I hope that this glossary of terms  will be useful.  The page explains terminology, which is used in literary criticism and analysis.  There are definitions, examples and illustrations:


An allegory may be viewed as a very extended metaphor.  The term applies to a complete text where there is a secondary metaphorical meaning beyond the literal one.     For instance, ‘Animal Farm’ is an allegory which casts light on the political events relating to The Russian Revolution, as well as having further allegorical significance in that it explores/exposes the differing natures of human beings. Shorter allegories are also referred to as Fables.


Alliteration is the repetition of the same initial sound in words of close proximity.

The Jelling cup

It is an important element of the English literary tradition, first appearing in Old English verse, in which the first three of a line’s four stressed syllables were alliterated.  Here is an approximate example from Seamus Heaney’s translation of ‘Beowulf’:

‘The cup was carried to him, kind words

spoken in welcome and a wealth of wrought gold

graciously bestowed, ….’

You also may be interested to read the first verse of Tennyson’s riddle ‘The Eagle’, which has four stressed syllables to the line.  The first line fully observes the Old English alliterative tradition.

‘He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.’

Alexandrine Line

The Alexandrine is a twelve syllable line of poetry.  It is used by Spencer in The Fairie Queene and Keats in The Eve of St Agnes in the last line of each stanza.  Here is an unusual use of alexandrines in this three-line poem by Mustapha Tattan:large


Antithesis is the use of contrasting ideas, characteristics, images or themes which are placed adjacently.


Similar in nature to ‘oxymoron’ which might be considered as a verbally condensed version.


This is the repetition of the same phrase at the beginning of a sentence or clause.  It is a rhetorical device, used for impressing the reader/listener with the importance of the structural elements of the discourse.


Apart from it being a form of punctuation/spelling, apostrophe is an address to a person, thing or abstract idea.  For example a character may exclaim ‘Oh heavens, why dost thou ….?’  In The Pardoner’s Tale, The Pardoner rhetorically exclaims: ‘O glotonye’ .   In this case the device is used for humorous hyperbolic effect.  The purpose is usually for rhetorical impact.


The repetition of the same vowel sound, usually after different consonants. Here is an example from ‘Kubla Khan’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

So twice five miles of fertile ground

With walls and towers were girdled round;

Blank Verse

27eab8066b676788c67847fda3595cf8Blank verse is composed of ten syllable lines which do not rhyme.  The rhythm is  made up of five sets of ‘di dum’ (light stress, heavy stress) paired syllables, which are called ‘iambic’.  Because there are five sets of syllable pairs, notated ˡˇ ˉ ˡ  and called ‘feet’, the meter is referred to as pentameter.  Hence the name ‘iambic pentameter’.  The iambic pattern reflects the natural cadence of the English language.  Here is a line of iambic pentameter from ‘Othello’:

‘Desdemona: But that our loves and comforts should increase’ (ˡˇ ˉ ˡ ˇ ˉ ˡ  ˇ ˉ ˡ ˇ ˉ ˡ ˇ ˉ ˡ  )


A caesura is a pause within a line of poetry, which gives the poet an opportunity to vary the meter.  It is denoted by a comma or more effectively by stronger punctuation – the latter frequently identifies a significant moment in a poem.

Connote and Denote

Exploring the difference between ‘denote’ and ‘connote’ potentially leads us into muddy waters.  The safest and more practical course is to consider ‘denote’ as literally indicating and ‘connote’ as metaphorically suggesting.  For instance, seeds might be said to denote successful fertilisation and connote hope for the future.  Further explanation and exercises.


Repetition of the same or similar sounding consonants but with different vowels e.g. flip-flop, pitter-patter.  Consider this line, packed with dolorous sounds, from Gerald Manley Hopkins’ ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland

And frightful a nightfall folded rueful a day

You might also notice consider the extraordinary layered soundscape of the assonance, alliteration and consonance in the line: fright ful a nighfall fol ded rue ful a day


Dialectic is logical argument where there are differing points of view

Dramatic Irony

Dramatic irony occurs when a character within a story does not know as much as the reader/audience does about his/her circumstances.

Dramatic Monologue

A single speaker (see ‘narrative’), who is not the author, addresses his/her audience.  A most versatile creative device, which allows the author to present the character and the message, with enormous force.   Used on stage, of course, but also in novels and poetry such as ‘”next to of course god america i’, where the speaker is used to provide a satirical portrait of a gung ho patriot; in ‘My Last Duchess’, the persona is a ferociously jealous husband.


Over the years, the definition of ‘form’ in literary criticism has become rather vaguely confused with ‘structure’.  The safest route is, in the first instance, to consider form to be genre e.g. fiction, prose, autobiography, Science Fiction.   That is perhaps all obvious.  Next, it is wise to decide on the particular aspect of the form: ask e.g. ‘Is the poem an ode, a sonnet, an elegy, ballad (etc.), or is the play is a tragedy, comedy, melodrama (etc.)?   You may not be able to answer such a question until you have considered the specific features of a text – and for this, you should consider Structure and Language.


Hyperbole is the literary term for exaggeration. (Acclaim Image)

Heroic Couplet

rapeHeroic couplets are rhyming lines of five iambic feet (refer to Blank verse above for details of iambic pentamater).  The heroic has often been used for comic purposes from the time of Chaucer, who originated it, and is referred to as mock-heroic in such circumstances.  In Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, the mock-heroic couplets are used for ironic effect:

‘What dire offence from amorous causes springs,

What mighty contests arise from trivial things’


When words have the same sound but different meanings, they are known as homonyms or homophones.  The spellings may be the same or different e.g.1 beach and beech e.g.2 row (argument) and row (a boat).

Iambic Pentameter

See ‘Blank verse’, above.


See ‘Narrative’ below


This simply means placing immediately next to.


From the point of view of literary critical analysis, language comprises such features of sentences as:

the type of sentences used (e.g. question, statement, simple, complex),

the vocabulary (e.g. latinate, neologisms colloquial, poetic diction)

figurative and descriptive language (e.g.symbols, personification, use of the senses)

the sounds (e.g. assonance, alliteration )

A duck out of water by John Atkinson


Ask yourself: ‘Is this literally true?

e.g.1 The son got up this morning.

e.g.2 The sun got up this morning.

If it’s literally true, it’s a literal description: if it’s not literally true, it’s a figure of speech called a metaphor.

So, under what circumstances might this cartoon by John Atkinson literal or metaphorical?  Well, I think I’ll leave that for you to decide!   (The philosophers among you may ask: “What is ‘true’?”)


Metonymy is the substitution of the subject by something associated it.  For instance, one might refer to ‘the catwalk’ when referring to a fashion show; in this example, the focus becomes one of on display and action.


A motif is a recurring image or idea in a body of work.


Narrative is the presentation of the events of a story whereby the selection of those events is a means of creating meaning.  It may be presented by a first, third or muliple-person narrators.  Occasionally an author will write in the second person to put the reader more in the action. However, more usually, the narrator will be either:

(1) potentially omniscient and external to the proceedings i.e. ‘extradiegetic’, which means outside of the events recounted; or

(2) be a character who is part of the tale and having a role in it i.e. ‘intradiegetic’, which means a character within the story recounts particular events that s/he has experienced or witnessed.  For instance, in Shelley’s  ‘Ozymandias’ the persona/poet recounts what he has learnt after meeting ‘a traveller from an antique land, / Who said …’

Genette (1972) coins the term ‘focalization’, saying that a third person narrator may have:

(1) an internal focus i.e. a character’s perception or knowledge is only presented;

(2) an external focus i.e. the character knows apparently more than the narrator;

(3) a zero focus i.e. an omniscient narrator who knows more than the character.

Of course, writers often shift their focalization within a given piece of work.

Negative Capability

Negative Capability is ‘when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’ (from Keats’ letter dealing with men of literary achievement,  dated 21 December 1817).


Words that convey a sense of the sound that they represents e.g. grind, snarl, chuckle.

Pathetic Fallacy

This is the process of using the weather and other external features to represent the world of mankind or that of a particular individual.  The fog, in Stevenson’s ‘The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde’, provides a sinister and unfathomable setting, the muddy ways of Soho are a metaphor for mysterious goings-on and even one of the characters feels that Soho’s darkness is nightmarish!


A literary way of saying the author creates in the reader/audience a sense of pity for the character.  Using the literary term identifies the elevated the nature of the experience which is an essential aspect of tragedy.


Periphrasis is the avoidance of direct description of taboos, the over-explicit or the socially unacceptable: for instance Alfred Lord Douglas cautiously wrote of ‘the love that dare not say its name’.   It may also be used for comic purposes e.g. I went to The Dog and Duck to wet my whistle.  Periphrasis is often metaphorical (although the last example, as metaphors sometimes do, originally had a literal meaning)

Persona (pl: personae)

In poetry and prose, a persona is the character, voice and viewpoint, of a speaker who may not be the writer.  The term applies even when you cannot distinguish between the persona and the writer because, thereby, the work ‘takes centre stage’, leaving biographical restraints in the wings!.

Bettie, Bruce. “Cartoon Wisdom 2.”


Personification is the giving of human characteristics, feelings and actions to animals, non-animate objects and ideas.  It is a form of metaphor.   There are so many examples of personification in literature, for instance: death is the Grim Reaper, the arms of willow trees hang to the ground; the sun races across the sky; ship hulls plough the sea; smoke chokes a city; stars hide their fires; Winter rides through the woods; Frost calls, ‘Halt!’


Plot is the logical aspect of a narrative which requires causal links.  For instance in detective stories, the plot is often only explained at the last moment.    Look at The Basics of English Studies on this.

Poetic Diction

Poetic Diction is that language used in poetry which is outside normal use.  It might be using a noun as if it were a verb, archaic language, formal vocabulary, elegant periphrasis (see above) etc.   The term is generally applicable to the poetry of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Pre-modification and post-modification

Modifiers are usually adjectives and adverbs but they can also be phrases and clauses. They refine meaning e.g. ;  I see clearly,

falling_leaf-wallpaper-1024x1024Consider these two:

  1. The fayre was an entire wash-out.  (Adjective pre-modifies noun)
  2. The leaf fell slowly.  (Adverb post-modifies the verb)
  3. The leaf slowly fell.   (Adverb pre-modifies the verb)
  4. the red house is at the end of the street.  (adjective pre-modifies noun)
  5. the house, which is red, is at the end of the street.  (adjective post-modifies noun)

A pre-modifier tends to draw greater attention/emphasis than a post-modifier (see 2 & 3) but do note that position can also change overall meaning (see 4 & 5).


Satire is ridiculing real people or groups of people, their values or contemporary ideas, such as utilitarianism in Hard Times or the wealthy celebrity social scene in The Great Gatsby.  Note that the character may be mocked, but it is only the people that s/he represents who can be said to be ‘satirised’.


(Lawrence used the ‘pyjamas’ spelling)

A specific form of alliteration (see above): repetition of the ‘s’ sound.  For instance, read and consider the effect of this description of a snake drinking in ‘The Snake’ by D.H. Lawrence:

‘He sipped with his straight mouth,
Softly drank through his straight gums, into his slack
long body,

51d5dec4-9923-11e5_1021694cI can’t resist putting in these lines from ‘The Hobbit’

‘But we dursn’t go in, precious, no we dursn’t.  Goblinses down there.  Lots of goblinses.  We smells them.  Ssss!’


(Also known as Topic Sentence) This is not a literary term but one which useful for those of you who have to write critical essays.  Ideally your reader will be able to gather your argument by simply looking at the first sentence of each paragraph, in turn.  You might like to think of a paragraph’s opening sentence as being one to orientate your reader as to where you are going .e.g. The narrator has a different view of Curley’s wife, from that of the ranch hands.


This is talking to oneself!  It might be a running monologue in which someone expresses his/her thoughts, as with Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’.  On stage, this can be a useful dramatic device through which a villian may convey his wicked intentions in an ‘Aside’: one example of this is Iago’s soliloquy in Act 2 scene 1 of ‘Othello’ when he is watching Cassio’s courtly behaviour with Desdemona:

‘Iago (aside): He takes her by the palm; ay, well said, whisper.  With as little a web as this will I ensnare as great a fly as Cassio.’

More subtlely – and less melodramatically – a stage soliloquy can reveal  a character’s deepest feelings and motivation.  Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy, when he considers whether he should end his life, is one such example.


14 line poem, traditionally in iambic pentameter (see ‘Blank verse’ above), with schematic rhyming pattern.  The main recognisable patterns are in quatrains (four lines) and couplets, in historical order, are:

Petrarchan: abba, abba, cdecde (or cdcdcd which I remember because Abba made cds)

Spencerian: abab, bcbc, cdcd, ee

Shakespearean; abab, cdcd, efef, gg

The first eight lines, called an ‘octave’, have a different rhyme pattern to the last six, called a ‘sestet’.  There is often a change in direction, called a volta (from the Latin ‘voltare’, meaning to turn), after the first eight lines.  More recently poets have experimented with the traditional rhyming forms and, sometimes, delaying the volta or even, as in ‘”next to of course god america i’, having an unexpected second one!


Looking at a text through the perspective of literary critical analysis, the structure is predominantly the shape of a text: questions to ask include: who is the narrator and is there more than one? Does the poem have rhyme? Are there motifs and other repeated features? What use does the playwright make of entrances and exits?  Is the sequence of events chronological?  Looking at structure from the linguistic point of view is rather different: one might for instance consider to what degree the shape of the language used determines or is the result of ideology.


A syllogism is a logical argument which has two reasons (premises) that lead to a conclusion e.g. All boys are monsters (Reason 1), John is a boy (Reason 2), therefore John is a monster (Conclusion).  Note the structure of the argument is sound even when the reasons are untrue.  In literature, one fine example is Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’.


A symbol is either an object or an action which is used (or the reader interprets its use) to represent an abstract idea.  For instance a handshake might symbolise openness, honesty or formality.  A wedding ring might symbolise commitment, unending love.  Notice I say ‘might’; this is because meaning always depends on such matters as the writing style, plot circumstances, context, etc.


Synecdoche occurs most usually when a part of something is used to represent the whole.  For instance saying that someone owns a nice set of wheels is synecdochal of that person’s car.  The metaphorical effect varies of course but it usually  brings the reader’s attention to (and thereby enriches) a key feature or aspect.  In the example given here, I feel the synecdoche brings out speed, movement and independence.

Topic Sentence

See ‘Signposting’ above


Strictly speaking not a literary term, but very relevant when considering the Romantics and a number of American writers of the nineteenth century.  Transcendentalism was a philosophical movement in which ‘intuition’ made ideas and personal truths possible despite not having first been experienced by any of the five senses.   Click for a detailed account of Transcendalism.

Transferred Epithet

A transferred epithet is often the moving of an adjective referring to human feelings to inanimate object e.g. to say someone  travels along the weary road is referring to the traveller’s tiredness rather than the road’s!


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