Rhetoric is the ancient art of argumentation and discourse. Thus, rhetorical devices would be the devices used to manipulate the language to effectively transmit the author’s message to a reader. Whereas, literary devices are applicable to literature that has a primary universal function as an art form expressing ideas through language to readers. The distinction between the two devices is so minute that many of the devices are present in both forms; thus, many of the devices listed below are quite familiar with, others we will work with during the semester, and still others will not be addressed until later in your school career. Click here to download Additional Devices that may or may not be on the list below.
a form of extended metaphor, in which objects, persons, and actions in a narrative, are equated with th meanings that lie outside the narrative itself. The underlying meaning has moral, social, religious, or political significance, and characters are often personifications of abstract ideas as charity, greed, or envy. Thus an allegory is a story with two meanings, a literal meaning and a symbolic meaning.
the repetition of the same sound at the beginning of a word, such as the repetition of b sounds in Keats’s “beaded bubbles winking at the brim” (“Ode to a Nightingale”) or Coleridge’s “Five miles meandering in a mazy motion (“Kubla Khan”). A common use for alliteration is emphasis. It occurs in everyday speech in such phrases as “tittle-tattle,” “bag and baggage,” “bed and board,” “primrose path,” and “through thick and thin” and in sayings like “look before you leap.” Some literary critics call the repetition of any sounds alliteration. However, there are specialized terms for other sound-repetitions. Consonance repeats consonants, but not the vowels, as in horror-hearer. Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds, please-niece-ski-tree.
a brief reference to a person, event, place, or phrase. The writer assumes will recognize the reference. For instance, most of us would know the difference between the mechanics being as reliable as George Washington or as reliable as Benedict Arnold. Allusions that are commonplace for readers in one era may require footnotes for readers in a later time.
(1) a statement which has two or more possible meanings; (2) a statement whose meaning is unclear. Depending on the circumstances, ambiguity can be negative, leading to confusion or even disaster (the ambiguous wording of a general’s note led to the deadly charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War). On the other hand, writers often use it to achieve special effects, for instance, to reflect the complexity of an issue or to indicate the difficulty, perhaps the impossibility, of determining truth. The title of the country song “Heaven’s Just a Sin Away” is deliberately ambiguous; at a religious level, it means that committing a sin keeps us out of heaven, but at a physical level, it means that committing a sin (sex) will bring heaven (pleasure). Many of Hamlet’s statements to the King, to Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, and to other characters are deliberately ambiguous, to hide his real purpose from them.
the comparison of two pairs which have the same relationship. The key is to ascertain the relationship between the first so you can choose the correct second pair. Part to whole, opposites, results of are types of relationships you should find.
short tale narrating an interesting or amusing biographical incident.
used with God or gods. The act of attributing human forms or qualities to an entities which are not human. Specifically, anthropomorphism is the describing of gods or goddesses in human forms and possessing human characteristics such as jealousy, hatred, or love. Mythologies of ancient peoples were almost entirely concerned with anthropomorphic gods. The Greek gods such as Zeus and Apollo often were depicted in anthropomorphic forms. The avatars of the Hindu god Vishnu possessed human forms and qualities.
A protagonist who has the opposite of most of the traditional attributes of a hero. He or she may be bewildered, ineffectual, deluded, or merely pathetic. Often what antiheroes learn, if they learn anything at all, is that the world isolates them in an existence devoid of God and absolute values. Yossarian from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is an example of an antihero.
a brief saying embodying a moral, a concise statement of a principle or precept given in pointed words. Example:
- Hippocrates: Life is short, art is long, opportunity fleeting, experimenting dangerous, reasoning difficult.
- Pope: Some praise at morning what they blame at night.
- Emerson: Imitation is suicide
- Franklin: Lost Time is never Found again.
a direct address to a person, thing, or abstraction, such as “O Western Wind,” or “Ah, Sorrow, you consume us.” Apostrophes are generally capitalized.
A term used to describe universal symbols that evoke deep and sometimes unconscious responses in a reader. In literature, characters, images, and themes that symbolically embody universal meanings and basic human experiences, regardless of when or where they live, are considered archetypes. Common literary archetypes include stories of quests, initiations, scapegoats, descents to the underworld, and ascents to heaven. See also mythological criticism.
the repetition of vowel sounds, please-niece-ski-tree.
The melodic pattern just before the end of a sentence or phrase–for instance an interrogation or an exhortation. More generally, the natural rhythm of language depending on the position of stressed and unstressed syllables. Cadence is a major component of individual writers’ styles. A cadence group is a coherent group of words spoken as a single rhythmical unit, such as a prepositional phrase, “of parting day” or a noun phrase, “our inalienable rights.”
Meaning “purgation,” catharsis describes the release of the emotions of pity and fear by the audience at the end of a tragedy. In his Poetics, Aristotle discusses the importance of catharsis. The audience faces the misfortunes of the protagonist, which elicit pity and compassion. Simultaneously, the audience also confronts the failure of the protagonist, thus receiving a frightening reminder of human limitations and frailties. Ultimately, however, both these negative emotions are purged, because the tragic protagonist’s suffering is an affirmation of human values rather than a despairing denial of them. See also tragedy.
An idea or expression that has become tired and trite from overuse, its freshness and clarity having worn off. Clichés often anesthetize readers, and are usually a sign of weak writing.
refers to a type of informal diction that reflects casual, conversational language and often includes slang expressions.
the emotions, values, or images associated with a word. The intensity of emotions or the power of the values and images associated with a word varies. Words connected with religion, politics, and sex tend to have the strongest feelings and images associated with them. For most people, the word mother calls up very strong positive feelings and associations–loving, self-sacrificing, always there for you, understanding; the denotative meaning, on the other hand, is simply “a female animal who has borne one or more chldren.” Of course connotative meanings do not necessarily reflect reality; for instance, if someone said, “His mother is not very motherly,” you would immediately understand the difference between motherly (connotation) and mother (denotation).
repeats consonants, but not the vowels, as in horror-hearer
an intellectual religious movement en vogue through the late seventeenth century up to the late eighteenth century concerned with rational rather than faith-based approaches to religion and understanding God. The movement is often associated with the Enlightenment movement, Neoclassicism, and Free Masonry. In general, Deists prided themselves on free-thinking and logic and tended to reject any specific dogma, so it is difficult to define the beliefs of an individual Deist without referring to generalities. Deists were heavily influenced by John Locke’s mechanistic philosophy and Newtonian physics, seeing the universe as a place ruled rationally by cause and effect. They tended to see God as an impersonal but intelligent force, a first cause that created the universe and set it in motion, who then allowed life and matter to proceed on its own without further need for divine intervention. The logic is that, if God is infallible, omniscient and omnipotent, logically he would pre-establish his design in the world in such a way that he would not need to tinker constantly with it or adjust it through supernatural intervention. Deistic writings often refer to the Deity using metaphors of the architect, the watchmaker, the mason, or some other skilled worker who measures out the universe with geometric and mechanical precision. Thus, a common Deist metaphor compares the universe to a perfectly designed watch or clock–a construct created with complex gears and moving parts, then wound up, and finally released since it can operate on its own without any more effort on the creator’s part.
the literal meaning of a word; there are no emotions, values, or images associated with denotative meaning. Scientific and mathematical language carries few, if any emotional or connotative meanings.
The language of a particular district, class, or group of persons. The term dialect encompasses the sounds, spelling, grammar, and diction employed by a specific people as distinguished from other persons either geographically or socially. Dialect is a major technique of characterization that reveals the social or geographic status of a character.
A writer’s choice of words, phrases, sentence structures, and figurative language, which combine to help create meaning. Formal diction consists of a dignified, impersonal, and elevated use of language; it follows the rules of syntax exactly and is often characterized by complex words and lofty tone. Middle diction maintains correct language usage, but is less elevated than formal diction; it reflects the way most educated people speak. Informal diction represents the plain language of everyday use, and often includes idiomatic expressions, slang, contractions, and many simple, common words. Poetic diction refers to the way poets sometimes employ an elevated diction that deviates significantly from the common speech and writing of their time, choosing words for their supposedly inherent poetic qualities. Since the eighteenth century, however, poets have been incorporating all kinds of diction in their work and so there is no longer an automatic distinction between the language of a poet and the language of everyday speech
A line having no pause or end punctuation but having uninterrupted grammatical meaning continuing into the next line – applied to poetic formats.
Using a mild or gentle phrase instead of a blunt, embarrassing, or painful one. For instance, saying “Grandfather has gone to a better place” is a euphemism for “Grandfather has died.” The idea is to put something bad, disturbing, or embarrassing in an inoffensive or neutral light. Frequently, words referring directly to death, unpopular politics, blasphemy, crime, and sexual or excremental activities are replaced by euphemisms.
A farce is a form of low comedy designed to provoke laughter through highly exaggerated caricatures of people in improbable or silly situations. Traits of farce include (1) physical bustle such as slapstick, (2) sexual misunderstandings and mix-ups, and (3) broad verbal humor such as puns. Many literary critics (especially in the Victorian period) have tended to view farce as inferior to “high comedy” that involves brilliant dialogue. Many of Shakespeare’s early works, such as The Taming of the Shrew, are considered farces.
action that interrupts to show an event that happened at an earlier time which is necessary to better understanding.
a secondary character who contrasts with a major character; in Hamlet, Laertes and Fortinbras, whose fathers have been killed, are foils for Hamlet.
where the author drops subtle hints about the plot development to come later in the story.
exaggeration, often extravagant; it may be used for serious or for comic effect.
In its loosest sense, the word idiom is often used as a synonym for dialect or idiolect. In its more scholarly and narrow sense, an idiom or idiomatic expression refers to a construction or expression in one language that cannot be matched or directly translated word-for-word in another language. For instance, the English expression, “She has a bee in her bonnet,” meaning “she is obsessed,” cannot be literally translated into another language word for word. It’s a non-literal idiomatic expression, akin to “She is green with envy.” In the same way, the Spanish phrase, “Me gustan los arboles,” is usually translated as, “I like the trees,” but if we were to pull the phrase apart and read it word for word, it would make no sense in analytical English (i.e., “To me pleases the trees”).
language that evokes one or all of the five senses: seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching. Each of these types of imagery has a specific name:
- olfactory imagery stimulates the sense of smell.
- tactile imagery stimulates the sense of touch.
- visual imagery stimulates the sense of sight.
- auditory imagery stimulates the sense of hearing.
- gustatory imagery stimulates the sense of taste.
- kinesthesia is imagery that recreates a feeling of physical action or natural bodily function (like a pulse, a heartbeat, or breathing).
- synaesthesia is imagery that involves the use of one sense to evoke another (Ex: loud color; warm gesture).
the discrepancy (incongruity) between what is said and what is meant, what is said and what is done, what is expected or intended and what happens, what is meant or said and what others understand. Sometimes irony is classified into types: in situational irony, expectations aroused by a situation are reversed; in cosmic irony or the irony of fate, misfortune is the result of fate, chance, or God; in dramatic irony, the audience knows more than the characters in the play, so that words and action have additional meaning for the audience; Socractic irony is named after Socrates’ teaching method, whereby he assumes ignorance and openness to opposing points of view which turn out to be (he shows them to be) foolish.
a comparison of two dissimilar things which does not use “like” or “as,”
substituting a word for another word closely associated with it.
Queen Elizabeth controlled the crown for years.the crown = the monarchy
He has always loved the stage.the stage = the theater
He will follow the cross.the cross = Christianity
(1) A recurrent thematic element in an artistic or literary work. (2) A dominant theme or central idea.
the emotional attitude the author takes towards the subject.
The voice of the person telling the story, not to be confused with the author’s voice. With a first-person narrator, the I in the story presents the point of view of only one character. The reader is restricted to the perceptions, thoughts, and feelings of that single character. First-person narrators can play either a major or a minor role in the story they are telling. An unreliable narrator reveals an interpretation of events that is somehow different from the author’s own interpretation of those events. Often, the unreliable narrator’s perception of plot, characters, and setting becomes the actual subject of the story. Narrators can be unreliable for a number of reasons: they might lack self-knowledge, they might be inexperienced, they might even be insane. Naive narrators are usually characterized by youthful innocence, such as Mark Twain’s Huck Finn or J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield. An omniscient narrator is an all-knowing narrator who is not a character in the story and who can move from place to place and pass back and forth through time, slipping into and out of characters as no human being possibly could in real life. Omniscient narrators can report the thoughts and feelings of the characters, as well as their words and actions. The narrator of The Scarlet Letter is an omniscient narrator. Editorial omniscience refers to an intrusion by the narrator in order to evaluate a character for a reader, as when the narrator of The Scarlet Letter describes Hester’s relationship to the Puritan community. Narration that allows the characters’ actions and thoughts to speak for themselves is called neutral omniscience. Most modern writers use neutral omniscience so that readers can reach their own conclusions. Limited omniscience occurs when an author restricts a narrator to the single perspective of either a major or minor character. The way people, places, and events appear to that character is the way they appear to the reader. Sometimes a limited omniscient narrator can see into more than one character, particularly in a work that focuses on two characters alternately from one chapter to the next. Short stories, however, are frequently limited to a single character’s point of view.
a word whose sounds seem to duplicate the sounds they describe–hiss, buzz, bang, murmur, meow, growl.
a statement with two parts which seem contradictory; examples: sad joy, a wise fool, the sound of silence, or Hamlet’s saying, “I must be cruel only to be kind”
A story or short narrative designed to reveal allegorically some religious principle, moral lesson, psychological reality, or general truth. Rather than using abstract discussion, a parable always teaches by comparison with real or literal occurrences–especially “homey” everyday occurrences a wide number of people can relate to. Well-known examples of parables include those found in the synoptic Gospels, such as “The Prodigal Son” and “The Good Samaritan.”
a statement whose two parts seem contradictory yet make sense with more thought. Christ used paradox in his teaching: “They have ears but hear not.” Or in ordinary conversation, we might use a paradox, “Deep down he’s really very shallow.” Paradox attracts the reader’s or the listener’s attention and gives emphasis.
A parody imitates the serious manner and characteristic features of a particular literary work in order to make fun of those same features. The humorist achieves parody by exaggerating certain traits common to the work, much as a caricaturist creates a humorous depiction of a person by magnifying and calling attention to the person’s most noticeable features. The term parody is often used synonymously with the more general term spoof, which makes fun of the general traits of a genre rather than one particular work or author. Often the subject-matter of a parody is comically inappropriate, such as using the elaborate, formal diction of an epic to describe something trivial like washing socks or cleaning a dusty attic.
is a mask for the author to speak through. In literature, a persona is a speaker created by a writer to tell a story or to speak in a poem. A persona is not a character in a story or narrative, nor does a persona necessarily directly reflect the author’s personal voice. A persona is a separate self, created by and distinct from the author, through which he or she speaks.
treating abstractions or inanimate objects as human, that is, giving them human attributes, powers, or feelings, e.g., “nature wept” or “the wind whispered many truths to me.”
point of view
refers to who tells us a story and how it is told. What we know and how we feel about the events in a work are shaped by the author’s choice of point of view. The teller of the story, the narrator, inevitably affects our understanding of the characters’ actions by filtering what is told through his or her own perspective. The various points of view that writers draw upon can be grouped into two broad categories: (1) the third-person narrator uses he, she, or they to tell the story and does not participate in the action; and (2) the first-person narrator uses I and is a major or minor participant in the action. In addition, a second-person narrator, you, is also possible, but is rarely used because of the awkwardness of thrusting the reader into the story, as in “You are minding your own business on a park bench when a drunk steps out and demands your lunch bag.” An objective point of view employs a third-person narrator who does not see into the mind of any character. From this detached and impersonal perspective, the narrator reports action and dialogue without telling us directly what the characters think and feel. Since no analysis or interpretation is provided by the narrator, this point of view places a premium on dialogue, actions, and details to reveal character to the reader.
the usually humorous use of a word in such a way as to suggest two or more of its meanings or the meaning of another word similar in sound. It consists of a deliberate confusion of similar words or phrases for rhetorical effect, whether humorous or serious. It can rely on the assumed equivalency of multiple similar words (homonymy), of different shades of meaning of one word (polysemy), or of a literal meaning with a metaphor. Bad puns are often considered to be cheesy.
- A hangover is the wrath of grapes.
- Without geometry, life is pointless.
- Reading while sunbathing makes you well-red.
the return of a word, phrase, stanza form, or effect in any form of literature. Repetition is an effective literary device that may bring comfort, suggest order, or add special meaning to a piece of literature.
a literary tone used to ridicule or make fun of human vice or weakness, often with the intent of correcting, or changing, the subject of the satiric attack.
a comparison of two dissimilar things using “like” or “as”
a simplified and/or standardized conception or image with specific meaning, often held in common by members of a group. A stereotype can be a conventional and oversimplified conception, opinion, or image. Stereotypes can range from those that are wildly inaccurate and negative to those that are more than a little bit true and may even shed positive light upon the group of individuals. They are typically generalizations based on minimal or limited knowledge about a group to which the person doing the stereotyping does not belong.
manner of expression; how a speaker or writer says what he says.
the feeling of uncertainty and interest about the outcome of certain actions, most often referring to an audience’s perceptions in a dramatic work.
when an author uses an object or idea to suggest more than its literal meaning. A person, place, or event stands for something other than it is, usually something broader or deeper than it is.
in general terms, anything that stands for something else. Obvious examples are flags, which symbolize a nation; the cross is a symbol for Christianity; Uncle Sam a symbol for the United States. In literature, a symbol is expected to have significance. Keats starts his ode with a real nightingale, but quickly it becomes a symbol, standing for a life of pure, unmixed joy; then before the end of the poem it becomes only a bird again.
when one uses a part to represent the whole.
- lend me your ears (give me your attention)
the way in which linguistic elements (as words) are put together
(1) the abstract concept explored in a literary work; (2) frequently recurring ideas, such as enjoy-life while-you-can; (3) repetition of a meaningful element in a work, such as references to sight, vision, and blindness in Oedipus Rex. Sometimes the theme is also called the motif. Themes in Hamlet include the nature of filial duty and the dilemma of the idealist in a non-ideal situation. A theme in Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” is the difficulty of correlating the ideal and the real.
the writer’s attitude toward the material and/or readers. Tone may be playful, formal, intimate, angry, serious, ironic, outraged, baffled, tender, serene, depressed, etc.
A story that presents courageous individuals who confront powerful forces within or outside themselves with a dignity that reveals the breadth and depth of the human spirit in the face of failure, defeat, and even death. Tragedies recount an individual’s downfall; they usually begin high and end low. Shakespeare is known for his tragedies, including Macbeth, King Lear, Othello, and Hamlet. The revenge tragedy is a well-established type of drama that can be traced back to Greek and Roman plays, particularly through the Roman playwright Seneca (c. 3 b.c.–a.d. 63). Revenge tragedies basically consist of a murder that has to be avenged by a relative of the victim. Typically, the victim’s ghost appears to demand revenge, and invariably madness of some sort is worked into subsequent events, which ultimately end in the deaths of the murderer, the avenger, and a number of other characters. Shakespeare’s Hamlet subscribes to the basic ingredients of revenge tragedy, but it also transcends these conventions because Hamlet contemplates not merely revenge but suicide and the meaning of life itself. The tragic irony a form of dramatic irony found in tragedies such as Oedipus the King, in which Oedipus ironically ends up hunting himself. A story that presents courageous individuals who confront powerful forces within or outside themselves with a dignity that reveals the breadth and depth of the human spirit in the face of failure, defeat, and even death. Tragic irony is a form of dramatic irony found in tragedies such as Oedipus the King, in which Oedipus ironically ends up hunting himself. Revenge tragedies basically consist of a murder that has to be avenged by a relative of the victim. Typically, the victim’s ghost appears to demand revenge, and invariably madness of some sort is worked into subsequent events, which ultimately end in the deaths of the murderer, the avenger, and a number of other characters. Shakespeare’s Hamlet subscribes to the basic ingredients of revenge tragedy, but it also transcends these conventions because Hamlet contemplates not merely revenge but suicide and the meaning of life itself.
an error or defect in the tragic hero that leads to his downfall, such as greed, pride, or ambition. This flaw may be a result of bad character, bad judgment, an inherited weakness, or any other defect of character.
A type of drama that combines certain elements of both tragedy and comedy. The play’s plot tends to be serious, leading to a terrible catastrophe, until an unexpected turn in events leads to a reversal of circumstance, and the story ends happily. Tragicomedy often employs a romantic, fast-moving plot dealing with love, jealousy, disguises, treachery, intrigue, and surprises, all moving toward a melodramatic resolution. Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is a tragicomedy.
understatement (also known as litotes and meiosis)
casual or light treatment of the subject, it has two effects: (1) shows that the author does not take a subject seriously, (2) calls upon the moral indignation of the reader because the subject does not seem to be taken seriously.
- Example: “I’m really glad that you have come to visit,” said the spider to the fly.
(1) The appearance of truth; the quality of seeming to be true. (2) Something that has the appearance of being true or real.
The everyday or common language of a geographic area or the native language of commoners in a country as opposed to a prestigious dead language maintained artificially in schools or in literary texts. Latin, for instance, has not been a vernacular language for about 1250 years. Sanskrit has not been a vernacular language in India for more than 2000 years. However, Latin in medieval Europe and Sanskrit in ancient India were considered much more suitable for art, scholarship, poetry, and religious texts than the common tongue of everyday people even though (or perhaps because) only a small percentage of the learned could read the older languages.