Literary terms - Dictionary of Literary Terms

The Right Word: A Writer's Toolkit of Grammar, Vocabulary and Literary Terms - Waldram Sarah 2021

Literary terms
Dictionary of Literary Terms

Every sentence, every word, was new to them and they listened to what he said like bright-eyed ravens, trembling in their eagerness to catch and interpret every sound in the universe.

Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon (1977)

’Literary terms’ is a way to describe a range of linguistic and stylistic features that writers employ in their work to enhance their writing. This might be for creative effect — to make their prose more interesting and absorbing, or to develop their poetic voice, or used to render a non-fiction account more understandable or persuasive.

The hundred plus terms in the list below puts a name to some literary and rhetorical devices you are probably employing in your work already and may introduce you to others that you might find helpful to expand your creative repertoire. Many are figurative features, such as those you probably first met at school, such as simile, metaphor and onomatopoeia, and are joined by those that might be less familiar, such as metonymy, synecdoche and zeugma. Each term is accompanied by a concise definition and sometimes an example or two of the term in context. These quotations are mostly drawn from literary texts — classics and more contemporary works. Collectively they highlight the richness of the English language: how it can be twisted and turned to strengthen any form of writing. Why do you need to know what each literary term or figure of speech is called? Well, you don’t: but as with the other parts of this book, there is much to learn here that helps enhance our understanding of vocabulary and its usage. Being interested in words and how words can shape our writing, how certain phrases or expressions might make our writing more fluent, or more poetic or more readable, is the very essence of the writer’s art. Some of the entries below are not strictly literary or rhetorical devices but are included as they form part of an author’s toolkit.

The date given in each quotation is the year of publication of the original source where known. Cross-references to other entries are shown in SMALL CAPS.

Morris Zapp went on to illustrate his thesis with a number of passages from classic English and American literature.

David Lodge, Small World (1984)



A popular saying or expression which conveys a shared and often repeated belief. It might be a PROVERB or an APHORISM or a MAXIM, but has a sense of universal truth about it: a phrase that has been handed down from one generation to the next as a piece of folklore whose origins are unknown (’too many cooks spoil the broth’, ’he who laughs last, laughs longest’). An adage, when used in a literary text, might suggest a universality and, because of its pithiness, might seem to be a well-known expression even if only recently coined. Like many turns of phrase, overuse can turn an adage into a hackneyed phrase or CLICHÉ.

Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.

Winston Groom, Forrest Gump (1986)


An articulation of the seeming inexpressibility of an idea or feeling or thing by explicitly stating that words are unable to describe it or by comparing it to something so vast that it is too great to be grasped. As such, it is akin to the sublime, when something eludes clear definition and HYPERBOLE, when something is extreme, beyond the possible.

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle,

than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

Mark’s Gospel, New Testament, chapter 10

He soon felt that the fulfillment of his desires gave him only one grain of the mountain of happiness he had expected.

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877)

Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision — he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath: ’the horror! The horror!’

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1899)


A story with a double meaning where one thing represents another to allow multiple interpretations beyond the literal or overt. It suggests some educative purpose, such as in the Fables of Aesop. Each tale has a moral message, told often through animal characters who take on human characteristics (see ANTHROPOMORHISM). For example, in his most famous tale, the steady tortoise wins a race against the flashy and arrogant hare to illustrate the ADAGE ’slow and steady wins the race’.

Allegory is used by writers in a cautiously veiled attempt to avoid direct criticism of a system or regime and thus official censure. One of the best-known literary and theological allegories is John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (published in two parts: 1678, 1684). The names for places and the stages in the pilgrimage that the protagonist Christian follows represent the religious life, as he navigates the City of Destruction to ascent to the Celestial City.

George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) is a political allegory criticising communist Russia; C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia are often read as religious allegory: Aslan represents Jesus or God, the White Witch evil or sin, and Edmund Judas.

There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane (for it had apparently grown again) stood Aslan himself.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950)


The repeated use of the same vowel or consonant, especially at the beginning of a series of words, to create a distinct rhythm. Dr Seuss’ ABC (1963) is packed full of alliterative phrases, such as: David Donald Doo dreamed a dozen doughnuts and a duck-dog, too. Alliteration is sometimes used for character names for comic effect or to make them memorable, for example: Milly-Molly-Mandy, Luna Lovegood, Harry Hole and is well-known in playground tongue-twisters such as that about fossil hunter Mary Anning: She sells seashells on the sea shore.

Gerard Manley Hopkins’ verse is suffused with rhythmic devices, including alliteration:

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

’Pied Beauty’ (1918)

As is the poetry of Wilfred Owen, where alliteration is used to capture the harsh brutalities of the First World War:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle

Can patter out their hasty orisons.

’Anthem for Doomed Youth’ (1920)


A reference which is (often) subtly implied, but which assumes the reader will comprehend, based on a shared understanding or knowledge of what is being alluded to. Authors might reference a person, an event or book in their work. Many common allusions are rooted in Greek mythology, such as ’Achilles’ heel’, or in fiction. We regularly use allusions in daily speech as a form of linguistic shorthand to convey a characteristic or attribute. A miserly individual is known as a ’Scrooge’ (Dickens’ A Christmas Carol) a capricious personality as a ’Jekyll and Hyde’ (R. L. Stevenson) and a womaniser as a ’Don Juan’ (Lord Bryon) or a ’Casanova’. An allusion can be an explicit nod to an historical character (proper noun), as in the last example, or an adjective that embodies a characteristic of the person referred to: someone who is narcissistic, machiavellian or quixotic. Allusions that are references to the Bible and Shakespeare abound, as you would expect from such long-standing, lengthy and linguistically rich sources.

Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World (1932) is drawn from a line in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1610—11):

Oh, wonder!

How many goodly creatures are there here!

How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,

That has such people in’t!

In his short story ’French Joe’ from his Collected Short Stories volume 4, W. Somerset Maugham (1963) makes allusions to an ’historical’ figure (Jack Robinson) and a biographer (Boswell):

’Now you sit down,’ she said, ’and I’ll make up the bed before you can say Jack Robinson.’

* * *

No, I have never read Boswell. I have not read books, I have lived.

The grimacing feline in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is alluded to here:

Montag stopped eating . . . he saw their Cheshire cat smiles burning through the walls of the house.

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)


Expanding a sentence to draw attention to or to exaggerate or intensify an aspect of a story or argument. An example that carries profound bleakness is John Milton’s depiction of Samson’s blindness, and thus his own, in Samson Agonistes (1671):

O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon,

Irrecoverably dark, total eclipse

Without all hope of day!

Altogether more upbeat, is Roald Dahl’s insistent description of the gum-chewing Violet Beauregarde — which ultimately proves to be her undoing:

’I just adore gum. I can’t do without it. I munch it all day long except for a few minutes at mealtimes when I take it out and stick it behind my ear for safekeeping. To tell you the truth, I simply wouldn’t feel comfortable if I didn’t have that little wedge of gum to chew on every moment of the day, I really wouldn’t.’

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964)


A comparison between two similar things used to illustrate an argument or explanation. These things might not be in any obvious sense similar, but figuratively might be drawn together to highlight a specific characteristic or sentiment.

There is no frigate like a book

To take us lands away

Nor any coursers like a page

Of prancing poetry

Emily Dickinson,

’There is no Frigate like a Book’ (1894)


One or more words repeated sequentially or consecutively, especially at the beginning of a series of statements, to attract the reader’s attention.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

Which is itself alluded to at the start of Autumn (see ALLUSION):

It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.

Ali Smith (2017)


The retelling or recounting of a personal story or experience, often to reference a specific event from which to extrapolate a broader point. It is used frequently in non-fiction to make a text more intimate or engrossing, more relevant or practical. In fiction, it can be used, for example in dialogue, as a mini story to fill-in a character’s back story or help develop plot or demonstrate an aspect of their personality. In the case of Lydia Bennet, the anecdotes she recounts to her sisters reveal her giddy and gossipy nature:

’Do you know, mamma, that my uncle Philips talks of turning away Richard? And if he does, Colonel Forster will hire him. My aunt told me so herself on Saturday. I shall walk to Meryton to-morrow to hear more about it, and to ask when Mr. Denny comes back from town.’

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)


Swapping one part of speech in a way that is not grammatically correct, for example replacing a verb with a noun for metaphorical effect.

Let me not suppose that she dares go about, Emma Woodhouse-ing me!

Jane Austen, Emma (1815)

The thunder would not peace at my bidding.

William Shakespeare, King Lear (c.1606)


Animals, objects or other non-human beings are given human characteristics and portrayed as though they were human. This is a common TROPE in children’s literature or in allegorical works (see ALLEGORY), for example in Dodie Smith’s One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1956), the story is told through the voice of the dalmatian Pongo, who displays human attributes as he gently makes fun of his non-canine master.

As far as I could see, the old notion that a bachelor’s life was so glamorous and carefree was all nonsense. It was downright dull.

In Watership Down (1972), Richard Adams imbues his cast of rabbit characters with distinct personalities and humour:

’Captain,’ said Bluebell, ’do you know what the first blade of grass said to the second blade of grass?’ Hazel looked at him sharply, but Holly replied, ’Well?’ ’It said, ’’Look, there’s a rabbit! We’re in danger!’’

Richard Adams, Watership Down (1972)

Death is anthropomorphised in this example:

Where are my manners? I could introduce myself properly, but it’s not really necessary. You will know me well enough and soon enough, depending on a diverse range of variables. It suffices to say that at some point in time, I will be standing over you, as genially as possible.

Markus Zusak, The Book Thief (2005)


When words or phrases in one part of a sentence are inverted and used in the second part. Such as in these poetic asides from Maggie Gee’s The Burning Book (1983):

Look as you would be done by: be done by as you look.

’do as you would be done by, be done as you did’

* * *

This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

Winston Churchill (1942)


Where a word is used opposite to its actual meaning and thus is a form of IRONY. For example, Little John (Robin Hood’s largest companion) or describing an enemy as a ’friend’.

’Hello, Harry’ said George, beaming at him. ’We thought we heard your dulcet tones.’

’You don’t want to bottle up your anger like that, Harry, let it all out,’ said Fred, also beaming. ’There might be a couple of people fifty miles away who didn’t hear you.’

J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003)


Placing two opposites alongside each another to highlight their differences to create a contrasting effect or to emphasise a point or argument based on such contrast.

Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.

John Milton, ’Paradise Lost’ Book 1 (1667)

’Tis better to have loved and lost

Than never to have loved at all.

Alfred Lord Tennyson, ’In Memoriam’ (1850)

So instead of turning myself into a metropolitan adult, I ended up recreating my suburban adolescence.

Nicky Hornby, Fever Pitch (1992)


This has several meanings. Either an epithet or title used in place of a person’s actual name, such as The Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon for Shakespeare or The High Priestess of Soul for Nina Simone. Or a more indirect description, such as Victor Frankenstein’s references to the creature he has made:

I beheld the wretch — the miserable monster whom I had created.

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818)

It also describes a noun that encapsulates an individual’s qualities which are similar to those of a well-known character or real-life person. For example, a Judas is someone not to be trusted or who might betray another. See also METONYMY.


A short statement which is intended to summarise an accepted truth in a distinctively clever or witty way. The opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice is a universally acknowledged example.

Some aphorisms might not be evidence-based and thus not truths as such, but are assertions which suggest they are truisms.

Tall, thin people need a lot to eat.

Eva Ibbotson, One Dog and His Boy (2011)

All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (1954)

There’s nothing as scary as the future.

John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989)


A fable or short story which is intended to teach a moral lesson, often using animals as characters. See also ALLEGORY and anthropomorphism.


Asserting or emphasising something by denying it or stating that it will not be mentioned. This is also known as paralipsis. It can be used in fiction, where a character provides some historical or plot detail that the author may wish the reader to know.

’Ssh’ said Grace Makutsi putting a finger to her lips. ’It’s not polite to talk about it SO I don’t mention the Double Comfort Furniture Shop which is one of the businesses my fiancé owns you know. I must not talk about that. But do you know the store Mma?’

Alexander McCall Smith, Blue Shoes and Happiness (2006)


An expression of insincere doubt, when a speaker pretends not to know the answer to (an often RHETORICAL) QUESTION and then may proceed to answer it or expect the reader or audience to contemplate a possible response. Hamlet’s ’To be, or not to be’ soliloquy is one of the best-known examples. The plays of Samuel Beckett are full of such questions and indecisions.

Where now? Who now? When now? Unquestioning. I, say I. Unbelieving. Questions, hypotheses, call them that. Keep going, going on, call that going, call that on.

opening lines of The Unnamable (1953)

It is sometimes used as a synonym for PARADOX, when a statement contradicts itself.

I’m intelligent. Some people would say I’m very, very, very intelligent.

Donald Trump, Fortune (2000)


This is where a sentence ends abruptly, where a character is unable to continue coherently or reach a conclusion, where their speech or thoughts trail off. It can be used to highlight moments of drama or emotion. It is frequently indicated by three-dot-ellipsis or a dash.

She looked perplexed for a moment, and then said, not fiercely, but still loud enough for the furniture to hear:

’Well, I lay if I get hold of you I’ll —’

She did not finish, for by this time she was bending down and punching under the bed with the broom . . .

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)

’I know there isn’t no beast — not with claws and all that, I mean — but I know there isn’t no fear, either.’

Piggy paused.

’Unless —’

William Golding, Lord of the Flies (1954)


A noun or noun phrase which provides additional information about another noun or noun phrase in the same sentence.

Gussie, a glutton for punishment, stared at himself in the mirror.

P. G. Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves (1934)


An out-of-use word or phrase originating from an earlier time period. Sometimes used to suggest a character’s old-fashioned ways, in particular to poke fun at them or in historical novels to provide authenticity as to the ways in which people in history spoke. Too much ’authentic’ dialogue might slow a story down and make it less engaging: it’s a matter of balance. An obsolete word is one that has fallen out of usage altogether; an archaic word is one that is old-fashioned or antiquated and not much used other than for deliberate stylistic effect. You may encounter terms and phrases in works that were written centuries ago — which were stock phrases when they were used but which have little currency for a modern reader. Thus, the need, for example, of notes and glosses in editions of Chaucer, Shakespeare or Milton.

I love thee and thou art so lovely and so wonderful and so beautiful and it does such things to me to be with thee that I feel as though I wanted to die when I am loving thee.

Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940)

— set during the Spanish Civil War though reflecting romantic prose of an earlier period

I subsided into one of my glooms. . . . my spirits instantly revived and, on the day in question, at just after two o’clock, I walked over to Trafalgar-square and stationed myself at the foot of the Gallery’s steps.

Michael Cox, The Meaning of Night (2006)

— crime novel set in Victorian London


A universal idea or image or person which serves as a common example or representation and is recognisable because of its frequent use. See also ALLUSION and ANTONOMASIA.

she certainly loved him as he was, neither a Michelin Man nor an ageing Adonis, his legs were his best physical asset, a walker all his life . . .

Bernardine Evaristo, Girl, Woman, Other (2019)

If Lee began to be the cliché, the woman-next-door, Tony Wagener was the archetype of the man-next-door (formerly the nice-boy-next-door) whom the average girl would be lucky to marry. He was healthy, attractive, good-natured, age twenty-five, and he couldn’t take his eyes off Lee.

Patricia Highsmith, ’Things Had Gone Badly’ in Nothing that Meets the Eye: The Uncollected Stories (2002)


The repeated use of the same vowel sounds to create a distinct rhythmic pattern, to set a mood or reiterate the meaning of words.

Soft language issued from their spitless lips as they swished in low circles round and round the field, winding hither and thither through the weeds.

James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)

In the stormy east-wind straining,

The pale yellow woods were waning,

The broad stream in his banks complaining,

Heavily the low sky raining

Over tower’d Camelot;

Alfred Lord Tennyson, ’The Lady of Shalott’ (1842)


Writing stripped down to its crucial meaning and essentials, where, for example, conjunctions or pronouns are omitted. This can be used for dramatic effect, to give pace to a narrative, to create tension or atmosphere. Where repeatedly employed it might become a distinctive and arresting aspect of a writer’s style, as in this pared-back description of an American landscape:

Montana, portrait to landscape, the kind of open that was almost too much to breathe in.

Chris Whitaker, We Begin at the End (2020)


The listing of concepts or things in their ascending order of importance.

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea, But sad mortality o’er-sways their power,

William Shakespeare, ’Sonnet 65’ (1609)

His own tastes were precise, narrow, and somewhat specialist.

A. S. Byatt, Possession (1990)



Originally a term coined by poet Alexander Pope to describe (and mock) the writing of his fellow poets; an unintentional attempt to create an elevated expression but failing to do so. It is characterised by abruptly turning from a serious point to a trivial one. Synonymous with anti-climax, a deliberate transition from the sublime to the ridiculous, typically for comic effect.

Here thou, great Anna! whom three realms obey,

Dost sometimes counsel take — and sometimes tea.

Alexander Pope, ’The Rape of the Lock’ (1712)

It can also create a more serious mood, in this case one of deflation.

Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family

Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines,

cars, Compact Disc players, electrical tin openers . . .

Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting (1993)



A series of conflicting sounds used together to create an inharmonious rhythm; the opposite of EUPHONY.

When our brother Fire was having his dog’s day

Jumping the London streets with millions of tin cans

Clanking at his tail, we heard some shadows say

’Give the dog a bone’ - and so we gave him ours;

Louis MacNeice, ’Brother Fire’ (1943)


Where the grammatical structure of one phrase or sentence is repeated in a second phrase or sentence where a related concept appears in reverse order. Used to persuade and move a reader or audience. It differs from antimetabole when the inversion is of repeated words or phrases.

Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.

John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address (1961)

. . . In his face

Divine compassion visibly appeerd,

Love without end, and without measure Grace,

John Milton, ’Paradise Lost’ Book 3 (1667)


A circuitous and indirect style of writing which uses far more words than are necessary for sense and comprehension. Such literary ’going round the houses’ may be used to illustrate the meandering loquaciousness (VERBOSITY) of a character. Kenneth Widmerpool in Anthony Powell’s twelve-novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time is a good example of a character who uses several words when one might do and so highlights his own pomposity when decrying that of others for satirical effect.

’The point I put forward is that the normal course of action would result in a vast deal of letter-writing between Messrs Turnbull, Welford & Puckering, Messrs Quiggin & Craggs, Messrs Goodness-knows-who-else, I propose to cut across that. [. . .] I’ve developed a positive mania these days against pushing paper. Man-to-man. That’s the way. Cut corners. I fear pomposity is not one of my failings. I can’t put up with pompous people, and have often been in trouble on that very account.’

Books do Furnish a Room (1971)


A common phrase which has been repeated so often that it has lost any sincere or impactful meaning. It might be used deliberately to shine light on a character’s speech patterns, personality or as a form of shorthand that readers will be familiar with. Best avoided in most cases. It is a mainstay of journalistic prose: one way to get a story across concisely in a way that most readers will comprehend.

Roald’s letters reveal how seminal this moment was for him . . . And certainly the stars were on Roald’s side. He was in the right place at the right time.

Donald Sturrock (ed), Love from Boy:

Roald Dahl’s Letters to His Mother (2017)


The repetition of the same consonant sounds framing different vowel sounds (note the ’s’ sound in ’uncertain’ and ’rustling’ in the line below).

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain

Edgar Allan Poe, ’The Raven’ (1845)


A confusing or amusing riddle which is often answered with a PUN. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll (1865), the Mad Hatter poses a riddle ’Why is a raven like a writing desk?’ which has no answer. (Though Carroll was persuaded to provide a response in the Preface to later printings.)

To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job. To summarize the summary of the summary: people are a problem.

Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980)



The repetition of a word or words in a sentence, with other words dropped in between; used for emphasis or to enhance a description.

If you knew Time like I know time you wouldn’t talk about wasting it. Time is not an ’it’, It’s a ’him’. So there!

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)

The girl and the boy outside, they look at each other and they hurry away down the road, and when they turn the corner the street is empty and quiet again.

The street is empty and quiet and still, the light is brightening, shadows hardening, the haze of dawn burning away.

Jon McGregor, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things (2002)


A deviation in a story which is not strictly relevant to the main plot but which is used deliberately for literary effect, for example to highlight certain attributes of a character.

digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine; - they are the life, the soul of reading

Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy (1759)


An arrangement of cacophonous or discordant sounds to create a harsh and jarring effect. See also cacophony.


A double of a person, either as a vision or as a twin or look-alike, which is used to show an alternative, often darker, side of a character. For example, Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde (two personalities in one body).

I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both.

Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll

and Mr. Hyde (1886)


Language which is purposefully vague or attempting to disguise or distort meaning. We are used to politicians deliberately circumnavigating questions posed of them. Double-speak is calculated avoidance of truth, unlike EUPHEMISM which is used to avoid a direct reference often to avoid conflict or distress.

In 1984 George Orwell (1948) coins the term ’doublethink’ which is his literary version of double-speak: the rulers of Oceania brainwash their population with contradictory pronouncements such as ’War is Peace’, ’Freedom is Slavery’, ’Ignorance is Strength’.


A conversation between two characters, or a play with only two speaking characters. Willy Russell’s play Educating Rita (1980) is a conversation between university tutor Frank and student Rita; all other characters are off-stage.



A short, often witty statement to praise, commemorate or mock, often used as an inscription at the start of a book or chapter. It’s a device that writers frequently employ to indicate some influence on their own writing or to FORESHADOW an action or theme that characterises the novel or chapter that follows. Epigrams range from a direct nod to a book’s title:

Oh, lucky Jim,

How I envy him,

Oh, lucky Jim,

How I envy him.


Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim (1954)

To the more erudite:

πάντα χωρεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει

Everything changes and nothing remains still.

PLATO, Cratylus

Kate Atkinson, Life After Life (2013)

Or the not immediately decipherable (unless you read Dutch):

Alle molens vangen wind

Annie Proulx, That Old Ace in the Hole (2002)


Successive phrases or sentences where the final word is repeated.

When I was a child,

I spoke as a child,

I understood as a child,

I thought as a child.

Walt Whitman, ’Song of Myself’ from Leaves of Grass (1855)


An adjective or description used to qualify a specifically named person or thing, that captures their most admired or despised qualities and is universally the way they are referred to. An epithet often becomes a de facto ’nickname’ for the person or object and can appear directly before or after the name: Catherine the Great or Ivan the Terrible.


The protagonist or character whose name is also given to the title of a work: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Anne of Green Gables, Moby Dick, Matilda, Pippi Longstocking. A Place Called Winter (Patrick Gale) and The Little House on the Prairie (Laura Ingles Wilder) are references to places, which are at the heart of the respective novels and take on a character of their own. See also PERSONIFICATION.


Language which is deliberately ambiguous to hide or skirt around the truth. It can be useful as a plot device to cause the reader or a character to uncover information during the course of a narrative which is initially kept from them. Akin to DOUBLE-SPEAK and CIRCUMLOCUTION.


A seemingly harmless word or phrase with a second meaning which is considered impolite or inappropriate or might wish to convey a less literal meaning in a subtle way. Some of literature’s best examples have thinly veiled erotic sub-texts, as in John Donne’s metaphysical love poem ’The Flea’ (1633) in which a humble flea is the poetic conceit for a passionate seduction:

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,

How little that which thou deniest me is;

It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,

And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;

Thou know’st that this cannot be said

A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,

Euphemisms are much loved by the British in everyday speech as well as in factual commentary; a spade is not always called a spade, particularly when referring to illness and death (’passed away’, ’kicked the bucket’, ’is pushing up daisies’). In prose it might be used to deal with a sensitive subject in a tactful way. The dialogue of characters in novels might be equally restrained and the meaning conveyed through socially acceptable terms that reflect the status of the individual and mores of the time.

Euphemisms can also be used to side-step truths, in particular when uttered by a politician who is attempting to divert attention from an event, pronouncement or disastrous policy or to keep actual facts from being revealed. ’I’m standing down to spend more time with my family’ is usually seen as code for some shenanigans that might bring their office into disrepute, which is itself code for an ex-marital affair. In such cases it could be seen as an example of (massive) understatement.


A series of complementary sounds, usually vowels or soft consonants, which flow together and create a smooth rhythm.

Seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

John Keats, ’To Autumn’ (1820)


An outburst of speech or emotion.

Be with me always - take any form - drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! it is unutterable! I can not live without my life! I can not live without my soul!

Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847)


A thorough analysis of a point, often a digression which can be found in an appendix or footnote. In The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (2003), the protagonist Christopher uses footnotes to amplify aspects of the story he narrates which tells the reader things that are not revealed in the main text. As a device they also illustrate Christopher’s autism:

I do not like proper novels. In proper novels people say things like, ’I am veined with iron, with silver and with streaks of common mud. I cannot contract into the firm fist which those clench who do not depend on stimulus.’1

. . .

1I found this book in the library in town when Mother took me into town once.


An example or model or anecdote told to explain or teach a moral lesson. See parable.


Information which is intended to set up the beginning of a narrative and provide any background, history or context necessary for the reader’s understanding about the setting, period or characters in the story.

In the small hours of a blustery October morning in a south Devon coastal town that seemed to have been deserted by its inhabitants, Magnus Pym got out of his elderly country taxi-cab and, having paid the driver and waited till he had left, struck out across the church square. His destination was a terrace of ill-lit Victorian boarding-houses . . . In build he was powerful and stately, a representative of something. His stride was agile, his body forward-sloping in the best tradition of the Anglo-Saxon administrative class.

John le Carré, A Perfect Spy (1986)

extended metaphor

A METAPHOR which is sustained throughout a piece of writing and is returned to several times in order to extend or add depth to the comparison or meaning.

Karla had tried this once or twice — scrunching her eyes shut, and picturing the silent struggle for life that was beginning somewhere within: the clamorous tadpole horde racing through the darkness of the cervical canal; the egg in its pink fallopian boudoir, languorously awaiting its courtiers. But at some point, the positive images always got hijacked by negative ones. . . [t]he egg would turn out to be ensnared, like a fairy-tale princess, within an impassable thicket of endometrial scar tissue.

Zoë Heller, The Believers (2008)



A short story rooted in a moral lesson, often using animals as characters with human characteristics. See also ALLEGORY.

I could end this with a moral, as if this were a fable about animals, though no fables are really about animals.

Margaret Atwood, The Tent (2006)


Writing which relies on SIMILES, METAPHORS and other FIGURES OF SPEECH.

The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen. The sun low in the sky, a minor light, a cooling star. Gust after gust of disorder. Trees restless, temperatures falling, the whole northern religion of things coming to an end.

opening lines of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (2001)

figure of speech

A figurative phrase whose meaning is separate from the literal definitions of the words which compose it, for example a METAPHOR or SIMILE. Used to embellish text to make it more poetic or atmospheric or vividly absorbing.

His waistcoat was tight as a corset, a small fan of creases, like crow’s-feet, on either side of the row of buttons.

William Boyd, The New Confessions (1987)

The heat, which had declined a little at the coming of the rains, grew more oppressive than ever. At night a clamour of frogs and crickets arose and this diabolical piping served to string nerves which were already humming tight a little tighter.

J. G. Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur (1973)

first-person narrative

Writing from the perspective of a real or fictional ’I’ who recounts their experiences. It can make the tone of a novel more immediate and intimate for the reader: they see things from the narrator’s perspective.

Almost everyone in heaven has someone on Earth they watch, a loved one, a friend or even a stranger who was once kind, who offered warm food or a bright smile when one of us had needed it. And when I wasn’t watching I could hear the others talking to those they loved on Earth: just as fruitlessly as me, I’m afraid.

Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones (2002)


An interruption to chronological storytelling which interjects a scene from an earlier time, either in the recent past or further back, which impacts on the story being told, for example by revealing something from a character’s past which might explain their current actions or feelings.

He lay in his coffin-bed and tried to cover himself with a blanket of recollection. He took himself to the Wiltshire lanes and woods of his childhood. He carried a butterfly net. Ahead of him — always running on ahead . . .

Rose Tremain, Islands of Mercy (2020)


When a writer gives hints in the early part of a novel about plot or themes to follow in order to create suspense and anticipation. Courage to do the right thing is a major theme in To Kill a Mockingbird and is introduced early in the novel when Atticus Finch says to his children:

I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.

Harper Lee (1960)



A flaw or failure in a character, that they themselves are not usually able to see, that leads to his or her downfall. Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (Tennessee Williams, 1947) or Willy Lomax in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949) are examples of tragic heroes who self-destruct. Blanche’s tragic flaw is her propensity to choose unsuitable partners, her inability to escape events from her past, and psychological problems that have devasting consequences.

* * *

All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby-Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.

Herman Melville, Moby Dick (1851)


A piece of writing intended to honour or commemorate a person or event; writing which imitates the style of an acclaimed writer in celebration of and deference to their work. Fan fiction is an example of homage. Borrowings from earlier writers is a well-worn activity. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1392) includes reworkings of stories from Boccaccio, Petrarch and medieval treatises, fables and folk tales. The pilgrims’ tales have themselves been retold or refashioned by writers to reflect modern concerns.

Here begynneth the Migrant his tale.


In Syria once upon a time dwelt a company of rich merchants, trustworthy and true.


We are sitting on the second floor of a corner office in Birmingham. This is an area of white shirts and Pink Floyd streets. Metal blinds are all down.

Dragan Todorovic, ’The Migrant’s Tale’ from Refugee Tales (2016)

Homage is a positive nod to an earlier writer’s oeuvre. pastiche is less complimentary.


Two or more words which sound the same but are spelt differently and have different meanings, for example ’would’ and ’wood’, ’flower’ and ’flour’. A type of PUN or WORDPLAY.

His death, which happen’d in his berth,

At forty-odd befell:

They went and told the sexton, and

The sexton toll’d the bell.

Thomas Hood, ’Faithless Sally Brown’ (1843)


Where words are arranged in an unexpected way that upends the usual grammatical order. Typified by the way Yoda (in ’The Empire Strikes Back) speaks.

Much to learn, you still have.


Exaggeration intended to emphasise and highlight, and which strays into the realm of untruth, something not to be understood literally as gospel. Though Aston Villa supporters may disagree, as for them the text below is less a matter of opinion and more a statement of fact.

Whatever any other club might think, the greatest friendly of all time took place on February 21st 1972, when 54,437 paid the club receipts of £35,000 to see Third Division Villa take on Santos, captained by Pele.

Dave Woodhall, The Aston Villa Miscellany (2008)



A common phrase whose meaning is not literal and is specific to the language it originates from, for example ’as fit as a fiddle’.

In John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1937), Lennie asks George (and it’s a repeated question and theme throughout the novel):

’How long’s it gonna be till we get the little place an’ live off the fatta the lan’ — an tend the rabbits?’

* * *

And take your father and your households, and come unto me: and I will give you the good of the land of Egypt, and ye shall eat the fat of the land.

from ’Genesis’, King James’ Version of the Bible


Descriptions used to represent and recreate impressions, surroundings and experiences.

It came to him that if he could recall more than a scant few genuine acts of kindness in his life, then these might act as a kind of guide-rail on which he could lean when the weather of self-loathing blew in.

Rose Tremain, Islands of Mercy (2020)


A phrase which is not meant literally but which insinuates a hidden and usually insulting or sexualised meaning. See EUPHEMISM.


Writing which is intended to disparage or denounce, abuse or insult a person, thing or idea. Dorothy Parker was renowned for her wit, her satirical prose and verse and for her withering one-liners. In ’Godmother’ (1928) she subverts a traditional happy christening, as the eponymous narrator addresses the newborn:

I give her sadness,

And the gift of pain,

The new-moon madness,

And the love of rain.


Sarcasm, where one thing is meant but the opposite is said or done, used for humorous or exaggerated effect. A comedic or poignant difference between what a character is saying and doing in the present and what will later occur. Dramatic irony is when a reader recognises this inconsistency before a character does.

Nobody can tell what I suffer! But it is always so. Those who do not complain are never pitied.

spoken by Mrs Bennet; Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

Nobody heard him, the dead man,

But still he lay moaning:

I was much further out than you thought

And not waving but drowning.

Stevie Smith ’Not Waving but Drowning’ from New Selected Poems (1988)



Where two things are placed together to create a contrast or invite comparison.

’The difficulty is,’ Mother said, ’that Mr Tobias is a restless man and wants to see the world, while I intend to remain here for the whole of my life and never go away.

Ruth Rendell, The Crocodile Bird (1993)

Sun and moon, rise and fall: the well-worn wheels of nature that in Florida impinge where beach meets sea are in Pennsylvania muffled, softened, sedimented over, clothed in the profoundly accustomed.

John Updike, Rabbit at Rest (1990)



An understated or IRONIC figure of speech in which an idea or thing is emphasised by rejecting its opposite, for example ’You won’t be sorry’ to convey satisfaction or pleasure.

Indeed, it is not uncommon for slaves even to fall out and quarrel among themselves about the relative goodness of their masters.

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845)



The misuse of words for humorous effect, named after Mrs Malaprop in R. B. Sheridan’s The Rivals (1775): We will not anticipate the past, our retrospection will now be all to the future.

I am sitting on the steps mending my bike when Miss S. emerges for her evening stroll. ’I went to Devon on Saturday,’ she said. ’On this frisbee.’ I suppose she means freebie, a countrywide concession to pensioners that BR ran last weekend.

Alan Bennett, The Lady in the Van (1989)


A short statement which conveys a general principle, truth or lesson. See also APHORISM.

Never trouble trouble, till trouble troubles you.

Katie Fforde, Second Thyme Around (1999)

However forward-looking we may all pretend to be, humanity is far more interested in its past than the future.

John Mortimer, Rumpole on Trial (1992)


An exaggerated or extreme statement lessened or undermined by a successive statement which suggests a changed mind or a calmed emotion.

He who binds to himself a Joy

Does the winged life destroy;

But he who kisses the Joy as it flies

Lives in eternity’s sunrise.

William Blake, ’Eternity’


Where one thing is said to be another to invite comparison or emphasise a similarity. The title of Maya Angelou’s autobiography is a metaphor: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) (see also SYMBOLISM), one she extends through the book:

To describe my mother would be to write about a hurricane in its perfect power. Or the climbing, falling colors of a rainbow.

* * *

Who had they been, all these mothers and sisters and wives? What were they now? Moons, blank and faceless, gleaming with borrowed light, each spinning loyally around a bigger sphere.

Frances Hardinge, The Lie Tree (2015)

I found myself in a sea in which the waves of joy and sorrow were clashing against each other.

Naguib Mahfouz, Echoes of an Autobiography (1997)

His head flicked round on his thin lizard neck as he took in the position of the field.

L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between (1953)


A recognisable or inherent aspect of a thing used to represent the thing itself, for example a businessman being referred to as a ’suit’, the monarchy as the Crown, or newspapers collectively as the Press.


An acronym used as a memory aid, for example ’Will a jolly man make a jolly visitor’ is a prompt to recall the first eight Presidents of the USA: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Adams, Jackson, Van Buren. A mnemonic might sometimes be necessary to recall the spelling of a ’difficult’ word: never eat cucumber, eat salmon sandwiches and remain young.


An idea or image which recurs throughout a piece of writing.



The embodiment of a punishment often presented as an antagonist or enemy. Professor Moriarty is the arch enemy or nemesis of detective Sherlock Holmes in some of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, explicit in the title of John Gardner’s 1974 novel: The Return of Moriarty: Sherlock Holmes’ Nemesis Lives Again. See also DOPPLEGÄNGER.


A word which has newly entered the language or an existing word which has developed a new or alternative meaning.

A recent example of the former is plandemic and of the latter uplift: first used as a compound noun in 1845 in a poem by Nathaniel Parker Willis and adopted by geologists with reference to land movement.

Have you been taken in by the “plandemic”? This pun encapsulates the suspicious notion that Covid-19 was not a natural accident.

(31 October 2020)

When first asked to extend free school meals over the holidays, the British government pointed to its “uplift” to universal credit of £20 per week.

(7 November 2020)

both by Steve Poole, ’Word of the Week’, in the Guardian


omniscient narrator

A narrator who is all-knowing and oversees the entire story, meaning that they have information which is being withheld from one or more characters but which they share with the reader. See also third-person narrative.

Amy was having hard times at Aunt March’s. She felt her exile deeply, and for the first time in her life, realized how much she was beloved and petted at home. Aunt March never petted any one; she did not approve of it, but she meant to be kind, for the well—behaved little girl pleased her very much, and Aunt March had a soft place in her old heart for her nephew’s children, though she didn’t think it proper to confess it.

Louisa M. Alcott, Little Women (1868)


Words which imitate the sounds they represent, for example ’click’ and ’clack’, or the use of consonant sounds to mimic the sound they are describing, for example to create the rhythm of high heels on a wooden floor.

tattarrattat: to describe the sound of a knock on the door.

James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)

All the time, there was the deafening zsh, zsh, zsh of the rotor-blades.

Andy McNab, Bravo Two Zero (1993)


A phrase which joins contradictory words to create a paradox, for example ’pretty ugly’.

As for believing things, I can believe anything, provided that it is quite incredible.

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Grey (1890)

The Government plans to unleash creative destruction on the civil service.

The Economist (October 2020)



A word (e.g. noon) or phrase which reads the same forward and backward, for example borrow or rob or Able was I ere I saw Elba (attributed to Napoleon).


A short story which teaches a lesson or moral, similar to a FABLE or ALLEGORY. Associated with biblical lessons in the New Testament, for example the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke, chapter 10), whose moral is love everyone not just your friends.


A statement which seems to contradict itself, but which nevertheless conveys a truth or opinion.

You will have freedom of action—and you will be under strict discipline to the committee.

Ralph Waldo Emerson Invisible Man (1952)

parallel structure

Repeating the same pattern or structure of words or sentences.

After generation upon generation, fathers upon forefathers, mothers upon foremothers [...]

Anna Burns, Milkman (2018)

She also knows that this smell, this rotten scent, is not a physical thing. It means something, It is a sign of something — something bad, something amiss, something out of kilter in her house.

Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet (2020)


Where sets of words or phrases are opposed but balanced, such as ’out of sight’ and ’out of mind’.

Many are called but few are chosen.

Eat out to help out.

* * *

You forget what you want to remember, and you remember what you want to forget.

Cormac McCarthy, The Road (2006)


To simplify or shorten a complicated or longer text in order to provide a more comprehensible version. For example the condensing of a legal, technical or scientific text for a lay audience.


A comic or mocking imitation of the style of a writer.

In this example, Larkin provides a less romanticised view of the past than the earlier poet Hood.

I remember, I remember,

The house where I was born,

The little window where the sun

Came peeping in at morn;

He never came a wink too soon,

Nor brought too long a day,

Thomas Hood, ’I Remember, I Remember’ (1844)

’You look as though you wished the place in Hell,’

My friend said, ’judging from your face.’ ’Oh well,

I suppose it’s not the place’s fault,’ I said.

Philip Larkin, ’I Remember, I Remember’ (1954)


A piece of writing which is a combination of words, phrases and passages taken from another writer or writers. A form of PARODY.

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,

John Masefield, ’Sea Fever’ (1902)

I must go out to the shed again for another bucket of coal.

For some fur-lined boots and an anorak I would sell my soul.

Jeremy Nicholas, ’Snow Fever’ (1987)

pathetic fallacy

Attributing human emotions to things in nature, particularly evident in poetic description, such as in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ’Maud’ (1855) in which The red rose cries . . . / And the white rose weeps . . . / And the lily whispers.

Weather can be used to reflect a person’s mood:

Though the walk home took forever, I don’t remember much about it except a certain gray, cold, rain-shrouded mood on Madison Avenue—umbrellas bobbing, the crowds on the sidewalk flowing silently downtown . . .

Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch (2013)


A piece of writing which evokes acute feelings of sympathy or sadness.

Dickens’ novels provide plenty of examples. The reader is asked to sympathise with downtrodden characters such as Little Nell, Tiny Tim, Smike and Paul Dombey.

For not an orphan in the wide world can be so deserted as the child who is an outcast from a living parent’s love.

Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son (1848)

She wants to see someone. To speak to someone. Someone from another lifetime. Someone who made her feel safe.

Anna Hope, Expectation (2019)


Lectures or teachings while ’on the hoof’, delivered whilst ’walking up and down’, for example John Wesley’s sermons.


The character or identity taken on by a writer of a work, embodied in the narration.

In Never Let Me Go (2005), Kazuo Ishiguro’s narrator is Kathy. She has an intimate, chatty voice, speaking directly to the reader:

I don’t know how it was where you were, but at Hailsham the guardians were really strict about smoking.


An idea, or event presented as a human operation; adopting human attributes. See also anthropomorphism.

But, look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,

Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill.

William Shakespeare, Hamlet (1603)

I suppose he was fifty but to me he seemed hopelessly old and utterly out of the picture: it was as though Father Time had come down with his scythe to take a turn at the wicket.

L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between (1953)


A phrase in common use employed to restore peace or calm emotion, but which has become meaningless and CLICHÉD from overuse.

Let sleeping dogs lie.

It’s all water under the bridge.


The redundant use of extra words which repeat rather than expand meaning, such as burning fire or this is a really new innovation.


The repetition of a word, or its root, with a different grammatical application each time.

I look. But you are not looking at me. You don’t need to look at me for the same reason God don’t look at man. For one look and may eye would burn out of him skull, burn to nothing, not even a speck, not a dot, less than that.

Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014)

portmanteau word

The combination of two existing words to create a new one, for example brunch or Britpop.

The sun-wind, the breeze that blows almost every summer day in the Aegean, sent little waves curling like lazy whips along the shingle.

John Fowles, The Magus (1966)


Similar to FORESHADOWING, using signs, warnings or omens to suggest that something (usually negative) is going to happen soon.

When I was little, four or five, my greatest fear was that some day my mother might not come home from work.

Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch (2013)


Wit and wisdom from ’ordinary’ people and their experiences or observations.

Too many cooks spoil the broth.


Many hands make light work.


A play on words; see also HOMOPHONE.

If he do bleed, I’ll gild the faces of the grooms withhal, for it must seem their guilt.

William Shakespeare, Macbeth (1606)



A quick, often witty phrase or retort to something said.

True friends stab you in the front.

Oscar Wilde

’Gut?’’General Unified Theory.’ Kohler quipped. ’The theory of everything.’

Dan Brown, Angels and Demons (2000)


A phrase or passage taken from and attributed to another piece of writing or speech. A good example of a quote that is also an epigram, is the opening to the chapter ’What a Whopper!’ in Jonathan Coe’s Number 11 (2015).

We are all in this together.

George Osborne, about his austerity policies, address to Conservative Party conference (2009)

It is an ironic (see IRONY) inversion of a MAXIM: the implication is that nothing could be further from the truth.



A riddle or puzzle that combines letters with pictures or symbols which represent syllables to create a word or phrase.

MT for empty

ccccccc for seven seas

I ♥ U for I love you


A word, sound, phrase or structure used multiple times in a row.

In the end, your past is not my past and your truth is not my truth and your solution - is not my solution.

Zadie Smith, White Teeth (2001)


Writing intended to persuade or convince, often employing figures of speech to emphasise the intended effect and delivery. Jonathan Swift’s pamphlet (1729) A Modest Proposal (sub-title: For preventing the Children of Poor People From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick) uses irony, satire, metaphor and other rhetoric devices to highlight the inequalities between rich and poor in early eighteenth-century English society.

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust.

rhetorical question

A question which is not intended to be answered but is instead used to emphasise a point.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Edward Albee (1962)

But I also knew that I would never get used to the piercings all over her face, or the tattoos all over her neck and throat and around her eyes. Why would you disfigure yourself like that? What had inspired her to do it?

Jonathan Coe, Number 11 (2015)

And did the Countenance Divine,

Shine forth upon our clouded hills?

And was Jerusalem builded here, Among these dark Satanic Mills?

William Blake, ’Jerusalem’ (c.1808)


A statement or question with a double or hidden meaning that the reader or listener is tasked with resolving.

What goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening?

Sophocles, Oedipus Rex (c.429 BC)



Humour which is ironic, insincere and often used to mock or disparage.

One might be led to suspect that there were all sorts of things going on in the Universe which he or she did not thoroughly understand.

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)

No no, thanks to you, old boy,’ Bertrand said, with a welcome return to his earlier comradeliness. ’Very fine body of men, the gentlemen of the Press.’

’Nice of you to say so, sir,’ Dixon said, making his Edith Sitwell face into the phone.

Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim (1954)

second-person narrative

The ’you’ perspective in story-telling, when the narrator addresses or appeals to the reader directly. It is unusual in novels, but commonly deployed in non-fiction, particularly in instructional and inspirational manuals and in political entreaties.

You must be the change you wish to see in the world.

Mahatma Gandhi

You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy.

Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City (1984)

self-fulfilling prophecy

A prediction or belief which influences people’s behaviour to the extent that it is realised, but which would otherwise have been avoided.

It was an impossible situation. Penn Knowlton had realized that as soon as he realized he was in love with Ginnie Ostrander — Mrs. David Ostrander.

Patricia Highsmith, ’Variations on a Game’ in Nothing that Meets the Eye: The Uncollected Stories (2002)


Where one thing is said to be like another to invite comparison and emphasise a similarity.

He was dressed like springtime itself in a gaudy blazer. and

It was a hot day, so the marquee was like a furnace, and nobody much wanted to be there.

Patrick Gale, A Place Called Winter (2015)

Time has not stood still. It has washed over me, washed me away, as if I’m nothing more than a woman of sand, left by a careless child too near the water.

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)


When the first consonant sounds of two or more words are swapped to create a new phrase for humorous effect.

’What’s the katter with misses’ I muttered (word-control gone) into her hair.

’If you must know,’ she said, ’you do it the wrong way.’

’Show, wight ray.’

’All in good time,’ responded the spoonerette.

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1953)


A straightforward expression.

We accept the love we think we deserve.

Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999)


A CLICHÉ, an over-simplified, exaggerated and often derogatory opinion which is applied to an entire group or type of people. It can easily tip into prejudice and thus be offensive. In literature, a character might deliberately be ’from central casting’, i.e. an archetype, who displays stock attributes or characteristics, and as such is a form of creative shorthand that a reader will be familiar with. A romantic hero is tall, dark and handsome, a scientist mad and absent-minded, a technical expert is a geek.


A point of view (or ideas or a belief) which may be at variance with the meaning of what is going on or written and suggests a deeper perception of truth.


A form of logical reasoning where two propositions or ideas, which share a common element, together confirm a given conclusion.

All mammals are animals. [major, general premise]

All cats are animals. [minor premise]

therefore: All cats are animals. [conclusion]


Where one thing, concept or idea is used to represent another, for example a dove is used as a symbol of peace. See also ALLEGORY.

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts.

William Shakespeare, As You Like It (1599)


Where a part may be used for the whole or the whole stand for a part.

All hands on deck!

Cambridge won the contest. Oxford mortified.



Repeating the same information using different words thus making the second redundant, though it might be used to highlight or emphasise a point. It is more specifically when a predicate (the part of the sentence that includes the verb) repeats a subject, for example ’the dog is an animal’. Logical tautology is an assertion of a formula that is always true, for example, ’my cat is black; my cat is never not black’. In prose, tautology can be a vice — when text is lazily constructed and where wordiness and repetition in meaning creep in and are redundant. Where used purposefully it can indicate an aspect (often to mock) of a character’s demeanour or preoccupations, as illustrated by the self-consciously self-effacing Uriah Heep:

’[. . . ] I’m a very umble person.’. . .’I am well aware that I am the umblest person going,’ said Uriah Heep modestly, ’let the other be where he may. My mother is likewise a very umble person. We live in an umble abode, Master Copperfield, but have much to be thankful for. My father’s former calling was umble; he was a sexton.’

Charles Dickens, The Personal History of David Copperfield (1849)

Or for poetic effect:

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

T. S. Eliot, ’The Hollow Men’ (1925)

third-person narrative

Writing from the perspective of a narrator who observes the action, who describes the activities and feelings of the ’he, she, they’ of the story. This might be from the view of an OMNISCIENT NARRATOR or a more limited perspective of one character in a novel.

Three days after the shooting in the night Heloise Gault read the letter that had come from Father Morrissey, then turned it over and read it again. She was a slender, slightly built woman in her late thirties . . .

William Trevor, The Story of Lucy Gault (2002)

transferred epithet

When an adjectival word or phrase is attached to a noun which it doesn’t strictly describe (thus transferred), for example ’sleepless nights’. A person, not the night, experiences the sleeplessness. It is a form of PERSONIFICATION.

. . . An ecstasy of fumbling Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,

Wilfred Owen, Dulce et Decorum Est’ (1920)


The figurative or metaphorical use of language or a recurring theme or image with a common meaning.



The opposite of HYPERBOLE or deliberate exaggeration where something is presented as weaker or less important than it actually is and thus in a sarcastic or ironic way.

I have to have this operation. It isn’t very serious. I have this little tumor on the brain.

J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)



Wordiness, using more words than are strictly necessary for text to be comprehensible. Many readers might suggest that Henry James is a master of verbose and tautological writing.

Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. There are circumstances in which, whether you partake of the tea or not — some people of course never do — the situation is in itself delightful.

opening lines of The Portrait of a Lady (1881)

The spoken equivalent is loquaciousness: garrulous, chatty, free-talking and invariably indiscreet.


The appearance of truth; all works of fiction have this quality which the reader temporarily accepts.



An intelligent and humorous phrase. A book that shows a prolonged and plentiful amount of wit (and thus numerous witticisms) across its 128 pages is W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman’s 1066 and All That (1930):

One of the most romantic aspects of the Elizabethan age was the wave of beards which suddenly swept across History and settled upon all the great men of the period.


Manipulating the multiple meanings of different words, especially to create PUNS, jokes and RIDDLES.



Where one word is used to describe two others in different contexts, for example ’she lost her keys and her temper’.

Reading is one form of escape. Running for your life is another.

Lemony Snickett,

The End (2006)