All the Literary Terms You'll Ever Need...Really


Sentence Structures

Loose/Periodic Sentence: In The Elements of Style William Strunk and E. B. White counsel that we should avoid "a succession of loose sentences." "This rule refers especially to loose sentences of a particular type: those consisting of two clauses, the second introduced by a conjunction or relative" (25). Here is part of the example the authors employ to illustrate the point:

"The third concert of the subscription series was given last evening, and a large audience was in attendance. Mr. Edward Appleton was the soloist, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra furnished the instrumental music" (25).

A periodic sentence, on the other hand, is one in which the most important matter arrives at the end. Strunk and White note, "The effectiveness of the periodic sentence arises from the prominence it gives to the main statement" (33). Here is one sentence they offer to exemplify the point:

"With these hopes and in this belief I would urge you, laying aside all hindrance, thrusting away all private aims, to devote yourself unswervingly and unflinchingly to the vigorous and successful prosecution of this war" (33).

Balanced Sentence: A balanced sentence is another kind of parallel sentence in which two parallel elements are set off against each other like equal weights on a scale. In reading the sentence aloud, one tends to pause between the balanced parts, each seeming equal. When writing a balanced sentence, be certain that both parts of the sentence have the same form, that they are parallel gramatically

George Bernard Shaw said of writers:
The ambition of the novice is to acquire the Literary Language; the struggle of the adept is to get rid of it.

[Each part of the sentence follows exactly the same pattern: subject, ver, predicate nominative.]

Antithetical Sentence: An antithetical sentence is a sentence containing balanced phrases or clauses, but somehow opposite.

Cats eat cat food, and rabbits eat lettuce and carrots.

Rocks sink quickly in water, and Styrofoam floats easily in water.

Jessica is a hard worker who concentrates on her work, and Bob is a slacker who doesn’t concentrate on his work.


Schemes/Syntactical Devices

Parallelism: "Similarity of structure in a pair or series of related words, phrases, or clauses" (Corbett 428). In other words, equivalent items (those joined by coordinate conjunctions) must be placed in comparable grammatical structures. Parallel items are joined by coordinate conjunctions (especially and, or, nor) and correlative conjunctions (either / or, neither / nor, not only / but also ).

She went to the grocery store, post office, and gas station.

Either you will turn in the essay on time, or you will suffer a significant penalty.

"We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this CONSTITUTION for the United States of America." --Constitution of the United States


Anastrophe: Inversion of natural word order.“Help you I can, yes.” Yoda

"Once upon a midnight dreary . . ." --Edgar Allen Poe, "The Raven"

"United, there is little we cannot do in a host of co-operative ventures. Divided, there is little we can do . . ." --John F. Kennedy, "Inaugural Address"

“Help you I can, yes” Yoda


Anaphora: repetition of words at the beginning of phrases for poetic or rhetorical effect.

Ex. “we cannot dedicate--we cannot consecrate--we cannot hallow this ground.” Abraham Lincoln

Epistrophe: repetition of endings in consecutive phrases or sentences.

Ex. I’ll have my bond! Speak not against my bond! I have sworn an oath on my bond! -Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice

Polysyndeton: repetition of a number of conjunctions in close succession

Ex. “We have a running game, and passing game, and defense, and special teams.”

Asyndeton: the deliberate omission of conjunctions for effect.

“Hear no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil.”

"I came, I saw, I conquered." --Julius Caesar

Chiasmus: "Reversal of grammatical structures in successive phrases or clauses " (but without the repetition of words) (Corbett 443).

"By day the frolic, and the dance by night." --Samuel Johnson, "The Vanity of Human Wishes"

“Fair is foul, and foul is fair,” Shakespeare’s Macbeth


Antithesis: "The juxtaposition of contrasting ideas, often in parallel structure" (Corbett 429). Conjunctions that express antithesis include but, yet, and while.

I offered to help, but he refused my assistance.

The prodigal robs his heir; the miser robs himself.

". . . ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." --John F. Kennedy, "Inaugural Address"

" That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." --Neil Armstrong

Antithesis can occur when the wording contrasts, when the sense of the statement contrasts, or when both contrast.

Contrasting wording: Let the rich give to the poor.

Contrasting sense: I helped him gain a balance in this world, but he pushed me down in return.

Contrasting wording and sense: "Those who have been left out, we will try to bring in. Those left behind, we will help to catch up." --Richard M. Nixon, "Inaugural Address"


Ellipses: Deliberate omission of a word or words implied by context

The man lost three teeth, the woman two.

I read Shakespeare, you Agatha Christie.


Epanalepsis: repetition of the beginning at the end of a clause or sentence.

Blood hath bought blood. Shakespeare’s King John

Anadiplosis: repetition of the ending segment of a sentence or phrase at the beginning of the next phrase.

When I give, I give myself. -Walt Whitman

Antimetabole: Figure of emphasis in which the words in one phrase or clause are replicated, exactly or closely, in reverse grammatical order in the next phrase or clause; an inverted order of repeated words in adjacent phrases or clauses

Sound Devices

Alliteration: repetition of initial sounds of stressed syllables.

Z Let them be left with wet and wildness.

--Gerard Manley Hopkins

Assonance: closely juxtaposing similar vowel sounds but with different consonants that creates a vowel rhyme.

“she walks in beauty like the night

of cloudless climes and starry skies

Cacophony: discordant sounds in the jarring juxtaposition of harsh letters or syllables.

Z Ex. The clinching interlocking claws, a living, fierce, gyrating wheel,
      Four beating wings, two beaks, a swirling mass tight grappling,
      In tumbling turning clustering loops, straight downward falling

Consonance: Close repetition of the same ending consonant sounds with differing vowel sounds—unlike its buddy cacophony, it produces a pleasing sound.

Z Ex. Drunk/Milk, Boat/Night

Euphony: Harmony or beauty of sound, achieved by focusing on both individual word sounds and the repetition of sound patterns.

Z Ex. “Manna and dates, in argosy transferred,”

--From John Keats’ s “Eve of St. Agnes”

Onomatopoeia: using words such as “buzz,” “smack” or any other such word to produce an auditory effect.


The job of a trope is to produce an effect by taking words and using them in ways that they were not intended to begin with. A red, red rose was never intended to represent love, for example.

Allusion: an explicit or implicit reference to something outside the text the author expects the reader to know, usually a work of art, literature or scripture.

Ex. “The road not taken might have brought me fame, but I missed it along the way.”

by your humble instructor. “Road not taken” is a reference to Robert Frost’s famous poem about choice.

Apostrophe: An address made to a person or thing not present, or to a personified object rhetorically.

Ex. “Oh God! A beast that wants reason would have mourned longer!”

from Hamlet

The “Oh God” part is the apostrophe, because though omnipresent, any address to God is apostrophe.

Conceit: an elaborate extension of an idea usually in the form of an analogy or metaphor.

Ex. John Donne uses these all the time. “Let man’s soul be a sphere.”

Whenever you see reference to man’s soul or to higher plains of existence, you’ve got a conceit.

Hyperbole: A gross overstatement of facts for effect.

Ex. OU beat the Longhorns 1000 to 13

Now true OU did win—big (why can’t UT ever beat those guys?) but it wasn’t 1000 to 13.

Irony: Irony can be very tricksy, because it requires you to be paying very close attention to get it, just like sarcasm. If you take Chaucer seriously, then you think he likes the Monk and approves of his lifestyle, but we know otherwise, don’t we?

Irony can be broken into three distinct subspecies: verbal, dramatic, and situational.

Situational Irony: a pickpocket gets his own pocket picked while in the process of stealing from someone else.

Verbal irony: when a writer’s words and his meaning are not exactly in tune with one another.

Ex. “Since brevity is the soul of wit and tediousness the limbs of outward flourishes, I will be brief.” Polonius from Hamlet

Translation: since the wise say things quickly and stupid people talk forever, I will be brief. The ironic part? Polonius is being tedious, and thus stupid!

Dramatic irony: when the audience knows something the characters do not. Ex. Oedipus swears he will kill the killer of his father. Great right? Not when Oedipus finds out that HE is the one that killed his father.

Metaphor: comparison of two unlike things.

Ex. “She speaks poniards, and every word stabs!” Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing—Shameless plug—come see the play and get extra credit!!!

In our example, Benedict compares Beatrice’s words to little knives causing him pain. “Isn’t this also personification,” you may ask? The second part “and every word stabs,” yes, but the “she speaks poniards” part, no.

Metonymy: substituting a noun for another noun closely related

Ex. The kettle boils.

The kettle isn’t boiling; the water inside it is boiling.

Oxymoron: Words or ideas that don’t seem like they should have any business being next to one another, but in that condition, express a profound truth or idea.

Ex. Burning cold

Burning is often associated with fire, but not ice. The idea is that the cold is so cold that the skin is burning.

Paradox: Like an oxymoron, but is often more elaborate.

Ex. John Donne uses these a great deal. In one of his Holy Sonnets he says “ravage me that you may save me.”

The paradox is that he is saying “beat me up so you can set me straight.”

Personification: giving human qualities to animals or inanimate objects.

Ex. The shadows crept over the house.

Pun: a play on words to achieve a humorous effect.

There is a very good example of this in Macbeth with the word “gild.” See if you can find it.

Rhetorical Question: A question whose answer is implied, but is asked solely for effect.

Ex. When winter wanes, can Spring be far behind?

Simile: comparison of two unlike things using like or as.

Ex. His hair was as yellow as wax

Symbol: An image where meaning is transferred from one object to another.

Ex. The Crown for a King, or Flag for a Country.

Synecdoche: A symbol of a part representing a whole

Ex. The cross representing Jesus, or the two above examples of the crown and the flag.