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AP Lit Terms and Definitions
active voice: subject performs the action denoted by the verb (EX: Jane mailed the letter)
aesthetic: study of/focus on beauty and nature
allegory: story that is an extended metaphor intended to teach
alliteration: repeating beginning consonant sounds
allusion: reference to another work or historical event within a story/book
ambiguity: containing/open to multiple meanings
ambivalence: uncertainty; wanting to do 2 conflicting things; + and – towards same idea
anachronism: something historically out of context or time
analogy: comparing 2 things with the same relationship (hot is to cold as fire is to ice)
analyze: examine critically and carefully
anaphora: repetition at the first part of each line in a poem
anecdote: short story used to support or illustrate an idea
antagonist: character who works against the protagonist
antecedent: preceding; in grammar, the word replaced by a pronoun
anti-climax: event much less important than expected
anti-hero: main character lacking in one or more heroic qualities
antithesis: opposition/contrast of ideas or words
antonym: opposite
apostrophe: addressing someone who isn’t there
archetype: original pattern from which things are copied or modeled from (EX: Frankenstein is the
archetype for modern horror stories)
artistic fault: literature that tries too hard to be overly flowery in its details (and by doing so, fails)
aside: speech directed to the audience, not meant to be heard by other characters on stage
assonance: repetition of vowel sounds
atmosphere: dominant mood that permeates a work of literature
autobiography: story about yourself written by YOU
ballad: song-like poem that tells a story, usually passed down through generations
bathos: unintentional lapse from beautiful/important to the trivial
black humor: humor focusing on dark/morbid subjects
blank verse: unrhymed iambic pentameter
cacophony: discordant, harsh sound
caesura: strong pause within a line of poetry
caricature: artistic depiction that exaggerates the dominant aspects of a person or thing
carpe diem: seize the day
catharsis: a cleansing or purging, meant to heal or help
catalyst: force the causes a change or starts an event
character foil: character that contrasts another to further highlight their similarities and differences
characterization: representation of a person in a literary work
chorus (Greek): group of characters on the stage who comment on the action, impart wisdom, and act
as narrators throughout the play
chronological: in order of time
circumlocution: roundabout way of getting to the subject/idea; talking AROUND things
classic: a work of the highest class that stands the test of time
cliché: trite, overused expression that has lost its originality
climax: moment of great intensity, the high point in the plot line
colloquial: use of informal language; conversational speech
comic relief: interruption in a serious work by a short, humorous episode
comparison: showing the similarities in two or more things
connotation: suggested meanings attached to a word, associated meanings
consonance: repeated consonant sounds anywhere but the beginning of a word
context: text surrounding a passage that further informs the piece
contrast: showing the differences in two of more things
couplet: 2 lines of verse (poetry)
denotation: dictionary definition of a word
denouement: the untying of the plot, unwinding of the story’s complication, completes the action
dialect: distinctive variety of language spoken by a regional group, nation, or social class
dialogue: spoken exchanges between or among characters
dichotomy: division into 2 opposing groups
diction: word choice
didactic: instructive; intended to teach
digression: deviating from the topic at hand
dramatic monologue: a speech by a character alone on stage that reveals his/her inner
thoughts or plans
dramatis personae: list of characters in a play
dumb show: a quick version of the play acted out by mimes before the actual play begins
dynamic character: character who grows or changes in significant ways throughout the book or
editorial: writing that shows the author’s opinion/ideas on a certain issue
effect: overall impression of a piece; producing results
elegy: poem of lament written for a death or a solemn occasion
ellipsis: three dots to show either omission of words in a sentence or quote OR to mean a
lengthy pause
end rhyme: rhyme that occurs at the end of the line
end stopped: line of poetry that stops at the end of the line (opposite of enjambment)
enjambment: a line of poetry that continues on to the middle of the next line before it stops
(opposite of end stopped)
epic: a long narrative poem that tells the adventures of a hero (ex: The Odyssey)
epigram: two line poem ending in a witty turn of thought
epithet: word of phrase firmly associated with a person or thing and used in place of the actual
name (example: “man’s best friend” used for “dog”)
epilogue: concluding section of a work
epiphany: sudden moment of realization or insight
epitomize: set up as the perfect example of something
ethos: moral or ethical element of an argument or work
eulogy: speech in praise of a person who has died
euphemism: a kind or tactful word to substitute for a more harsh/blunt word
euphony: pleasing smoothness of sound
existentialism: a philosophy that stressed the individual’s position as determining his/her
choices; this life is all we have and nothing matters beyond this life
explication: a very thorough analysis that goes through all the exact details of a poem
explicit: stated outright leaving no room for question; blunt; detailed
exposition: the events of the plot leading up to the climax of the story
extended metaphor: a metaphor that extends through the entire work (usually in a poem)
external conflict: conflict that happens outside of the character (society, nature, other people,
eye rhyme: words that appear to rhyme to the eye but do not when said aloud (ex: love, prove
or laughter, daughter)
fable: a story told to illustrate a moral where animals are often the characters
fate: something that is unavoidable for a person; fortune; lot
figurative language: language that contains more than just a literal meaning (simile, metaphor,
hyperbole, etc.)
figure of speech: an expression that uses language in a nonliteral way (example: it’s raining cats
and dogs)
fixed form: a poem that follows a specific, strict format (sonnet, haiku, villanelle, etc.) – given
specific rhythms, rhymes, line count, syllable count, etc.
flashback: looking back to a previous part of the story
foot: basic unit of measurement in poetry
foreshadowing: to show or indicate beforehand; hint at things to come
free verse: poetry with no specific meter or rhyme scheme (opposite of fixed form)
genre: specific type or category of literature
haiku: 3 line poem with syllables 5-7-5 that is usually about nature
hamartia: mistake committed in ignorance and therefore the person is free of blame (Ex:
Oedipus doesn’t KNOW that he’s marrying his mother and killed his father)
hero/heroine: main character in a novel or play that exhibits strong qualities for good
heroic couplet: a couplet (2 rhyming lines of poetry) written in iambic pentameter
hubris: overarching pride
hyperbole: overstatement or exaggeration for effect
iamb: an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (ex: toDAY)
iambic pentameter: five iambs (unstressed, stressed) in a line; the meter which Shakespeare
wrote in (ex: to BE or NOT to BE that IS the QUEStion)
imagery: strong details that appeal to the senses; word pictures
implicit: hinted at, not vocally stated; implied
implied metaphor: metaphor that is hinted at but not stated outright (Ex: “the petals of your
love” – implied that love is a rose)
in medias res: “in the middle of things” – a story or poem that begins in the middle of the
inference: to make an educated guess based on the information that you have
interjection: to insert; words expressing an emotion (ex: Hey!)
internal conflict: conflict that happens within the character, in his/her mind
internal rhyme: rhyme that occurs in the middle of the lines of a poem rather than the end
interrogatory: questioning
dramatic: where the audience knows more than the characters know
verbal: what is said is the opposite of what is meant
situational: the outcome that is different from what is expected; difference between
what is expected to happen and what actually happens
juxtaposition: placing close together or side by side to compare and contrast
limerick: 5 line poem, usually comical rhymes aabba
litotes: understatement
local color: distinctive peculiarities of a place or period (cowboy hats are part of the local color of Texas)
logical fallacy: flaw in an argument that renders the entire argument invalid
lyric: poem where feelings and emotions are emphasized
metaphor: comparing 2 unlike things using “is” (Ex: She is a star)
meter: rhyming pattern of a poem
metonymy: using an object or idea of a person that is closely related to that individual and stands for the
thing itself (Ex: The “crown” represents the king/queen)
microcosm: a little world; a world in miniature
minor character: a character who plays a small role in the overall plot of the story/book
mixed metaphor: using two or more metaphors that are illogical when combined (Ex: I felt like I was
singing to the choir and it was all water under the dam)
monologue: a lengthy talk given by single speaker OR part of a play when a single actor speaks alone
mood: the overall emotional tone or feeling of a work
motif: element/idea that recurs significantly in a work
motivation: the reasons that an author provides for a character’s actions
myth: a narrative that comes from a culture’s oral traditions; portrays gods and heroes engaged in
important actions and decisions; often explain the origin of the culture, the creation, the
beginnings of certain traditions, etc.
narrative poem: a poem that tells a story; two common forms of narrative poems are ballads and epics
narrative pace: the rate at which the events of a story unfold
narrator’s voice: the voice that speaks or tells the story
near/slant rhyme: a rhyme where the final consonant sounds are the same but the vowel sounds are
different (ex: letter and litter)
non-fiction: writing that is true
novel: an extended work of fictional prose
novella: a work of fiction which is longer than a short story but shorter than a novel
objectivity: looked at without bias or emotional influence
octave: eight lines of poetry
ode: poem of praise
onomatopoeia: a thing or action represented by the word that imitates the sound associated with it (Ex:
crash, buzz, bang, pitter-patter)
oratory: the art of public speaking, particularly in a formal and eloquent manner
oxymoron: contradiction of two words right by one another (Ex: jumbo shrimp)
parable: story that teaches a moral
paradox: contradictory statement
parallel construction: similarly constructed clauses or sentences where the lines show correspondence
paraphrase: restating something in your own words
parody: mocking imitation of a literary or other serious piece of work or style for comic purposes
passive voice: sentence where the subject is being acted upon (Ex: The ball was thrown by Billy.)
pastoral: idealized telling of country or rural life
pathos: emotional quality to an argument or piece of writing
pedantic: arrogant in one’s learning; scholarly, book learning
persona: figure imagined by the author to be the speaker of the work
personification: giving a thing, animal or abstract idea human characteristics
perspective: the viewpoint of a person regarding a topic
persuasion: to convince to believe by appealing to reason or understanding
picaresque hero: a daring individual involved in a series of usually humorous or satiric adventures that
show the everyday life of common people (Ex: Candide, Don Quixote)
plot: pattern of events in a story
poetic justice: an outcome in which virtue is rewarded and evil punished, often in an especially
appropriate or ironic manner
poetic license: liberties taken by a writer (breaking the rules) to achieve an effect
point-of-view: the perspective from which a story/book is told
prologue: introductory section of a work
prose: a piece of writing that doesn’t follow verse form (anything that isn’t poetry)
prosody: the study of meter and rhyme structures in poetry
protagonist: the main character in a literary work that initiates the main action of the story
proverb: short saying with unknown authorship
psychological novel: a novel that focuses on the mental and emotional lives of its characters and
explores the various levels of mental activity
pun: play on words where 2 similar sounding words are used
quatrain: four lines of poetry
realism: writing that is true to life
reductio ad absurdum: taking something to the absurd, ridiculous level
refrain: line or group of lines repeated at regular intervals in a poem
renaissance: a rebirth of literature, art, and learning in the mid 17th century
repetition: repeating certain words or phrases; used to emphasize a point or idea
resolution: the concluding action that follows the climax where the tensions of the plot have been
rhetoric: exploitation of eloquence for the most persuasive effect in speaking or writing
rhetorical question: statement with an obvious answer; raised for the sake to persuade or to prove a
rhyme scheme: the pattern of rhyme that occurs in a poem
rising action: the plot developments that lead to the climax
romanticism: literature with a main emphasis on individual expression and emotion
sarcasm: bitter form of irony; mocking, often by exaggerating or understating things
satire: derisive humor meant to mock human vices
Horatian satire: satire that uses gentle mockery
Juvenalian satire: satire that is bitter and biting; harsh
scansion: marking a poem according to its meter and rhyme structures
sentimentality: a work that tries to convey the finer emotions but fails to provide sufficient grounds for
those emotions and thus creating a falsity in the work; “Sentimentality is the failure of feeling” –
Wallace Stevens
sestet: six lines of verse
setting: the place and time in which a work takes place
simile: comparing two unlike things using “like” or “as” (Ex: She is like a star)
slang: a kind of language that occurs mostly in casual and playful speech; nonstandard language used
for humor or irreverence
soliloquy: a speech by a character along on the stage
Shakespearean sonnet: 14 line poem with the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg
Petrarchan sonnet: 14 line poem with the rhyme scheme of the first 8 lines abba abba and the last 6
lines being a combination of two or three rhymes (cdcdcd or cdecdecde etc.)
stanza: group of lines forming a section of a poem; a poem paragraph
static character: a character who remains the same through the course of the play/book – doesn’t
change or learn from his/her experiences
stereotype: an often oversimplified or biased mental picture used to characterize the typical individual
of a group
stream-of-consciousness: a type of writing that captures the “stream” of ideas, memories, and thoughts
of the character (as if the reader is reading everything the character thinks and does)
structure: the organization of the parts of a work
style: distinctive forms and uses of language in a work
subplot: a second story or plotline that is complete and interesting in its own right that branches off
from the main plot
summarize: to state or express/explain something in an abbreviated form
surrealism: a style of art and literature stressing the subconscious or nonrational significance of imagery;
writing that breaks the boundaries of rationality and irrationality; often having a dream-like
quality or fantasy-like quality
suspense: a state of uncertainty or excitement caused by waiting for a decision or outcome which is
usually accompanied by anxiety
syllogism: a logical argument using deductive reasoning where the x is y and y is z therefore x is z (Ex:
Professors are strange. Billy is a professor. Therefore Billy is strange.)
symbol: a person, place or thing that has meanings beyond its literal sense
synecdoche: where a part of the item stands for the whole (Ex: “wheels” standing for car or “he rules
with a heavy hand” standing for the entire king)
syntax: sentence structure
synthesize: form by combining parts
tercet: three lines of verse
theme: the prevailing/main idea or topic running through a literary work
thesis: the main argument or proposition set forth in an essay which must be proved through the writing
tone: attitude toward a subject in a work
tragedy: story of serious actions which lead to a terrible end
tragic hero: a character who makes an error in judgment or has a fatal flaw that ultimately brings on a
tragic flaw: flaw that ultimately leads to the downfall of the hero
transcendentalism: a philosophy as well as a literary movement that states the existence of the ideal
spiritual reality transcends scientific knowledge and is known through intuition; focus is much
on nature
unreliable narrator: narrator who cannot be trusted because of incredibly strong bias or mental
vernacular: the native speech or language of a place; local language or dialect
verse form: any type of poetry
villain: a character in a play or novel who creates an evil tension and agency in the plot
villanelle: 19 line poem, only 2 rhymes employed, certain lines repeated at specific places in the poem
voice: characteristics displayed by the narrator
“A willing suspension of disbelief”: defined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge – the willingness of the reader to
overlook certain unbelievable or impossible elements of a story for the sake of a good story