is he helping a person bitten by a dog? It’s not clear.)

 

Anaphora – the deliberate repetition of the first part of the sentence

Example: Every day, every night, in every way, I am getting better and better. Or, Martin Luther King used anaphora in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, in which several sentences begin with the phrase I have a dream that one day….

 

Antimetabole - repeating a phrase in reverse order

Example: Eat to live, not live to eat. Or, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.  Or, if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.

 

Apostrophe An address to someone who is absent and therefore cannot hear the speaker or to something nonhuman and cannot comprehend.

Example: O death, I will be thy destruction. Or, I said to Love, “We now know more of thee…”

 

Asyndeton – to intentionally eliminate conjunctions between the phrases and in the sentence, yet maintain the grammatical accuracy. Related to Polysyndeton.

Example: It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Superman!

 

Colloquialism - the use of informal words, phrases or even slang in a piece of writing.

Example: I didn’t want to go back no more. I had stopped cussing, because the widow didn’t like it; but now I took to it again because pap hadn’t no objections… But by-and-by pap got too handy with his hick’ry, and I couldn’t stand it. I was all over with welts. He got to going away so much, too, and locking me in. Once he locked me in and was gone three days. It was dreadful lonesome.


Dialect – the language used by the people of a specific area, class, district or any other group of people. Oftentimes, words are spelled as they sound.

Example: We’s safe, Huck, we’s safe! Jump up and crack yo’ heels. Dat’s de good ole Cairo at las’, I jis knows it.  Or, Reckon I have. Almost died first year I come to school and et them pecans — folks say he pizened ‘em and put ‘em over on the school side of the fence.

 

Epiphora – a word or a phrase is repeated at the end of successive clauses.

Example: Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where – wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there… An’ when our folk eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build – why, I’ll be there


Foil - A device used to help reveal the contrast between the characters distinctive qualities. In other words, you can describe one character by saying they are the opposite of another.

Example: Dr. Watson can be described a foil to Sherlock Holmes. Dr. Watson can be described as “cautious, humble, communicative, and relates well with people.” Sherlock Holmes can be described as “the opposite of Dr. Watson.”

 

Foreshadowing - Language used to suggest what is to come in the future

Example: From Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: Life were better ended by their hate/Than death prorogued, wanting of thy love (Spoiler: They both died in the end)

 

Hyperbole/Overstatement - An exaggeration that adds emphasis without intending to be literally true

Example: In Los Angeles, you can’t do anything unless you drive. The only way to get across the street is to be born there. All the pedestrian crossing signs say DON’T WALK, all of them, all the time.

 

Imagery /Imagistic Language - Language that addresses the reader’s senses. Related to Synesthesia.

Example:  Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves; [sight]/And mid-May’s eldest childThe coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine, [scent, sight]/The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves [sound, sight]


in medias res – (all lower case) Latin for “in the midst of things.” Starting the story in the middle of the plot line

Example: In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the play begins when the ghost of Prince Hamlet’s dead father appears. In other words, the action of King’s death has already happened.


Irony (Dramatic) - When there is a difference between what a character says or believes and what the reader understands to be true.

Example: (Hunger Games) Katniss pretends to love Peeta as a way to continue to gain favor with the audience. Gale, the boy she really does love, is watching the games from home and does not know that she is pretending to have feelings for Peeta. But, the reader knows the truth.

(Note for using Dramatic Irony: Use the phrase “But, the reader knows the truth” in your analysis.)

 

Irony (Situational) – When there is a difference between what is expected to happen and what actually happens

Example: (Hunger Games) The game makers announce that if two tributes remain from the same district, then two winners will be declared. Then they change the rule again to create drama by saying that there can only be one winner. The reader would expect Katniss and Peeta to fight each other, but what actually happens is that they decide to take their own lives by eating poisonous berries.

(Note for using Situational Irony: Use the phrases “The reader would expect…” and “…but what actually happens…” in your analysis.)

 

Irony (Verbal) - When a person says one thing but means the opposite

Example: (Hunger Games) Happy hunger games and may the odds ever be in your favor. When Effie says “happy hunger games,” she says she wants the contestants to enjoy fighting in the arena, but she actually means that she wants them to disregard the killing and just enjoy the festivities.

(Note for using Verbal Irony: Use the phrase “but the character actually means …” in your analysis.)

 

Jargon – vocabulary used by a group or profession

Example: B.P.  (medical jargon which means “blood pressure”), Or, 9-to-5 (business jargon which refers to a standard work day – 9am to 5pm) Or, Code Eleven (police jargon that means the individual is at the scene of the crime) Or, A.W.O.L. (military jargon which means absent without leave)

 

Juxtaposition - two or more ideas, places, characters or actions are placed side by side for the purpose of highlighting the contrast.

Example: A grandmother holding a newborn baby. Or, two people falling in love during a war. Or, new houses being built amidst the rubble of a tornado-collapsed neighborhood.

 

Metaphor - A comparison of two unlike things that does not use a connective word such as like or as.

Example: He is the black sheep of the family. Or, she was fairly certain that life was a fashion show. Or, her eyes were fireflies.

 

Metaphor (Implied) – An implied metaphor a type of metaphor that compares two unlike things, but it does so without mentioning one of them. 

Example: Last night I plowed through a book. (compares the act of reading to farming) Or, the words nourished his bruised ego. (compares words to food) Or, she steered the conversation away from an argument. (compares directing a discussion to driving a car)

 

Metonymy - When something that is closely associated with a subject is substituted for it. This is related to Synecdoche.

Example: I pledge allegiance to the flag. (The “flag” represents the United States of America) Or, the pen is mightier than the sword. (The “pen” represents the power of writing, the “sword” represents military force.)

 

Onomatopoeia – words that seem to signify meaning through sound effects.

Example: The steak sizzled in the pan. Or, the snaked hissed at the little boy. Or, the taxi beeped at the bicyclist.

 

Oxymoron - When two opposite words are joined together to present a new idea. Related to Paradox.

Example: It was a bittersweet reunion. Or, she drove an awfully pretty car. Or, that stand-up comedian is seriously funny.

 

Paradox - A statement that initially appears to be self-contradictory but with closer inspection, turns out to make sense. Related to Oxymoron.

Example: In order to lead, you must walk behind. Or, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Or, what a pity that youth must be wasted on the young.

 

Paralipsis – an idea is deliberately suggested but most of the significant points are omitted. It is understood that some points are too obvious to mention. And, it is a way of emphasizing a subject by apparently passing over it.

Example: I don’t need to mention that I was homecoming king in high school. (the person has already mentioned it) Or, I will speak only about his good nature. (implies that the person has a bad side) Or, I surely need not remind you to get your Christmas shopping done early (you are actually reminding)

 

Personification - The attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman objects

Example: Look at my car. Ain’t she is a beauty? Or, the wind whispered through dry grass. Or, the fire swallowed the entire forest.


Polysyndeton - several coordinating conjunctions are used in succession in order to achieve an artistic effect. Related to Asyndeton.

Example: He’s dead all right,’ and it was dark and there was water standing in the street and no lights or windows broke and boats all up in the town and trees blown down and everything all blown and I got a skiff and went out and found my boat where I had her inside Mango Key and she was right only she was full of water.

 

Simile – A comparison of two unlike things that uses a connective word such as like or as.

Example: Our soldiers are as brave as lions. Or, her cheeks are red like a rose. Or, he is as funny as a monkey.

 

Stream-Of-Consciousness - A device that allows the reader into the character’s flow of thought – oftentimes unstructured.  

Example: What a lark! What a plunge! For so it always seemed to me when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which I can hear now, I burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave.

 

Symbol - A person, place, or object that suggests more than its literal meaning

Example: national flags (represent countries), the rainbow flag (represents gay pride), the golden arches (McDonalds, or to some people in the world, American culture)

 

Synecdoche - A figure of speech where a part of something is used to signify the whole. This device is related to Metonomy.

Example: We have five thousand boots on the ground. (represents individual soldiers) Or, we run two hundred head of cattle on that ridge. (represents individual cows)

 

Synesthesia – the association of two or more senses in the same image, with one sensation being related in terms of another. Related to Imagery.

Example: night of stars/all along the precipice/goat bells ring (sight then sound)

 

Understatement/Meiosis - When less is said than intended

Example: One nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day. Or, a murderer on trial says, Mistakes we’re made.

 

Zeugma – a word, usually a verb, applies to more than one noun, and blends together different ideas

Example: And all the people saw the thundering, and the lightning, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking. Or, They covered themselves with dust and glory.

 

 

For our purposes, use the following only for poetry:

 

Alliteration – a number of words, having the same first consonant sound, occur close together in a series 

Example: The ship has sailed to the far off shore. Or, She ate seven sandwiches on a sunny Sunday last year.

 

Assonance – when two or more words close to one another repeat the same vowel sound but start with different consonant sounds.

Example: His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy. There's vomit on his sweater already, mom's spaghetti.

 

Cacophony – the use of words with sharp, harsh, hissing and unmelodious sounds primarily those of consonants.

Example: 'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves/Did gyre and gimble in the wabe; /All mimsy were the borogoves, /And the mome raths outgrabe.

(Note: This is when the actual words sound bad. It is not referring to a situation with discordant sounds – like a noisy casino, or a children’s playground)

 

Euphony – the use of words and phrases that have a wide range of melody or loveliness in the sounds they create. It gives pleasing and soothing effects to the ears due to repeated vowels and smooth consonants.

Example: It’s autumn in the country I remember./How warm a wind blew here about the ways!/And shadows on the hillside lay to slumber/During the long sun-sweetened summer-days.

 


Last modified: 27 Aug. 2014