Little Known Literary Terms

Want to analyze literature like a professor or write like a canonized author? I have a secret for you. Being able to analyze or write great works is like a recipe – it’s a combination of things that comes together to make one great meal if done right. What is this recipe?

One part gumption.
One part practice.
One part knowledge.

Mix these three things together, sprinkle liberally with salt, and there you have it – the ability to analyze or write great works. The end.

Oh, wait, I have to write more? Alright. So I can’t help you with gumption. Either you want it and you’ll work for it, or you won’t.

Practice is just setting aside time, turning off Netflix, and reading and writing a lot. A whole lot. More than you think you need to, and doing it every day. And, you know, maybe at the end of five, ten, fifteen years or even a lifetime, you’ll have pumped out some great literature that will be studied for eons to come, and probably more than a few great pieces of work along the way that many will appreciate. Or perhaps you’ll have a huge volume of notes on one great literary piece, like Moby Dick and have studied it from every possible angle, only to compose a book of criticism greater in size than the actual book itself.

And, finally, knowledge. This I can help you with. When I say knowledge, I’m referring to a very specific kind of knowledge. You don’t need to know how to bake a cake or fly a ship to mars, but you do need to know how to recognize different literary devices used in great literary works. Now, we all have some basics that have followed us from our high school classes into adulthood. I’m betting almost everyone knows what an allusion is (or, a reference from within a written work to another work, generally literary in nature, but can be sociological or cultural as well) or onomatopoeia (or, when a word represents and sounds like a sound – think of the word buzz or drip and the way they sound). We can all name the protagonist (or main character) of Harry Potter and other stories, and we can point and say who the antagonist (or character opposing the main character) of the same stories are.

Classic literature, like any works from Shakespeare, Spencer, Sidney (I’m on an S roll, don’t mind me) from the Early Modern Period (also called the Renaissance) from 1558-1603, were taught many rhetoric and literary devices in grade and middle school that many of us entering graduate programs in English haven’t heard of, let alone the general grade and middle school population.

This post is here to drop a little knowledge on you, and when I say a little, I do mean a little. I can’t cover an entire rhetoric course in one post, but I can share some literary terminology I find especially interesting. This is for you, reader that looked at a poem or play or something and went “Oh hey, they’re doing this cool thing with language, I wonder if it has a name?” because it totally does.


Definition: Assigning human characteristics to an animal. Think Aslan from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis or any of the animals from Animal Farm by George Orwell.


Definition: No, not ‘, but a speech addressed to an abstraction (like “History” or, in the case of many epics, a Greek muse) or someone not present. Mary Shelly, in her novel Frankenstein uses apostrophe in the following quote when addressing the stars, clouds, and winds:

Oh! Stars and clouds and winds, ye are all about to mock me; if ye really pity me, crush sensation and memory; let me become as nought; but if not, depart, depart, and leave me in darkness.


Definition: This German word roughly translates to “novel of education.” It is typically used to describe a story in which a young person grows from naïveté (yes, I totally just used a French word to define a German term) into an adult awareness of the world around them, generally through struggling to accept this new reality. The novel Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger is a perfect example of bildungsroman.


Definition: Bad poetry. No, really. This term is used to describe purposefully poor written poetry with no literary value. Shakespeare and other writers will often use doggerel to make puns. Heck, I did it the other day on a card for my boss:

Roses are red
and bees are buzzy
as a boss you make us feel
all warm and fuzzy

This poem has absolutely no literary value and its only intended purpose was to get a laugh out of my boss, which it did.


Definition: No, not euphemism. Thanks spell check, I know what I’m writing. Euphuism is a term used to describe a self-conscious style of writing that is laden with elaborate figures of speech. This, at one point in time, was considered stylish and a great way of showing off a writer’s knowledge of language and range of vocabulary, but today, we’d just consider it wordy and muddled. The Book of the Courtier written by Sir Thomas Hoby in 1561 and translated by Walter Raleigh in 1900, illustrates this style very well:

Thinkinge to write oute the communication that was had the fourth night after the other mentioned in the former bookes, I feele emong sundry discourses a bitter thought that gripeth me in my minde, and maketh me to call to remembraunce worldlie miseries and our deceitfull hopes, and how fortune many times in the verie middes of our race, otherwhile nighe the ende disapointeth our fraile and vaine pourposes, sometime drowneth them before they can once come to have a sight of the haven a farr of.

That is one sentence and it is long and full of figurative language. It’s most certainly elaborate, but it’s also most certainly challenging to read, especially with our modern style of discourse.

Homeric Epithet

Definition: A repetitive descriptive phrase. It’s called Homeric because Homer made use of such phrases all the time within his epic stories, like “rosy-fingered dawn” or “the wine-dark sea.”


Definition: An understatement created by a double negative. This was very popular in Anglo-Saxon works such as Beowulf. Litotes is pretty simple, and we do it all the time. No, that’s not an exaggeration. Not all literary terminology is horribly complex. See what I did there? Litotes.


Definition: A phrase that represents the whole of a subject by describing a single important feature of that subject. Think of the famous idiom by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Readers are not supposed to literally picture a pen and a sword fighting, and the sword losing to a pen. Instead, the pen represents the written word and its influence, stating that words have more influence than power, which is represented in this statement by a sword.

Pathetic Fallacy

Definition: This is similar to anthropomorphism, but instead of ascribing human emotions and agency to animals, one does it to inanimate objects. While this is a literary term, when I picture this, the movie The Brave Little Toaster pops into my head as the perfect example.

Again, these are just a few terms in the vast ocean of terminology out there to describe what’s happening on a language level within some of our favorite, classic novels. If you want to read, it helps to know these so you can understand what’s being used and how the author is controlling their text. If you want to write, these terms will help you know what tools you have at your disposal when it comes to executing your craft.


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