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Literary Terms
1. abstract (ab-STRAKT)—Word or idea referring to a generality, state of being, or quality
that is not represented by an object or immediately accessible to the five senses.
2. allegory (AL-uh-gore-ee)—Writing that has a deeper meaning hidden beneath the obvious
3. alliteration (uh-lit-uh-RAY-shin)—Repetition of sounds at the beginning of words.
4. allusion (uh-LOO-shun)—Reference, without explanation, to a work of literature, a
character, a principle, and so on, assuming the reader is familiar with its implications.
5. anadiplosis (an-uh-di-PLOH-suhs)—Repetition of an important word in a phrase or clause
(often the final word) in the next phrase or clause. Ex: Truth brings freedom; freedom
brings responsibility.
6. analogy (an-AL-uh-gee)—Comparison of two dissimilar things that are alike in some way,
often using simile or metaphor. Ex: He reminded me of a pig eating his swill.
7. analysis—The process of breaking down something into its elements so that they can be
examined individually. In analyzing a poem, for example, one might consider such
elements as form, rhyme, rhythm, figurative language, imagery, mood, and theme.
8. anaphora (uh-NAF-er-uh)—The exact repetition of words or phrases at the beginning of
successive lines or sentences.
9. antagonist (an-TAG-uh-nist)—Person who opposes or competes with the main character,
hero, or heroine; often the villain.
10. antihero (AN-tuh-HERE-oh)—Character, usually the protagonist, who faces a series of
problems and events in a story, but often is going against traditional societal standards.
11. antithesis (an-TITH-uh-sis)—Opposing view; view contrasted with thesis (main idea). Ex:
(Thesis) All men are created equal; (Antithesis) Some men are more equal than others.
12. aphorism (AF-or-iz-uhm)—Wise saying, usually brief, reflecting a general truth. Ex:
Haste makes waste.
13. ballad (BAL-luhd)—Songlike, narrative poetry; usually simple, rhyming verse using
abcb rhyme scheme.
14. bildungsroman (BIL-duhnks-roh-MAHN)—Fiction depicting the moral and intellectual
growth of a protagonist, often intended for the education and guidance of others.
15. bowdlerize (BOHD-luh-reyez)—To excise material deemed objectionable from a piece of
writing. (Named after Thomas Bowlder, who censored and deleted passages and words
from Shakespeare’s plays in 1818.)
16. catharsis (kuh-THAHR-suhs)—Therapeutic release of emotion upon identifying with and
being moved by a piece of literature.
17. circumlocution (ser-kum-loh-KEU-shin)—Writing or speaking that goes around the
subject instead of getting directly to the point. Ex: This was not unlike…
18. classic—An enduring work of literature that continues to be read long after it was written.
19. classicism—(KLAS-i-siz-uhm)—Literary (and other artistic) movements of ancient
Greece and Rome, using strict forms, accenting reason, and characterized by restraint.
Opposite is romanticism.
20. cliché (klee-SHAY)—Trite, overused idea or statement. Ex: Have a nice day.
21. climax (KLEYE-max)—High point in the plot where the reader is most intrigued and does
not yet know the outcome.
22. coherence (koh-HEER-uhns)—Clarity in connecting ideas.
23. conciseness (kuhn-SEYES-nis)—“Tight” writing; use of only the necessary words to
express thoughts.
24. concrete (kon-KREET)—Opposite of abstract; refers to specific people and things that can
be perceived with the five senses.
25. connotation (kon-uh-TAY-shin)—Feelings and associations added to specific word
meanings. Ex: mother—kindly, self-sacrificing, nurturing woman. See also denotation
26. consonance (CON-suh-nuhns)—Repetition of similar consonant sounds, with changes in
intervening vowel sounds.
27. couplet—Two consecutive rhymed lines of poetry; rhyme pattern: a a.
28. couplet, heroic—Two consecutive rhymed lines of poetry written in iambic pentameter.
Ex: “But I have told them, ‘Since you will be true,/You shall be true to them, who’re false
to you.” --Donne
29. denotation (dee-noh-TAY-shin)—Dictionary meaning of a word. Ex: mother—female
who bears or adopts a child. See also connotation above.
30. denouement (day-new-MAHN)—Outcome, resolution, solution of a plot.
31. didactic (deye-DAK-tic)—Describes literary works meant to teach a moral or lesson.
32. doppelgänger (DOHP-uhl-GENG-er)—Personification of a character’s darker side; ghost.
33. elegy (EL-uh-gee)—Poetic form lamenting the death of a person or decline of a situation.
34. enjambment (in-JAMB-muhnt)—Continuation of meaning from one poetry line to the
next; run-on lines.
35. ellipsis (ee-LIP-suhs)—Three dots (…) to show words have been left out of a quotation or
to indicate the passage of time.
36. epic—Long narrative poem, usually telling of heroic deeds, events of historic importance,
or religious or mythological subjects.
37. epigram (EP-uh-gram)—Witty, often paradoxical, saying or brief poem. Ex: Absence
makes the heart grow fonder—of somebody else.
38. epitaph (EP-i-taf) Inscription on tombstone or marker for the dead.
39. eponym (EP-ah-nim)—Person whose name is the source of a new word. Ex: Peter Magnol
40. euphemism (YEW-fuh-miz-uhm)—More palatable word for less pleasant subject. Ex:
“conserves energy” is a euphemism for “lazy.”
41. fable (FAY-buhl)—Story with moral or lesson about life, often with animal characters
possessing human characteristics.
42. flashback—Jumping backward in the chronology of a narrative, often through a dream or
musing sequence.
43. foil—Character opposite or different from the protagonist, used to highlight the
protagonist’s traits; incidents or settings may also be used as foils.
44. folklore/folktales—Stories and legends transmitted by word of mouth, rather than in
45. foreshadow (FORE-sha-doh)—Hints during the narrative about what will happen later;
can be literal hints or symbolic hints.
46. genre (ZHAHN-ruh)—Kind or type of literature; literary classification.
47. hero—Character, usually the protagonist, who rises above and conquers a series of
problems and events in a story.
48. hyperbole (high-PER-buh-lee)—Use of extreme exaggeration for effect. Ex: Her breath
could wilt a flower.
49. i.e. (EYE-EE)—That is (followed usually by explanatory matter).
50. idiom (ID-ee-uhm)—Phrase in common use that does not literally mean what it says.
51. in medias res (in-MAYD-ee-uhs-RAYS)—Beginning in the middle of events.
52. irony (EYE-ruh-nee)—phrases or words with meanings quite different from what is
actually stated.
53. jargon (JAHR-guhn)—Words peculiar to any particular occupation. Ex: Flyboy = pilot.
54. kenning (KEN-ing)—Short metaphorical expression referring to something without
naming it, primarily used in Old English and Norse poetry. Ex: He was plunged into the
sea of fire (hell).
55. legend—Story handed down, generation to generation, often thought to be at least partially
true historically.
56. limerick—A short, humorous poem composed of five lines. It usually has the rhyme
scheme aabbba, created by two rhyming couplets followed by a fifth line that rhymes with
the first couplet.
57. litotes (LEYE-tuh-teez)—Understatement, where a positive is expressed as a negative. Ex:
He is not a bad dancer.
58. malapropism (MAL-uh-prop-iz-uhm)—Confusion of similar-sounding words which often
ends up sounding humorous.
59. meter—In poetry, the regular pattern of accented and unaccented syllables. Although all
poems have rhythm, not all poems have regular meter. Each unit of meter is known as a
60. moral—A lesson the literature is teaching; fables usually teach a lesson about life.
61. motif, literary (moh-TEEF)—Recurrent words or phrases.
62. nom de plume (nahm-duh-PLOOM)—Pen name or pseudonym used by an author.
63. ode—Form of lyric poetry characterized by giving praise or showing appreciation.
64. oxymoron (ahks-uh-MORE-on)—Use of paradoxical or opposite words for effect. Ex:
poor little rich girl.
65. paradox (PAR-uh-doks)—Contradictory statement that makes sense. Ex: She loved and
hated him at the same tiem.
66. paraphrase (PAR-uh-frayz)—Restatement of writing, keeping the basic meaning, but
telling it in one’s own words.
67. parody (PAR-uh-dee)—Satire imitating an author or work with the aim of mockery.
68. pastoral—Poem about country life (originally about shepherds).
69. poetry—Genre characterized by rhythm, rhyme (sometimes), and stanzas, as opposed to
70. poetry, dramatic—Poetry with characters who speak and act. Ex: Shakespearean plays.
71. poetry, lyric—Short poetry usually expressing one emotion. Ex: sonnets, elegies, odes,
72. poetry, narrative—Poetry that tells a story. Included in this category are ballads, epic
poetry, and metrical romances.
73. poetry, occasional—Poetry written for a particular occasion.
74. prose—Literature written in sentences and paragraphs, as opposed to poetry or verse.
75. protagonist (pro-TAG-uh-nist)—Main character, hero, or heroine in a written work.
76. proverb—Saying, adage, or maximum, usually short and generally believed to be true. Ex:
A stitch in time saves nine.
77. pseudonym (SOO-duh-nim)—Name author uses instead of his/her real name; nom de
78. pun—play on words; words put together in such a way as to be humorous.
79. quatrain (KWAH-trayn)—Poem or stanza containing four lines.
80. realism—Literature reflecting real life, rather than imaginary or idealistic life.
81. refrain—Repetition of words or phrases at the end of each stanza in poetry or song.
82. redundancy (ree-DUHN-din-see)—Repetition that is unnecessary and awkward, as
contrasted with intentional repetition for a particular effect. Ex: rich, wealthy individual.
83. resolution (rez-uh-LOO-shin)—Clarification, solution, or outcome of the conflict in a
84. rhetoric (RET-er-ik)—Persuasive writing.
85. roman à clef (roh-mahn-ah-KLAY)—Novel based on actual people and places, but
written as fiction instead of fact.
86. romance, metrical—Poetry dealing with chivalry, love, romance, and religion.
87. romanticism (roh-MAN-tuh-siz-uhm)—Literary movement characterized by emotion,
imagination, and goodness of people; little emphasis on reason. Opposite of classicism.
88. sarcasm (SAHR-kaz-uhm)—from of irony which seems to praise, but really criticizes.
Mother always knows best!
89. satire (SA-teyer)—Literature that makes fun of social conditions or conventions, often for
the purpose of creating change.
90. sonnet—Lyric poem expressing one idea, containing fourteen lines of iambic pentameter
and set rhyme scheme.
91. sonnet, Petrarchan (Italian)—Sonnet with an octave (eight lines) expressing the main
theme and a sestet (six lines) expanding or contradicting the main theme.
92. sonnet, Shakespearean—Sonnet with three quatrains (stanzas of four lines each) and
ending with a couplet.
93. synopsis (sin-OP-sis)—Summary or condensed statement of a literary work.
94. tale, fairy—fanciful, imaginary story about a hero or heroine overcoming a problem, often
involving mystical creatures, supernatural power, or magic; often a type of folktale.
95. theme/thesis (THEEM/THEE-sis)—Main idea in a piece of literature; topic or subject.
96. tragedy (TRA-juh-dee) Literature, often drama, ending in catastrophe for the protagonists
after dealing with a series of problems.
97. understatement—Form of irony where the author intentionally understates the facts. Ex:
We have a little problem here (referring to an impending catastrophe).
98. verse—Writing with rhyme and meter, as opposed to prose; often verse refers to poetry of
a less serious nature.
99. verse, blank—Unrhymed iambic pentameter. Ex: Shakespeare’s tragedies.
100. verse, free—Poetry without standard meter or rhyme, but rhythmical arrangement of
lines for effect. Ex: Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
Sources: Literature Lover’s Book of Lists: Serious Trivia for the Bibliophile, Strouf; The Language of Literature, McDougal Littell; The
Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, Murfin & Ray