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Literary Terms

Some examples of commonly used figures of speech.

Alliteration: Repetition of the initial letter (generally a consonant) or first sound of several words, marking the stressed syllables in a line of poetry or prose. A simple example is the phrase "through thick and thin."

Allegory: A fictional literary narrative or artistic expression that conveys a symbolic meaning parallel to but distinct from, and more important than, the literal meaning.

Anagram: (Greek ana, "up," "back," or "anew"; graphein, "to write"), Transposition of the letters of a word or phrase to form a new word or phrase. Mr. Mojo Risin is an anagram for Jim Morrison.

Antithesis: Juxtaposition of two words, phrases, clauses, or sentences contrasted or opposed in meaning in such a way as to give emphasis to contrasting ideas. An example of antithesis is the following line by the English poet Alexander Pope: "To err is human, to forgive divine."

Euphemism: Substitution of a delicate or inoffensive term or phrase for one that has coarse, sordid, or otherwise unpleasant associations, as in the use of "lavatory" or "rest room" for "toilet," and "pass away" for "die."

Hyperbole: Form of inordinate exaggeration according to which a person or thing is depicted as being better or worse, or larger or smaller, than is actually the case, as in the sentence from an essay by the English writer Thomas Babington Macaulay: "Dr. Johnson drank his tea in oceans."

Irony: Dryly humorous or lightly sarcastic mode of speech, in which words are used to convey a meaning contrary to their literal sense. An instance of irony is the suggestion, put forward with apparent seriousness by the English satirist Jonathan Swift in his Modest Proposal, that the poor people of Ireland should rid themselves of poverty by selling their children to the rich to eat.

Metaphor: Use of a word or phrase denoting one kind of idea or object in place of another word or phrase for the purpose of suggesting a likeness between the two. Thus, in the biblical Book of Psalms, the writer speaks of God's law as "a light to his feet and a lamp to his path." Other instances of metaphor are contained in the sentences "He uttered a volley of oaths" and "The man tore through the building."

Onomatopoeia: Imitation of natural sounds by words. Examples in English are the italicized words in the phrases "the humming bee," "the cackling hen," "the whizzing arrow," and "the buzzing saw."

Oxymoron: Combination of two seemingly contradictory or incongruous words, as in the line by the English poet Sir Philip Sidney in which lovers are said to speak "of living deaths, dear wounds, fair storms, and freezing fires."

Palindrome: (Greek palin, "back," "again" and dramein, "to run") A word, verse, or sentence, or number that reads the same backwards as forwards. Example: "Able was I ere I saw Elba."

Paradox: Statement or sentiment that appears contradictory to common sense yet is true in fact. Examples of paradox are "mobilization for peace" and "a well-known secret agent."

Personification: Representation of inanimate objects or abstract ideas as living beings, as in the sentences "Necessity is the mother of invention," "Lean famine stalked the land," and "Night enfolded the town in its ebon wings."

Rhetorical Question: Asking of questions not to gain information but to assert more emphatically the obvious answer to what is asked. No answer, in fact, is expected by the asker.

Simile: A specific comparison by means of the words "like" or "as" between two kinds of ideas or objects.

Superlative: The degree of grammatical comparison that denotes an extreme or unsurpassed level or extent.