Glossary of Literary Terms
In the updated English 12 Examination Specifications (2011-2012), a list of terminology has been identified. This glossary provides definitions for these terms. Any term in all capitals is a further addition.
Active voice: The voice of a verb indicates the relation of the action of the verb to the subject of the clause or sentence. There are two voices, active and passive. The active voice is direct statement: “I wrote this essay.” The passive voice inverts the normal pattern: “This essay was written by me.” The passive voice is easily recognized: the finite verb contains some form of the verb “to be” followed by a past participle: “written.” Grammar aside, in general, most writers prefer the active voice to the passive as the active voice is usually more direct and vigorous:
I shall always remember my first visit to Montreal.
This is much better than
My first visit to Montreal will always be remembered by me.
This latter sentence is less direct, less bold, and less concise. If the writer tries to make it more concise by omitting “by me,”
My first visit to Montreal will always be remembered,
It becomes indefinite: is it the writer or some person undisclosed or the world at large that will always remember this visit? As passive constructions are frequently indirect and obscure, politicians and civil servants are fond of them: it enables one to make assertions which promise action without committing oneself to perform it, and makes possible the admission of error without anyone having to accept responsibility. For instance,
Passive: Be assured (by whom?) that action will be taken (by whom?).
Active: I assure you that I will act.
Passive: It is to be regretted (by whom?) that an error has been made (by whom?) in your account. The matter will be investigated (by whom?).
Active: I am sorry we made an error in your account. I will look into the matter and correct it immediately.
However, there are valid reasons for using the passive voice: for example, here are three good reasons for using the passive:
1. when the agent, or the doer of the act, is indefinite or not known.
2. when the agent is not as important as the act itself.
3. when the writer wants to emphasize either the agent or the act by putting it at the beginning or end of the sentence.
For example, It was reported that there were eight survivors.
Here the writer does not know who did the reporting. To avoid the passive by saying, “Someone reported that there were eight survivors,” would be to strain the point by seeming to emphasize the mysterious “someone.” Additionally, the fact that someone did the reporting is, in this instance, less important than the content of the report.
The accident was witnessed by more than fifty people.
Here the writer wishes to emphasize the large number of witnesses. It could be stated, “More than fifty people witnessed the accident,” but the emphasis is clearly greater at the end of the sentence than at the beginning.
Allegory: An allegory is a narrative that has a second meaning beneath the surface. Although the surface story may have its own interest, the author’s major interest is in the ulterior meaning. Therefore, an allegory is a story with at least two meanings, a literal meaning and a symbolic meaning; the characters, actions, or settings represent abstract ideas or moral qualities. George Orwell’s Animal Farm, for instance, is a good example wherein the entire novel is essentially an extended metaphor for the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalin.
Alliteration: The repetition of similar sounds, usually consonants or consonant clusters, in a group of words. Usually the term is limited to the repetition of initial consonant sounds. See consonance.
To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark, dock,
In a pestilential prison, with a life-long lock,
Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp, shock,
From a cheap and chippy choppy on a big, black block!
Allusion: A reference to a person, a place, an event, or a literary work that the writer expects the reader to recognize and respond to; an allusion may be drawn from history, mythology, the Bible, religion in general, geography, or literature. Allusions expand and develop ideas in a work of literature, adding layers of meaning.
AMBIGUITY: With writing, ambiguity can refer to a carelessness that produces two or more meanings where a single one is intended. However, with literature it generally refers to a richness of poetic expression that elevates and complicates diction and phrasing. The various meanings may make up the intended meaning of the
writer. The meanings may be contradictory and show a fundamental division in the author’s mind and challenge the reader to invent interpretations based on these contradictions.
Analogy: A comparison between things similar in a number of ways. An analogy is frequently used to explain the unfamiliar by the familiar, as when a camera is compared by analogy to the human eye; strategy in a current armed conflict by analogy to an older struggle already understood; the heart’s structure by analogy to a pump’s. As a rhetorical device, analogy is sometimes used to justify conclusions logic would not allow, for even in closely analogous situations the differences may be crucial. The numerous similarities common to analogy tend to differentiate it from simile and metaphor, which depend on a few points of similarity in things fundamentally dissimilar.
Anecdotal evidence: An anecdote is a short narrative, sometimes introduced to give a point to a longer work (like an essay), sometimes presented for its own sake or for its interest in relation to the subject under discussion. Anecdotes are usually presented as true (although they frequently rest on hearsay) and are incorporated into essays often as supporting evidence. They can be emotionally compelling: for instance, a story of a lifetime smoker who now has no vocal chords and must breathe through a hole in his neck – this in an essay on smoking legislation.
Antagonist: An antagonist is the major force or character that opposes the protagonist. The major force may be an aspect of the physical or social environment, or a destructive element, for instance, in the protagonist’s own nature – thus, not necessarily a character.
Anti-climax: A sudden descent from the impressive to the trivial, especially at the end of an ascending series, for ludicrous or humorous effect.
Antithesis The juxtaposition of contrasting or opposite ideas, often in parallel structure.
To err is human, to forgive divine.
Though studious, he was popular; though argumentative, he was modest; though inflexible, he was candid; and though metaphysical, yet orthodox.
Apostrophe: A figure of speech in which an absent or a dead person, an abstract quality, or something non-human is addressed directly. Example: “Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean, roll!” Here, the persona is speaking to the ocean as if it were capable of hearing.
Archaic language: Language that is old-fashioned or obsolete. Archaic language is deliberately used to suggest something written in the past.
Aside: In theatre, a speech directed to the audience but, by dramatic convention, apparently unheard by the other characters in the play, who continue in their roles without the knowledge thus given the spectators. Shakespeare frequently uses asides.
Macbeth: [aside] If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me,
Without my stir. (I. iii. 143-144)
Assonance: The close repetition of similar vowel sounds, usually in stressed syllables.
Thou foster child of silence and slow time. Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are!
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.
Atmosphere: The atmosphere or mood is the prevailing feeling created by the story. It is created by descriptive diction, imagery, and dialogue. The opening of the short story, “Journey Home,” for instance, describes “gloomy shacks half-hidden in the labyrinth of dark green trees” and the environment as “dismal.” These opening descriptions help to set up an atmosphere that is dark, ominous, and apprehensive.
Audience: Simply stated, an audience is the person or people gathered to hear, see, or read a work. A writer must be sensitive to whom the intended audience is, as this critically affects stylistic choices, tone, diction, and so on.
Autobiography: The description of a life, or a portion of one, written by the person who has lived it, in contrast to a biography, which presents a life as written by another person. Ordinarily, an autobiography is intended for public readership, as opposed to the private account of a life found in a diary, journal, or letters.
Ballad: A narrative poem, usually simple and fairly short, originally meant to be sung. Ballads often begin abruptly, imply the previous action, utilize simple language, tell the story tersely through dialogue and described action, and make use of refrains (a line or lines repeated at intervals often at the end of a stanza). The folk ballad, which reached its height in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, was composed anonymously and handed down orally, often in several different versions. The subject matter of folk ballads stems from the everyday life of common people; the most popular subjects, often tragic, are disappointed love, jealousy, revenge, sudden disaster, and deeds of adventure and daring. Later, the literary ballad developed, a conscious imitation of the folk ballad, making use of many of its conventions. The most famous literary ballad is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
Ballad stanza: The name for common meter as found in ballads: a quatrain in iambic meter, alternating tetrameter and trimeter lines, usually rhyming abcb. An example,
There lived a wife at Usher’s Well,
And a wealthy wife was she;
She had three stout and stalwart sons,
And sent them o’er the sea.
Bias: An inclination or preference that makes it difficult or impossible to judge fairly in a particular situation, a kind of prejudice. Bias can be detected if statistics are distorted, a quotation is taken out of context, or the author is manipulating evidence in an argument. If an audience detects bias, the author’s credibility weakens and his argument crumbles. Bias is frequently noted in the media, politics, and propaganda.
Biography: (Greek: bios means “life,” graphein means “write”) A genre of literature, usually non-fiction, based on accounts of individual lives; it is an account of one person’s life written by another person. It is more than mere facts but rather complex insights into that person’s life. See autobiography.
Blank verse Unrhymed iambic pentameter. “Blank” refers simply to the fact that the lines do not rhyme. “Iambic” refers to a two-syllable unit that begins unstressed and ends stressed; it is usually diagramed thus: U / (This would be one iambic foot). “Meter” refers to a regular pattern; the “penta-“ prefix means there would be five feet. Taken together, iambic pentameter is a line of ten syllables (five iambic feet) with an alternating stress pattern of unstressed, stressed.
If you can look into the seeds of time,
And say which grain will grow and which will not, Scan these four lines.
Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear
Your favors nor your hate.
Cacophony: “Bad sounding.” The opposite of euphony, the term signifies discordant, jarring, unharmonious language. Here is an example from Tennyson’s Morte D’Arthur:
Dry clashed his harness in the icy caves
And barren chasms, and all to left and right
The bare black cliff clanged round him, as he based
His feet on juts of slippery crag that rang
Sharp-smitten with the dint of armed heels,
And on a sudden, lo! The level lake,
And the long glories of the winter moon.
The alliteration and assonance of the first five lines are self-evidently rough; the last two lines, containing the same devices, are mellifluously smooth and euphonious.
Caricature In literature (as in art) a portrait which ridicules a person by exaggerating and distorting his most prominent features and characteristics. Shakespeare and Dickens are especially rich in caricature.
Case study: A detailed analysis of an individual or group, especially as an exemplary model of medical, psychological, or social phenomena. A case study could be a strategy, for instance, in an argument or persuasion.
Catastrophe: The final disaster of a tragedy, usually including a resolution back to order. A tragic dénouement of a play or story.
Cause and effect: A common strategy in argumentative essays, it is the explaining of the “why” of something. Arguments based on causal relationships work in two directions. One can argue from an effect back to a cause, or one can start with a cause and argue that it will produce a particular effect. The nature of cause and effect can get quite complicated and is studied in university logic classes.
Character: The term refers to both a fictional person in a story, and the moral, dispositional, and behavioral qualities of that fictional person. Readers can classify characters in a number of ways:
Flat character – a limited, usually minor character with only one or two apparent qualities. A character who is not developed.
Round character – a realistic character with several dimensions. A more complex, fully-developed person.
Static character – one who does not change in the course of a story, like Celia in “Celia Behind Me” by Isabel Huggan.
Dynamic (or Developing) character – one who undergoes a significant, lasting change, usually in his or her outlook on life. In a short story, he or she is often the protagonist.
Stock (or Stereotyped) character – a predictable, one-dimensional character who is recognizable to the reader as “of a type,” for example, the jock, the brain, the yuppie, the absent-minded professor, and so on.
Character foil – a character whose behavior, attitudes, and/or opinions contrast with those of the protagonist.
Characterization: It is the creation, or description, of a character in a work of fiction. In a biography, autobiography, or historical novel, however, it could be the delineation of a real person - like Sir John A. MacDonald. In a novel, short story, poem, or play, characterization creates a lasting identity for an imagined person, sometimes, paradoxically, making the fictional character more “real” than people who have lived. The character of a fictional creation - Hamlet, Mercutio, Lady Macbeth, the Wife of Bath - is fixed forever in the words of the creator (although it is open to differing interpretations by readers or directors and actors). Interestingly, a character from history is subject to potentially radical revisions with each new work of literature. Characterization is influenced by many factors:
(1) simple description or summary of a person’s distinguishing features and traits by the author or other characters
(2) a character’s name
(3) the narrative perspective, whether first person or omniscient
(4) the actual actions of the character (what he/she says and thinks)
(5) and the ethos, the world or setting the person is a part of, is associated
with (for instance, a bleak prairie landscape can partially characterize
the person who inhabits it).
Chorus: In Greek drama, the group of singers and dancers that appears at intervals within a play to comment on the action or the antagonists, or sing the praises of the gods. Generally, the chorus expresses the judgment of objective bystanders, compassionate and intelligent, representative of the best morality of the community, but not directly involved in the passions of the protagonist and other major characters. In later times, like the Elizabethan Age, a chorus is reduced to a single figure, as in Shakespeare’s Henry V, or Romeo and Juliet.
Chronological order: (chrono- Greek for time) It is simply arranging events in the order in which the events occurred. The plots of many stories are told in chronological order.
Cliché: An overused expression, once clever or metaphorical, but now trite and timeworn; a large number of idioms have become clichés through excessive use. The following sentence contains eight common ones: “When the grocer, who was as fit as a fiddle, had taken stock of the situation, he saw the writing on the wall, but decided to turn over a new leaf and put his house in order by taking a long shot at eliminating his rival in the street, who was also an old hand at making the best of a bad job.” The term derives from the French word for a stereotype plate, used for printing, and suggests unimaginative repetition. See colloquial language, dead metaphor.
Climactic order: Ideas arranged in the order of least to most important, a strategy common in composing an argument.
Climax: A plot term, it is the point of greatest intensity, interest, or suspense in a narrative. The climax usually marks a story’s turning point.
COINCIDENCE A happenstance, unplanned and accidental. Though frequent in life, coincidence in literature may seem a straining against probability. Comedy may exploit coincidence for humor, for instance. However, coincidence can become objectionable (from an artistic point of view) in proportion to its improbability, its importance to the story. A kind of plot manipulation.
Colloquial language: This is everyday speech and writing. It is plain, relaxed, idiomatic, and may contain slang or cliché. “They’ve had it,” “It’s a cinch,” and “That was sweet” are colloquial. Colloquial language is not used in formal speech or writing.
Colloquialism: An informal expression characteristic of speech and acceptable in informal writing.
Comedy: (Greek: komos “revel, merrymaking”) A literary work that ends happily with a healthy, amicable armistice between the protagonist and society. Comedy is distinct from tragedy, which is generally concerned with a protagonist who meets an unhappy or disastrous end. Also, the comic protagonist may be a person of ordinary character and ability, and need not achieve the heroic stature of the protagonist in a tragedy. Comedies are often concerned, at least in part, with exposing human folly, and frequently depict the overthrow of rigid social fashions and customs. Wit, humor, and a sense of festivity are found in many comedies.
Comic relief: A comic element inserted into a tragic or somber work, especially a play, to relieve its tension, widen its scope, or heighten by contrast the tragic emotion.
Compare and Contrast: To compare two or more things is to examine their likeness, their similarities.
Contrast (Latin for “standing against”) is a consideration of images, ideas, or other literary elements standing in opposition to one another, or considered for their differences.
These two strategies are often paired as a device for explanation or clarification. For instance, a compare and contrast essay of two stories or two poems may be an illuminating exercise, for the similarities may highlight important differences, or vice versa, thus leading to a better understanding of the literature. Furthermore, literature selected could be similar in plot but different in theme, similar in subject but different literary value, and so on. In writing such an essay, it would be best to choose elements that are significant and worthy of examination.
Comparison: Latin for “with an equal.” It is a consideration of separate things in the light of their similarities. Similarity is the basic principle behind inductive argument and analogy.
Conflict: The term refers to the struggle between opposing characters or forces, usually the protagonist and something else. For preliminary discussion, conflict can be classified roughly as
individual versus individual
individual versus environment
individual versus himself/herself.
Another approach to a discussion of conflict is to classify the conflict as physical, moral, emotional, intellectual, philosophical, spiritual, and so on. External conflict refers to conflict that arise from outside of the character (individual versus individual, individual versus environment), and internal conflict refers to conflict arising from within a character. Compare a wrestling match versus a chess match; in what way are they external conflict? Internal?
Connotation: All of the emotions and associations that a word or phrase may arouse. Denotation is the literal or “dictionary” meaning of a word or phrase. For instance, “springtime” literally means the season between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice, but the connotations of the words make most people think of such things as youth, rebirth, and romance.
Consonance: The newest “Terms and Devices” handout (2011-2012) from the Ministry of Education defines consonance in two ways: the repetition of consonant sounds before and after differing vowels, such as “flip-flop,” and “feel-fill”; and the repetition of consonant sounds at the ends of words only, as in “east-west” and “hid-bed.” However, the intent of the consonance term is more about the effect of the repetition of similar consonant sounds – wherever they may be. Note the repetition of the “l” sound in the following:
And all the air a solemn stillness holds.
Consonance is closely related to alliteration, of course, although we tend to use alliteration with consonants that occur at the beginnings of words.
Contrast: The juxtaposition of disparate or opposed images, ideas, or both, to heighten or clarify a scene, theme, or episode. Contrast is frequently paired with comparison as a device for explanation and clarification. See compare and contrast.
Couplet: Two consecutive lines of poetry that rhyme. Shakespeare frequently closes a scene with a couplet. Here is an example from Macbeth:
Hear it not Duncan, for it is a knell
That summons thee to Heaven, or to Hell. (II. ii. 63-64)
Denotation: The literary or “dictionary” meaning of a word. For example, a denotation, or dictionary definition, of the word “star” (as in movie star) is “an eminent actor or actress,” but the connotation is that of an actor or actress who is adored by fans and who leads a fascinating and glamorous life.
Dénouement: Pronounced “day-NEW-mahn,” it is a French term for the “unknotting” or resolution of the plot. It follows the climax and constitutes all or part of the falling action of the story.
DEUS EX MACHINA: It means “god out of the machine,” and it refers to the resolution of a plot by use of a highly improbable chance or coincidence (so named from the practice of some Greek dramatists having a god descend from heaven at the last possible minute - in the theatre by means of a rope or stage machine - to rescue the protagonist from an impossible situation. This can be a fault in the literature as the plot is manipulated too much and lacks verisimilitude. The term should be italicized, deus ex machina, or deus ex machina.
Dialect: A variety of language belonging to a particular time, place, or social group, as, for example, an eighteenth-century cockney dialect, a New England dialect, or Robert Burns’ Scottish dialect. A language other than one’s own is for the most part unintelligible without study or translation; a dialect other than one’s own can generally be understood, although pronunciation, vocabulary, and syntax seem strange.