The following list provides definitions and explanations of key literary and critical terms to
help you appreciate, interpret, and write about literature. Please keep this list beyond this
year; this list will help you in English well into college.
Acronym-A word formed from the initial letters of a name. SCUBA (self-contained
underwater breathing apparatus)
Active voice-When the subject does the action in a sentence; active voice is preferred
over passive voice (when the subject receives the action).
Adage-An adage (pronounced add-age) a short but memorable saying that holds
some important fact of experience that is considered true by many people, or that
has gained some credibility through its long use. It often involves a planning failure
such as "don't count your chickens before they hatch" or "don't burn bridges
behind you." Adages may be interesting observations, practical or ethical
guidelines, or pessimistic comments on life.
Allegory-The representation of abstract ideas or principles by characters, figures, or
events in narrative, dramatic, or pictorial form.
Alliteration-The repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of several
words in a line of poetry. ie. Marilyn Monroe, Marshal Mathers
Allusion- A reference to a commonly known saying, biblical phrase, or novel. For
example, when someone says “Big Brother” they are indirectly referencing George
Analogy-Similarity between things that are otherwise dissimilar; through this
comparison the unclear idea, object, or technical concept is understood.
Anaphora-Repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive lines in a
Anecdote-A short story or joke told at the beginning of a speech to gain the
Anachronism- An anachronism is when a literary work mixes time and place on
purpose for effect or accidentally in error. In “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar” a gun
is referenced; however, during the Roman times guns were not invented.
Antagonist-The protagonist’s adversary.
Antecedent-The subject of a sentence in which the pronoun refers, the pronoun and
its antecedent must agree in number and gender. The students carried their books
(not) The student carried their books.
Anti-climatic-When the ending of the plot in poetry or prose is unfulfilling or
Antithesis-Juxtaposition of opposing ideas.
Apostrophe- Figure of speech in which an absent person, a personified inanimate
object. or an abstraction is addressed as though present.
Archetype- Refers to a generic version of a personality type in literature. Ie.
“mother figure,” WTP characters, reality show character types
Aside- A dramatic device in which a character speaks to the audience, or to another
character. By convention the audience understands that the character’s speech is
not heard by the other characters, usually a brief comment, not a long speech like a
soliloquy or a monologue.
Assonance-The repetition of the same vowel sound in a phrase or line of poetry.
Axial character-A character who is central to the plot, everything revolves around
this person. Think of what an axis is to the Earth.
Ballad stanza-A four-line stanza that conforms to a pattern of x4a3x4a3.
Bildungsroman-Another term for a coming-of-age novel.
Blank verse-Name for unrhymed iambic pentameter. An iamb is a metrical foot in
which an unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed syllable. In iambic
pentameter there are five iambs per line making ten syllables.
Caesura-A pause within the body of a line sometimes marked by punctuation. It
may substitute for a missing syllable. An example is Emily Dickinson’s “I’m
Nobody! Who Are You?”
I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us-don’t tell!
Catharsis-The purifying experience of releasing emotions by watching a great
Characterization-Building a character through description and dialogue.
Climax-The turning point in the plot or the high point of action.
Clincher statement-A point, fact, or remark that settles the argument (in a speech or
essay) conclusively, a memorable line at the end of a speech that drives the point
Colon-Often confused with a semicolon, a colon indicates a list is coming or it can be
used to emphasize an individual word at the end of the sentence.
Commentary-Explanation or interpretation of ideas or argument.
Concrete details-Facts, statistics, testimonial, quotations, used in an essay or speech
to back up commentary.
Connotation-An idea or meaning suggested by or associated with a word or thing,
ie. Bat=evil, yellow=happy, coward. (the shades of meaning of a word)
Consonance-The repetition of consonant sounds in a phrase or line of poetry. The
consonant sound may be at the beginning, middle, or end of the word.
Couplet-Two rhyming lines in poetry.
Criticism (literary)-Expert opinion on literary works.
Diction-Word choice or the use of words in speech or writing.
Doppelganger-The alter ego of a character-the surpressed side of one’s personality
that is usually unaccepted by society. ie. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
by Robert Louis Stevenson-Mr. Edward Hyde (hide) is Dr. Jekyll’s evil side
Elegy-A poem or song composed especially as a lament for a deceased person.
Ellipsis-… Indicates the omission of a word or phrase in a quotation; this
information is irrelevant or can be easily eliminated from a long quotation.
Empathy-Identification with and understanding of another's situation, feelings, and
motives. The ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes or understand a
Enjambment-The continuation of reading one line of a poem to the next without
pausing, a run-on line.
Epic-An extended narrative poem in elevated or dignified language, celebrating the
feats of a legendary or traditional hero.
Epigram-A witty or pithy comment.
Epigraph-A passage or quotation at the beginning of a literary work which sets the
tone or explains the theme of the upcoming work.
Epilogue-A short poem or speech spoken directly to the audience following the
conclusion of a play, or in a novel the epilogue is a short explanation at the end of
the book which indicates what happens after the plot ends.
Epiphany-Sudden enlightenment or realization, a profound new outlook or
understanding about the world usually attained while doing everyday mundane
Epistolary-Used to describe a novel that tells its story through letters written from
one character to another. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is partcially written in this
Epitaph-A brief literary piece commemorating a deceased person or what is written
on a person’s tombstone.
Etymology-The study of the origin of words.
Eulogy-Speech given at a funeral that praises the dead.
Euphemism-The act of substituting a harsh, blunt, or offensive comment for a more
politically accepted or positive one. (short=vertically challenged)
Excerpt-A passage or segment taken from a longer work, such as a literary or
musical composition, a document, or a film.
Expansion/Contraction-Expansion adds an unstressed syllable and a contraction
removes an unstressed syllable in order to maintain the rhythmic meter of a line.
This practice explains some words frequently used in poetry such as th’ in place of
the, o’er in place of over, and ‘tis or ‘twas in place of it is or it was.
Extended metaphor-A metaphor that extends throughout a work. ie. Caesar-lion
Figurative language-Speech or writing that departs from literal meaning in order to
achieve a special effect or meaning. Examples include personification, hyperbole,
similes, and metaphors.
Flashback-A return to an earlier period of time in the plot so as to understand
Flat character-A literary character whose personality can be defined by one or two
traits and does not change over the course of the story. Flat characters are usually
minor or insignificant characters.
Foil character-A character that by contrast underscores or enhances the distinctive
characteristics of another.
Foreshadowing- Clues in the text about incidents that will occur later in the plot,
foreshadowing creates anticipation in the novel. Common foreshadowing
techniques include weather.
Free verse-Type of verse that contains a variety of line lengths, is unrhymed, and
lacks traditional meter.
Genre-A category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, marked by a
distinctive style, form, or content.
Heroine-A woman noted for courage and daring action or the female protagonist.
Homonyms-One of two or more words that have the same sound and often the same
spelling but differ in meaning. ie. there/their
Hook-A means of attracting interest or attention. A story, joke, quotation, or
interesting facts that gain the audience’s attention at the beginning of a speech or
Hubrus- Used in Greek tragedies, refers to excessive pride that usually leads to a
hero ’s downfall.
Hyperbole-A figure of speech in which exaggeration is used for emphasis or
Imagery-The use of vivid or figurative language to represent objects, actions, or
In medias res-A story that begins in the middle of things.
Indefinite pronoun-A pronoun, such as any or some, that does not specify the
identity of its object.
Inference-The act or process of deriving logical conclusions from premises known or
assumed to be true.
Inversion-In poetry it is an intentional digression from ordinary word order which
is used to maintain regular meters. For example, rather than saying “the rain
came” a poem may say “came the rain”. Meters can be formed by the insertion or
absence of a pause.
Irony (Situational)-When one thing should occur, is apparent, or in logical sequence
but the opposite actually occurs. Example: A man in the ocean might say, “Water,
water everywhere and not a drop to drink.”
Jargon-Language and acronyms known within a certain profession.
Litotes-A deliberate understatement for the effect of emphasis.
Lost Generation-A literary movement post WWI which discusses the sentiment of
time when people felt abandoned and alienated from themselves, one another, and
the world. Writers include Hemingway, Remarque, and Fitzgerald to name a few.
Memoir-An account of the personal experiences of an author.
Metaphor-A figure of speech in which a word or phrase that ordinarily designates
one thing is used to designate another, thus making an implicit comparison; this
comparison does not use like or as.
Motivation –The motives behind a character’s actions.
Monologue-A long utterance by one person in a play.
Narrator-Someone who tells a story.
Novella-A short novel usually under 100 pages.
Nonet-A group of nine lines in poetry.
Octave-A group of eight lines of poetry-also called an octet.
Ode-A lyric poem of some length, usually of a serious or meditative nature and
having an elevated style and formal stanzaic structure. An ode celebrates someone
or some thing. John Keats is known for writing odes.
Omniscient point of view-The point of view of one having total knowledge. Also
referred to as third person point of view. The sitcom Friends is a good example
Onomatopoeia-The formation or use of words such as buzz or murmur that imitate
the sounds associated with the objects or actions in which they refer.
Oxymoron-A rhetorical figure in which incongruous or contradictory terms are
combined. ie. Biggie Smalls, Jumbo Shrimp, Mr. Tiffany.
Paradox- Statement which seems to contradict itself. ie. His old face was youthful
when he heard the news.
Parody-A literary or artistic work that imitates the characteristic style of an author
or a work for comic effect or ridicule. ie. SNL or Weird Al Yankovich.
Passage-A segment of a written work or speech.
Passive voice-When the subject of the sentence is receiving the action, active voice is
preferred over passive because the subject is doing the action.
Pathos-One of Aristotle’s Three Argumentative Appeals; it is an appeal to
someone’s emotions or a connection with the heart. Ethos is an appeal to
morality/ethics while the Greek, logos, refers to an appeal to someone’s mind/logic.
Personification-A figure of speech in which inanimate objects or abstractions are
endowed with human qualities or are represented as possessing human form.
Persuasion-The ability to persuade. When convincing someone to believe as you do
the writer or speaker must appeal to the audience’s preconceived notions, intellect,
emotions, and logic.
Poetic justice-The rewarding of virtue and the punishment of vice in the resolution
of a plot. The character, as they say, gets what he/she deserves.
Prequel-A literary, dramatic, or cinematic work whose narrative takes place before
that of a preexisting work or a sequel.
Prologue- An introduction or preface, especially a poem recited to introduce a play.
Romeo and Juliet has a famous prologue.
Prose-Ordinary speech or writing without metrical structure, prose is anything
written in paragraph form. Novels and short stories are referred to as prose.
Protagonist-The main character in a drama or literary work.
Pseudonym-A fictitious name or pen name. ie. George Orwell’s real name is Eric
Blair; Mark Twain’s real name is Samuel Longhorne Clemens.
Pulp Fiction-Sensationalized, poor-quality writing typical of over-the-counter
Pun-Play on words, when two words have multiple meanings and spellings and are
used in a humorous manner.
Quatrain-A four line stanza in poetry.
Quintet-A five line stanza in poetry.
Rhetoric-The art of persuasive writing and speaking.
Rhetorical questions-A question that makes the reader think, not meant to be
answered necessarily, just pondered. Ie. Was this ambition?
Rhyme scheme-The act of assigning letters in the alphabet to show the rhyming
structure of a poem.
Rites of passage-An incident which creates tremendous growth, signifying a
transition from adolescence to adulthood.
Round character-A character that is developed over the course of the book; round
characters are usually major characters in a novel.
Resolution-Solution to the conflict in literature.
Satire-A literary work in which human vice or folly is attacked through irony,
derision, or wit; the goal is to change the behavior/issue. Authors known for satires
are Jonathan Swift and George Orwell.
Semantics-Deals with word meanings or words being used properly based on
Sequel- A literary, dramatic, or cinematic work whose narrative continues that of a
Sestet-A poem or stanza containing six lines.
Septet-A poem or stanza containing seven lines.
Simile-A figure of speech in which two essentially unlike things are compared, often
in a phrase introduced by like or as.
Slang-A kind of language occurring chiefly in casual and playful speech, made up
typically of short-lived coinages and figures of speech that are deliberately used in
place of standard terms for added raciness, humor, irreverence, or other effect.
Soliloquy-A dramatic or literary form of discourse in which a character talks to
himself or herself or reveals his or her thoughts without addressing a listener.
Typical in plays.
Sonnet-A poem with fourteen lines. An Italian sonnet subdivides into two quatrains
and two tercets; while an English sonnet subdivides into three quatrains and one
Stream of consciousness-A literary technique that presents the thoughts and feelings
of a character as they occur. No pre-planned plot. (Virginia Woolf)
Style- The combination of distinctive features of literary or artistic expression,
execution, or performance characterizing a particular person, group, school, or era.
Symbolism- Something that represents something else by association, resemblance,
or convention, especially a material object used to represent something invisible.
Synonym-A word having the same or nearly the same meaning as another word.
Synopsis-A brief outline or general overview of a written work.
Syntax-Deals with word structure (order)or sentence structure.
Tercet-Verse sequence made up of three lines where the first and the third lines
rhyme. When all three lines rhyme it is called a triplet.
Tragedy- A drama or literary work in which the main character is brought to ruin
or suffers extreme sorrow, especially as a consequence of a tragic flaw, moral
weakness, or inability to cope with unfavorable circumstances.
Tone-Reflects how the author feels about the subject matter or the feeling the
author wants to instill in the reader.
Tragic Flaw-An inadequacy in a character’s personality that leads to his/her
Triplet-Three rhyming lines or three lines in a stanza.
Verbal Irony-When one thing is said and the opposite is meant.
Villanelle-Verse form that includes five tercets and one quatrain.