Literary Terms Study Guide for the English Basics
Few modern tests contain questions that ask you to simply match a literary term with its definition. This does not mean these terms are unimportant. In fact, knowing their meanings can make the difference between understanding a test question and not having a clue how to choose an answer. In other words, you need to have a “working knowledge” of the meaning of things like metaphor and satire so you can understand questions on English-related tests. This knowledge will enable you to better comprehend what you read in everyday life. For example, if an article is labeled satire, would you expect to find reliable facts in it?
General Literary Terms
Literary terms refer to all of the words used in discussion, analysis, exploration, criticism, and classification of literature. There are hundreds of literary terms, but this guide will focus on the basics and the most commonly used and tested. These terms may be found in the study and analysis of text and in directions for writing about a text, so it is important to not only be able to identify them when you see them in other people’s writing, but also be able to use these skills yourself and identify their use in your own writing.
Tests and teachers will often ask you to compare and contrast two (or more) texts or to compare and contrast the ideas within a text. What this means is that you are supposed to find the similarities (comparisons) and the differences (contrasts).
One common tool for organizing points of comparison and contrast is to use a Venn diagram, which is a graphic organizer made up of two (or more) overlapping circles. Each circle represents a text or paragraph or idea. In the part of the circles that overlap, you record the elements that the two things have in common (the similarities). In the parts of the circles that do not overlap, you record the unique elements each has that is different than the other (contrasting points).
Comparing and contrasting allows you to evaluate different things, weighing the pros and cons of each; you can also use compare and contrast to explain an idea or a concept to an audience, showing the similarities and differences to the ideas of others. Comparing and contrasting should be done between things that have some connection so that similarities can be noted, but that are not identical so that differences can also be evaluated.
For example, you might compare and contrast two breakfast cereals you have eaten. You can analyze and explain what similarities both have (they are both cereals; they are both fortified with vitamins and minerals; they both include a toy inside the box) and the differences between them (they are made of different grains; they are different shapes; one gets soggy faster in milk).
Comparing and contrasting does not always turn out evenly; the lists of similarities and differences will seldom be the same length. This will help you analyze and evaluate the two things and both objectively state facts about them and form an opinion based on those elements of comparison about which you prefer.
The word genre refers to the category or type of writing under which a text might fall. When you walk into a bookstore or a library, there are different sections of books. There are mysteries, fiction, nonfiction, reference, self-help, etc. These are all different genres. These books are categorized together because they share some of the same characteristics. The two biggest genres of literature are fiction and nonfiction and, within each of those genres, multiple other genres of writing exist.
When test or assignment directions ask you to synthesize, they are really looking to assess your ability to “put it all together.” When you synthesize literature, you analyze a text or texts and look at the elements that are used in its creation. As a reader, you draw conclusions from and about those elements and that is your synthesis. You are finding hints and clues using your common sense, prior knowledge, and experience to put together a statement of understanding or meaning. Synthesizing involves reviewing the text(s) to identify key concepts and evaluating and interpreting those key concepts so that you can draw a valid conclusion about the text(s).
When talking about literature, especially nonfiction texts that are persuasive in nature, it is important for an author to use support to prove or back up his or her claim. When an author makes a statement or a claim, then just keeps on going, the reader will not necessarily be convinced. He or she may even have questions for the author. In anticipation of those questions, and to do a more thorough job of convincing the reader, authors provide examples or evidence to back up their claims and statements. This is called support.
If in test directions, for example, you are asked to use support, it means the same thing. What evidence from the text or from personal experience led you to a particular conclusion? How can you support or back up your claim? If you are asked to support your answer or support your claim, it means don’t just make the statement and move on; make the statement and then explain how or why you know you’re right. Include evidence and examples to support your claim.
An argument in literature is a statement the author makes and develops through the course of a text in an attempt to convince a reader of its validity. The word argument makes it sound like there should be some bickering back and forth, or some anger on someone’s behalf, but that is not necessarily the case. Argument simply refers to the author’s idea or claim. There may be some readers who will disagree, or argue, with the statement. This is why the author must use evidence to support the argument, attempting to convince all readers.
Diction is a pretty easy one to remember if you think of a dictionary. What’s in a dictionary? Words. Lots of words. Diction is just that—words. When used with regard to texts, it refers to the words an author chooses to use in his or her writing. Are they difficult words, easy words, scientific words, sarcastic words, or precise words?
When considering your own writing, you should also consider your own diction. Words don’t end up on the page by accident; good writers carefully select each word to serve a specific purpose. This includes you as a writer: what words are you choosing to use? What purpose do you see them serving? Diction is very important and deserves careful consideration if you are to send the right message.
Figurative language is any use of language that involves a non-literal interpretation of words. Rather than interpreting figurative language as what it literally says, the reader must use his or her imagination and understand the metaphoric or exaggerated implications made by an author. Understanding and appreciating figurative language first means being able to identify it as such and then being able to understand the nonliteral or nuanced meaning behind the language used. Figurative language is the umbrella term for the following literary devices:
Imagery is the language an author uses to help the reader create a mental picture or image. Imagery is created by describing something or someone through the use of the five senses. This means that an author might use imagery that explains to the reader how something looks, what it smells like, how it feels, what it sounds like, or even how it tastes. Obviously, it is not appropriate to use imagery that always includes all five senses, but an author’s particular use of imagery can certainly help a reader “see” the story unfold in his or her mind.
Good, specific imagery helps the reader create the picture the author intends instead of leaving it up to the reader to imagine things on his or her own. An example of imagery would be: “The bright early morning sun shone through the crack in the tattered blue curtains of Alex’s boyhood bedroom, illuminating the little pieces of dust silently floating through the air like so many snowflakes.” In this way, the reader can “see” the image of Alex’s bedroom and the setting as he awakes this morning.
Symbolism in literature can take many forms. One way symbolism is evident is when an author uses an object to represent something larger or more abstract than itself. We encounter symbols in our daily lives. The American flag, while literally a piece of cloth with a pattern of red, white, and blue, represents or symbolizes a land of freedom and opportunity. A rainbow, while literally refraction of light, can represent or symbolize hope or the beauty of nature.
Symbolism can also be present in an action. For example, smiling or shaking someone’s hand can symbolize friendship. Turning away from someone can symbolize they are angry or upset. Colors can be symbolic and are often used in literature to evoke certain feelings in a reader: red for passion or anger, black for mystery or death, white for purity or innocence, green for envy or greed, and yellow for brightness or happiness. Understanding symbolism and appreciating that “things” may mean more than they appear to be can help a reader better understand a text’s deeper meaning.
An allegory is a story that relies heavily upon symbolism. In an allegory, there is a “superficial” story, the obvious plot and characters and whatnot, but there’s also a deeper meaning and symbolism behind those characters or those actions they take. Allegories allow authors to share political, philosophical, religious, or social views with an audience without coming out and claiming them as their own. It’s “just a story,” but it’s not because there’s something more if you dig deeper.
Some famous allegories from literature include Plato’s Allegory of the Cave where the Greek philosopher tells a story of ignorance versus enlightenment and the role education plays in helping people “see” the world with greater understanding. George Orwell’s Animal Farm on the surface is about animals taking over the farm but actually represent the men involved in the Russian Revolution and how power influences people and society. The Mask of the Red Death is Edgar Allan Poe’s allegory to show that no one can escape death, regardless of money or power. In all of these examples, the authors use symbolism to tell their stories. In doing so, the stories take on two levels: the surface level and the deeper, symbolic meaning.
A metaphor is a comparison of two generally unlike things but pointing out some similarity or connection between them. Metaphors are helpful in assisting the reader in making connections between things they know and things with which they may not be as familiar. Metaphors also help create imagery because the reader can envision the comparison and get a better mental image. Here are some examples of metaphors:
“Dad is the rock of our family.” He is not really a rock, but this comparison gives the reader the understanding that Dad must be the strength of the family, providing stability and a supportive foundation.
“The classroom was a zoo.” The room is probably not actually filled with animals, but, in the chaos of learning, it may have seemed “wild” and “untamed.”
“Cotton candy clouds drifted across the sky.” The clouds are not actually made out of cotton candy, but in this metaphor (which does not use a form of “to be” but is still a metaphor) the comparison is being made between the clouds and cotton candy so that the reader can “see” the delicate, puffy fluffs blowing across the sky.
Similes, like metaphors, compare two seemingly unlike things, but generally use a comparison word such as like or as to set up the comparison. Here are some examples of similes:
“The baby is as happy as a clam.” It’s hard to say who has determined that clams are happy, but the comparison of someone as being as happy as a clam is meant to suggest that they are quite content and perfectly happy.
“The company’s new president was like a breath of fresh air.” The implication of comparison here is that the new president was beneficial to the company and brought a fresh perspective that reenergized the organization.
“During the audition, Daryl was as cool as a cucumber.” Again, it’s a strange food source comparison, but the idea is that Daryl was calm, cool, and collected during the audition, not worried or anxious.
Personification is actually a type of metaphor whereby an author applies human qualities or characteristics to something that is non-human. This includes applying human feelings or thoughts to non-human or even non-living things. Here are some examples of personification:
“The ambulance came screaming down the street.” The verb screaming is usually an action reserved for people; people with lungs and a voice scream, but an inanimate object like an ambulance really can’t scream. Personifying the ambulance like this, however, helps the reader “hear” the noise as it comes down the street.
“The fields of grain waved in the wind.” Usually, we wave with our hands, which fields of grain don’t have. In this personification, though, the reader can envision the movement of the grain back and forth, as a hand moves back and forth when one waves.
“Larry could hear the shiny red car call his name.” The car probably didn’t say a word, but with this personification, the car gains a voice that can call to Larry.
“The fire ran wild across the dry prairie.” Without legs, running becomes a challenge. The fire did not magically grow legs and run, but the reader gets a sense of the quick speed of the fire as it spread across the dry vegetation with no containment or pattern.
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