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The word anecdote, phonetically pronounced an.ik.doht

Why Should I Understand Literary Devices?

Literary devices improve your writing. You can use them in your courses and college essays and on the SAT writing section, not to mention in your college coursework and future profession.

Understanding literary devices also helps you comprehend the work of others. For example, on the SAT reading test, you’ll need to understand and analyze the work of others. Being able to spot the literary devices the author is using will help you get a sense of the overall meanings behind the passages you encounter.

This is also useful knowledge to have for any social science or humanities class, where you’ll be expected to analyze and understand long works.

30 Literary Devices You Should Know

1. Allegory

What is It: A work that symbolizes or represents an idea or event.

Example: The novel Animal Farm by George Orwell is an allegory for the Russian Revolution, with characters representing key figures in the movement.

2. Alliteration

What is It: The repetition of the same or similar consonant sounds in succession.

Example: She sells seashells by the seashore.

3. Allusion

What is it: An indirect reference to a person, place, thing, event, or idea .

Example: The song “American Pie” by Don McLean is full of allusions to events that occurred in the 1950s and 60s. For instance, “February made me shiver” is an allusion to the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly on February 3, 1959.

4. Analogy

What is it: A parallel between disparate ideas, people, things, or events that is more elaborate than a metaphor or simile.

Example: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.” —William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2

In this instance, Romeo is drawing an analogy between Juliet and a rose.

5. Anthropomorphism

What is it: The interpretation of a nonhuman animal, event, or object as embodying human qualities or characteristics.

Example: Inanimate objects such as Mrs. Potts and Lumiere are anthropomorphized in Beauty and the Beast.

6. Anachronism

What is it: An intentional or unintentional error in chronology or a timeline.

Example:

Brutus: “Peace! Count the clock.”

Cassius: “The clock has stricken three.”

—William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 2, Scene 1

Mechanical clocks did not exist in 44 A.D., when the play takes place, so this the inclusion of the clock here is an anachronism.

7. Colloquialism

What is it: An informal piece of dialogue or turn of phrase used in everyday conversation.

Example: Contractions such as “ain’t” are colloquialisms that are used in everyday conversation or dialogue to make the speaker and speech sound more authentic.

8. Diction

What is it: The word choice and speaking style of a writer or character.

Example: Diction is involved in almost every piece of writing because it is a vehicle for conveying the tone of the work. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck speaks in a distinctive way characterized by his lack of education and outsider status. This is his diction.

9. Elegy

What is it: A poem expressing grief over a death.

Example: O Captain! My Captain! by Walt Whitman is an elegy for Abraham Lincoln.

10. Epiphany

What is it: A moment of sudden realization by a character.

Example: In the movie Clueless, Cher has an epiphany that she is in love with her stepbrother, Josh.

11. Euphemism

What is it: A less provocative or milder term used in place of a more explicit or unpleasant one.

Example: “I have to let you go” is a euphemistic expression for firing someone.

12. Foreshadowing

What is it: Hinting at future or subsequent events to come to build tension in a narrative.

Example: In William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the witches portend evil, chanting, “Something wicked this way comes.”

13. Hyperbole

What is it: A statement that is obviously and intentionally exaggerated.

Example: “I have a million things to do” is a hyperbolic statement, since no individual actually has one million items on her to-do list.

14. Idiom

What is it: A figure of speech that is indecipherable based on the words alone.

Example: “Don’t cut any corners” is an idiom; on its surface, it doesn’t make sense but is a known phrase that means don’t take shortcuts.

15. Imagery

What is it: A compilation of sensory details that enable the reader to visualize the event.

Example: “Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.” —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

In this passage, Melville uses vivid imagery such as the “yawning gulf” and “sullen white surf” to capture the scene.

16. Irony

What is it: An instance of language conveying the opposite of its literal meaning:

  • Verbal irony: speech that conveys the opposite of its literal meaning
  • Situational irony: An event that occurs that is the opposite of what is expected
  • Dramatic irony: Usually applied to theater or literature, an instance in which the audience knows something the characters involved do not

Examples:

Verbal Irony: “That’s nice” as a response to an insulting statement is an instance of verbal irony.

Situational irony:  In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus’s parents abandon him to prevent the prophecy of him killing his father and marrying his mother from coming true. The abandonment itself leads him to fulfill the prophecy.

Dramatic irony: In Psycho, the audience knows a killer approaching, but Marion does not.