Literary Terminology



Theme or motif? Themes are abstract ideas whereas motifs are recurrent, usually concrete, objects and symbols that illustrate these ideas, marking the main difference between them.  For example, in Hamlet, the theme of corruption may be symbolised throughout the play with the motifs of “rotten”, “rank”, “unweeded garden” etc.



Visual imagery: metaphor, simile, personification, pathetic fallacy, etc.



Sound imagery:

Alliteration: the repetition of initial consonant sounds used for emphasis to create mood, to unify lines, to reinforce meaning and to impart musical quality. (dental, refers to ‘d’ sound; fricatives to the ‘f’ or ‘th’ sounds; labial to the ‘l’ sound)


Assonance: the repetition of a vowel sound within words used to provide a musical quality, to unify stanzas or convey a mood.


Cacophony: harsh joining of sounds.


Consonance: the repetition of consonant sounds within and at the ends of words used for emphasis, to create mood, to unify lines, to reinforce meaning and impart musical quality.


Discordant, dissonance or dissonant sounds: unpleasant sounds.


Euphony or euphonious sounds: pleasant sounds.


Onomatopoeia: the use of words that imitate sounds.


Sibilance: the repetition of the ‘s’ or ‘sh’ sounds within words to create either soothing, soft or sinister mood.




Anaphora: the repetition of words, phrases or sentences often at the beginning of successive sentences, clauses, paragraphs used to heighten impact of ideas.


Anacoluthon: lack of grammatical sequence; a change in the grammatical construction within the same sentence: “Agreements entered into when one state of facts exists - are they to be maintained regardless of changing conditions?” (J. Diefenbaker)


Antistrophe: repetition of the same words or phrase at the end of successive clauses.


Chiasmus: the parallel structure of a sentence in which the second part is balanced against the first with the parts reversed: “Fair is foul and foul is fair.” (Shakespeare) or "Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good." (Samuel Johnson)


Polysyndeton: a sentence style that employs many conjunctions: "Let the whitefolks have their money and power and segregation and sarcasm and big houses and schools and lawns like carpets, and books, and mostly--mostly--let them have their whiteness." (Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1969)


Asyndeton: the absence of conjunctions between words, phrases or clauses. "He was a bag of bones, a floppy doll, a broken stick, a maniac." (Jack Kerouac, On the Road)


Caesura: a pause, metrical or rhetorical, occurring somewhere in a line of poetry.  The pause may or may not be typographically indicated (i.e. it may not have a punctuation mark).


End stopped: a line that has a natural pause at the end.


Enjambment: the running of a sentence over a line or lines of poetry.


Meter: the repetition of a regular rhythmic unit in a line of poetry, often emphasizes the musical quality of the language and relates directly to the subject matter of the poem.



Other terminology:

Antithesis: opposition, or contrast of ideas or words in a balanced or parallel construction.


Aporia: expression of doubt (often feigned) by which a speaker appears uncertain as to what he should think, say, or do.


Aposiopesis: a form of ellipse by which a speaker comes to an abrupt halt, seemingly overcome by passion (fear, excitement etc.) or modesty.


Denouement: the final unravelling or outcome of the plot in drama and fiction during which the complications of the plot are resolved.


Catachresis: a harsh metaphor involving the use of a word beyond its strict sphere: “I listen vainly, but with a thirsty ear.” (MacArthur, Farewell address)


Conceit: an extended metaphor in which two apparently dissimilar things are compared in several ways; usually in a more elaborate, formal and ingeniously clever comparison than the extended metaphor.


Foil: a character who provides a striking contrast to another character.  Used to call attention to certain traits possessed by a main character or simply to set off or enhance the character through contrast.


Hyperbole: exaggeration for emphasis or for rhetorical effect.


Litotes, meiosis: rhetorical (often ironic) understatement, for intensity, by denying the contrary of the thing being affirmed: “One nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day.”


Metonymy: substitution of one word for another which it suggests: “He is a man of the cloth.”


Paradox: a statement that seems to be contradictory or ridiculous but is actually quite true.


Paronomasia: use of similar sounding words; often etymological word play: when the dying Mercutio exclaims “ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man.” (Shakespeare, R +J)


Pleonasm: use of superfluous or redundant words, often enriching the thought: “No one, rich or poor, will be accepted.” or  Ears pierced while you wait!”


Synaesthesia: the description of one sense using another, for example: “hot pink”, “sharp taste”, “loud shirt”.


Tautology: repetition of an idea in a different word, phrase, or sentence: “With malice toward none, with charity for all.” (Lincoln, Second inaugural)


Verisimilitude: how fully the characters and actions in a work of fiction conform to our sense of reality.  To say that a work has a high degree of verisimilitude means that the work is very realistic and believable, it is ‘true to life’.