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30 COMMON LITERARY DEVICES WITH EXAMPLES

Literary devices are several techniques employed by writers in literature to create an effect or for the purpose of clarity and help readers better understand their writings. Apart from these, writers may also use literary devices to beautify, elevate and make their texts more alluring, interesting and appealing to readers. Literary devices allow writers to convey a deeper meaning than what is on the text that forces readers to think beyond the box to understand what they intend to convey.

A wide range of literary devices are used by writers over different genres, each serves a different purpose. Literary devices which are specific to poetry are called ‘poetic devices.’ Knowing literary devices and their meaning can significantly help us understand any text better. Here is a list of some important literary devices with examples and definition which are presented in a simple language for easy understanding:

30 COMMON LITERARY DEVICES WITH EXAMPLES

LITERARY DEVICES WITH EXAMPLES

ALLEGORY

An Allegory is a literary device in which places, characters, objects and events in a narrative set in a fictional world are intended to mean persons or places in the real world, all are symbolic representations, critical typically of a moral, spiritual, social, historical or political issues. In other words, an allegory is a story in which something is depicted as someone else.

Allegory is not only a figurative language but also used in art and paintings. It permits writers to distance themselves from the topics they’re discussing, thereby avoiding to be caught in issues especially when the topics are harsh criticisms of political or social reality. Many claim that the allegory is a broad form of metaphor.

The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan is a ‘christian (religious) allegory’ published in 1678. In this book, an unnamed narrator dreams in which a person named Christian goes on a pilgrimage to the Celestial City, leaving behind the City of Destruction, carrying a heavy burden (his sins) on his back. On the way, he encounters several deadly creatures and other forms of hurdles. On a deeper understanding, The Pilgrim’s Progress is about the ordinary christians and their endeavour to get to Heaven leaving behind destructive sins.

Faerie Queene is a political allegory in which Edmund Spenser’s characters of his far-off, fanciful “Faerie Land” are meant to have a symbolic meaning in the real world. Faerie Queene or Gloriana is the main character in this epic poem, though she never appears, who represents Queen Elizabeth I of England.

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ALLITERATION

Alliteration is a literary device, especially in poetry, though not limited to, in which the initial consonant sound is repeated in quick succession. These alliterative words may or may not occur next to each other. Here’s an example:

If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, where’s the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?

This is the toughest ever tongue twister in the world which is also known for the repetition of consonant sounds (repetition of /p/ sound) in quick succession. Here are a few other examples:

Betty Botter bought some butter; “But,” said she, “this butter’s bitter! If I put it in my batter, it will make my batter bitter.

good cook could cook as much cookies as a good cook who could cook cookies.

Ted’s tap shoes pitter patter and tap at the talent show.

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ALLUSION

An allusion, a literary device employed in literature, is an implied or indirect reference to a person, event, or object, as well as a section of another text. Most of the allusions are founded on the author’s premise that he and his reader share a body of knowledge, and that the reader can recognise the author’s reference and grasp its significance in a book as a result. In other words, it’s an indirect expression in which an author taps our mind to call or remind us of something without saying it explicitly, believing that the readers possess enough knowledge to trace the reference.

Unless a reader possesses enough knowledge on the reference (allusion), as expected by the author, he may never be able interpret the meaning of the text properly because the author neither goes into detail nor refers to directly. An author may allude to anything like painting, folklore, mythology, bible and the works of other writers. It is a shorthand that adds more sense or significance to the situation that is being discussed and makes the author’s work simple.

All overgrown by cunning moss,
All interspersed with weed,
The little cage of Currer Bell
In quiet “Haworth” laid.

These are the lines from Emily Dickinson’s poem “All Overgrown By Cunning Moss”. Here Dickinson alludes to Currer Bell, the pen name for English author Charlotte Bronte, who is best known for her novel Jane Eyre. Dickinson also makes a reference to Haworth,  a village in England, where Bronte was later buried.

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

The above lines are from ‘The Waste Land‘, a well-known poem by T S Eliot. April is “the cruellest month,” according to Eliot, which contrasts sharply with the opening of mediaeval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, which portrays April as a happy, vibrant month. literary devices with examples

You’re acting like such a Scrooge!

This line, which is a reference to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, implies that the person is being miserly and selfish, just like Scrooge in the narrative.

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ANAPHORA

An anaphora is a rhetorical device in which a sequence of words is repeated at the beginnings of adjoining clauses to bring emphasis to them. In other words, Anaphora occurs when a particular word or phrase is deliberately repeated in order to achieve an artistic effect.

The best example for anaphora is the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: literary devices with examples

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.

William Shakespeare’s mastery over the anaphora technique is shown by the repeated use of ‘and‘ in his Sonnet 66:

Tired with all these, for restful death I cry,
As to behold desert a beggar born,
And 
needy nothing trimm’d in jollity,
And
 purest faith unhappily forsworn,
And
 gilded honour shamefully misplac’d,
And 
maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,
And 
right perfection wrongfully disgrac’d,
And 
strength by limping sway disabled
And 
art made tongue-tied by authority,
And 
folly – doctor-like – controlling skill,
And 
simple truth miscall’d simplicity,
And 
captive good attending captain ill.

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ANTITHESIS

Antithesis occurs when two opposing thoughts are combined together to produce a desired result. Here are a few best examples for an antithesis:

  • Man proposes, God disposes.
  • Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice.
  • Let’s agree to disagree.
  • Many are called but few are chosen.
  • Speech is silver, but silence is golden.
  • Burning a fire to stay cool.
  • Love is an ideal thing, marriage a real thing.
  • You’re easy on the eyes but hard on the heart.
  • To err is human; to forgive divine.
  • Patience is bitter but it bears a sweet fruit.

Below is a quote from Abraham Lincoln’s speech which is full of antithesis:

When there is need of silence, you speak, and when there is need of speech, you are dumb. When you are present, you wish to be absent, and when absent, you desire to be present. In peace you are for war, and in war you long for peace. In council you descant on bravery, and in the battle you tremble.

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ASSONANCE

Assonance is a literary device in which two or more words or syllables in close proximity to each other within a line of poetry or prose repeat similar vowel sounds. Here is an example from William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet.

O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?

Below are a few more examples for assonance:

  • Dumb luck
  • Go slow over the road
  • Chips and dip
  • The sky looks dry
  • Stranger danger
  • Winner, winner, chicken dinner
  • Motion of the ocean
  • Rock Around the Clock
  • Wild child
  • Meet my niece

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COLLOQUIALISM

Colloquialism is the use of informal words or phrases or expressions in a literary piece. A colloquialism is a conversational language that is widely used in a particular language, geographical region, or historical period. To say simply, colloquialism is the use of colloquial language used for casual / informal / unofficial communication. The words gotta, gonna, wanna, lemme and kinda are the examples of colloquialism. Examples of colloquialism or colloquial terms:

  • Ace – means something excellent
  • Boot – denotes the trunk of a car
  • Cheeky – extremely bold or familiar
  • Cheers – thanking you
  • Coke – means cocaine
  • Dog’s dinner – a mess
  • fags – means cigarettes
  • Posh – something very fancy
  • Rubbish – means untrue or of poor quality or useless
  • Tosh – untrue or dishonest

Here are some colloquial phrases or expressions or sentences and their meanings:

  • Don’t chicken out – don’t afraid
  • I wasn’t born yesterday – I am not fool or gullible
  • He earns a packet – He earns a lot
  • Pass the buck – shifting the responsibility from one to another
  • Eat my dust – outperforming someone by a wide margin.

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DRAMATIC IRONY

Dramatic irony, in a narrative, happens when an event occurs, the audience or readers understand the full meaning of the character’s words or behaviour, even though the character involved is completely unaware of what is going on. Warner said, “Dramatic irony is when the audience seems to know more about an event, a situation, or a conversation than the characters do.”

1. For example, in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the audience is aware that Juliet is just sleeping (in a drugged sleep), but Romeo is unaware of this and kills himself thinking Juliet is already dead.

2. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the audience knows that Hamlet is aware of his father’s murder and feigns madness in order to plot vengeance for his father’s murder. He doesn’t reveal his feelings to people and deceives all around him. Well employed dramatic irony of Shakespeare acquires a prominent place for this play in literature of all time.

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EXTENDED METAPHOR

As a literary device, an Extended Metaphor is a form of metaphor that stretches over a number of lines or stanzas in a poem or other literary work. It’s also known as conceit or sustained metaphor. Unlike metaphor, it is exploited at length throughout a poem or story.

Walt Whitman employs an Extended Metaphor in O Captain My Captain. Though this poem is about Abraham Lincoln and his unexpected assassination, Whitman never mentions Abraham Lincoln’s name anywhere in the poem. Whitman calls Abraham Lincoln ‘a Captain’ (O Captain My Captain) and he compares the country to ‘ship’. The ship has been landed safely on the shore by the Captain and the fearful trip (Civil war) is done. The country has undergone the Civil War and become victorious (the people are reunited). Lincoln is lying dead on the deck i.e, the cemetery. The ‘voyage’ in the poem is a long journey, ‘the Civil War’. The ship’s voyage almost comes to an end i.e, the Civil War is almost over.

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EUPHEMISM

Euphemism is a figurative language that is used instead of a more obnoxious alternative, to replace harsh, impolite, or unpleasant language. For example:

  • Charles passed away last week.

In the above sentence, “passed away” is a euphemism for “died“. Proceed below for more examples.

  • She is a senior citizen. (senior citizen for old woman)
  • My friend is between jobs. (between jobs for jobless)
  • They are on the streets. (on the streets for homeless)
  • We assist differently-abled. (differently-abled for handicapped)
  • Pregnancy termination is unlawful. (pregnancy termination for abortion)
  • Yes, I am a facilitator. (facilitator for teacher)
  • It’s a pre-owned vehicle. (pre-owned for used)
  • Restroom facility is unavailable. (restroom for toilet)
  • The price is economical. (economical instead of cheap)
  • He is well-fed. (well-fed for fatty or overweight)

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FORESHADOWING

Foreshadowing is a literary technique which a writer uses to give a prior hint to readers about what is going to happen later in the story so as to keep them guessing. It is used to build anticipation, a sense of unease and as a hint that things aren’t quite as they seem.

In William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, three witches foreshadowing the bad things to follow. At their first encounter with Macbeth and Banquo, they prophecy that Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor and later the King of Scotland. Banquo will produce line of Kings. These predictions foreshadow the events to follow: King Duncan’s assassination by Macbeth in order to assume the power, Fleance and Banquo’s escape from Macbeth’s conspiracy to kill them to ensure witches’ prophecies don’t come true and eventually Malcolm, the elder son of late King Duncan, becoming the King of Scotland.

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HYPERBOLE

Hyperbole is a literary device that employs deliberate exaggeration to achieve an intense artistic effect. Hyperbole is a brazen and intentional overstatement or exaggeration by a writer, despite the fact that both the writer and the reader are aware that it is not actually true. For example:

  • Williams cried so long that he made a lake.
  • Patel is running faster than the wind.

In the first sentence, Williams tears so long, but tears can’t fill even a small tumbler. Never a human runs faster than the wind. These sentences employ deliberate exaggeration. Below are some more examples:

  • My boss is older than the hills.
  • He’s so hungry I could eat a horse.
  • I’m so tired that I could sleep for a week.
  • The car went faster than the light.
  • That joke is so old, the last time I heard it while I was riding a dinosaur.
  • She ran like greased lightning.
  • Her brain is the size of a pea.
  • I’m dying of thirst.
  • This suitcase weighs a ton.
  • He heard an ear-splitting shriek.
  • My brother is stronger than iron.
  • Next Friday is never going to arrive.
  • He is as big as an elephant.
  • His nose is five feet long.
  • She was so mad she was spitting bullets.
  • He has the ear of an elephant.
  • That building is sky high.

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IMAGERY

Imagery is a literary technique that employs visually descriptive language to describe a situation to readers in order to elicit a five-sense response from them.

  • Her lips tasted as sweet as sugar.
  • The kitten’s fur is milky.
  • The mud oozed in my palm.
  • A faint buzz of voices came from behind the closed door.
  • His mouth watered and his tongue burned as he bit into the sour, peppery mango chow.
  • I could hear the popping and crackling as mom dropped the bacon into the frying pan, and soon the salty, greasy smell wafted toward me.

William Wordsworth employs imagery throughout the poem poem ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud‘.

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
 
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
 
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IRONY

Irony is a rhetoric device which uses a language that generally signifies the opposite. A writer uses irony usually to create a humorous effect. For example:

  • A pilot has a fear of heights.

If a pilot is afraid of heights, he can’t be a pilot at all. A pilot never has a fear of heights. More examples:

  • A fire station burns down.
  • A police gets robbed.
  • A teacher is being taught.
  • An article shared on WhatsApp complains about how useless WhatsApp is.
  • An English teacher has poor grammar.
  • I left my car for wash at the beginning of a downpour.
  • The dead man was moaning.

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METAPHOR

A metaphor is a figure of speech that directly refers to one thing by mentioning another, comparing one thing to another, what appears to be the case varies dramatically from what is actually meant. In short, it is a comparison of two dissimilar things suggesting they are comparable. See the below sentence:

  • He was a ferocious tiger in the fight.

This sentence says that ‘he’ was a tiger, means, he was as ferocious as a tiger or he was valiant during the fight, but he wasn’t a tiger. He was like a tiger. Such indirect comparison is known as metaphor. Below are some more examples:

  • Time is gold.
  • He is my god.
  • You are my morning star.
  • His heart is an iron.
  • All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.
  • My baby brother is a cute little teddy bear.
  • He is a night owl.
  • He’s a pig when it comes to eating.
  • The clouds are fluffy cotton candy.
  • My wife is an old dinosaur.

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METONYMY

Metonymy is a figure of speech in which a word is replaced by another that has a meaning that is quite similar to the original.

  • The White House declares, “We are tackling our nation’s challenges and building our country back better from this crisis.”
  • Lend me your ear.

Here, ‘the White House’ refers to ‘the president of the United States’. In the second example, ‘lend me your ear’ is a metonymy for ‘listen to me’.

  • The pen is mightier than the sword. (‘the pen’ refers to ‘the written words’)
  • My brother was just released from the big house. (‘the big house’ refers to ‘prison’)
  • I’m all ears. (‘all ears’ refers to ‘listening’)
  • Money just walked in. (‘Money’ refers to ‘the rich man’)
  • He is a man of cloth. (‘man of cloth’ refers to ‘the church’)

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ONOMATOPOEIA

Onomatopoeia is a figure of speech that describes terms whose pronunciations mimic the sounds they represent.

  • The owl hooted.
  • The telephone is ringing.

The words ‘hooted’ and ‘ringing’ in the examples mimic the sounds ‘the owl’ and ‘the telephone’ (respectively) produce.

  • The bus horn beeped.
  • The lion roared.
  • The dogs bark at us.
  • The breaks screeched.
  • Why do flies buzz when they fly?
  • Ding-dong, Ding-dong,” rang the doorbell.
  • Crickets stopped chirping when approached.
  • The cow moos.

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OXYMORON

An oxymoron is a figure of speech that incorporates two seemingly contradictory concepts in order to achieve a rhetorical or poetic effect. An adjective accompanied by a noun is the most common form of oxymoron.

  • It’s a plastic glass.
  • He is speaking at a close distance.
  • His mouth opened in a silent scream.
  • I am confused at the same difference.
  • It’s a terribly good incident.
  • They are approximately equal.
  • We live in divided unity.
  • He made a dull roar from the nearby.
  • This is another fine mess he had got us into.
  • There is a real love hate relationship between them.

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PARADOX

A paradox is a totally self-contradictory assertion that, upon closer inspection, reveals a kernel of truth while still being absurd and unreasonable.

  • Save money by spending it.
  • He’s a wise fool.
  • The truth is honey, which is bitter.
  • Nobody goes to the bar as it’s too busy.
  • War is peace.
  • Freedom is slavery.
  • I find my weakness as my strength.
  • It was the beginning of the end.
  • We must go backward to go forwards.
  • When you increase your knowledge, you understand how little you know.
  • Less is more, more is less.
  • To shut down your computer, first, click Start.

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PERSONIFICATION

Personification is a figure of speech which attributes human characteristics to non-living or inanimate objects. It implies that an object or thing has done something when, in fact, it hasn’t.

  • Books reach out to kids.
  • My phone is not cooperating with me today.

Look at these sentences. ‘Books’ and ‘phone’ are inanimate things to whom human characteristics are attributed as if they are able to think or act by themselves.

  • The sunflowers hung their heads.
  • The moon stared at me.
  • The car drives furiously.
  • The sun kissed my cheeks when I went outside.
  • Time and tide waits for none.
  • My feet moan of tiredness.
  • The pen speaks louder.
  • The train runs fast.
  • The teapot was whistling on the stove.
  • The storm made it seem as if the clouds were crying.
  • The cave mouth yawned.
  • The smell of baking muffins welcomed us inside.

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SATIRE

Satire is a literary technique in which a writer uses witty ridicules with an intention to expose and correct one’s errors. The topic of satire is human frailty as manifested in people’s acts or thoughts.

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift is an example of Horatian satire. Through Gulliver, the narrator, Swift satirises travel writers, the English government, and human nature etc.

Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock is another example of Horatian satire that gently mocks the English upper class for its vanity and folly, the quarrel between the belles and elegants of Pope’s time.

A Modest Proposal For preventing the Children of Poor People From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick, shortly known as ‘A Modest Proposal’, is a Juvenalian satirical essay by Jonathan Swift. Its title itself reveals what it mocks.

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SIBILANCE

Sibilance is a form of consonance in which the repeated consonant sound is one of the known sibilant sounds, such as s, sh, ch or z. It is a form of alliteration in which soft consonant sounds are repeated in words to produce a hissing sound. Here are some simple examples:

  • Sally sells seashells by the seashore. (repetition of the “s” sound)
  • Charming child who changed the world. (repetition of the “ch” sound)
  • She shopped at Shillong shoppings. (repetition of the “sh” sound)

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SIMILE

A Simile is a more vivid and direct comparison of two unlike and different things implying that these are similar and same. This figurative language uses words like ‘as’ and ‘like’ to compare one thing to another similar thing. Here are two clear examples that will drive the point home:

  • He is as busy as a bee.
  • Life is like a box of chocolates.

Most of the poets love this technique and use it to explain things in a simple way. Below are some examples of simile from English literature.

  • I wandered lonely as a cloud that floats on high o’er vales and hills.

– William Wordsworth in “Daffodils”.

  • My heart is like a singing bird
    Whose nest is in a water’d shoot; My heart is like an apple-tree
    Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;
    My heart is like a rainbow shell
    That paddles in a halcyon sea

– Christina Rossetti’s “A Birthday”.

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SITUATIONAL IRONY

Situational irony happens when what we foresee doesn’t occur and when the exact opposite occurs instead. Situational irony, also known as an irony of events, demands that one’s hopes be balked and its result is often unpredictable. It’s one of the different types of irony along with verbal irony and dramatic irony.

William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” is a good example in which Macbeth killed King Duncan so as to assume the power. But the situation forces him to become a serial killer in order to protect his throne. So, instead of putting an end to his killings, he continues to be killer up to the end. This is an example of situational irony.

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SOLILOQUY

A soliloquy is a literary technique used most often in dramas in which a character talks to oneself, expressing innermost thoughts and feelings as if thinking aloud. Usually no other characters are present during soliloquy.

William Shakespeare employs a soliloquy in his play “Hamlet” that has become the most popular one of all time. In this play, the titular character does a soliloquy:

To be, or not to be, that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles And by opposing end them. To die—to sleep, No more; and by a sleep to say we end The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep; To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub: For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause—there’s the respect That makes calamity of so long life.

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SYMBOLISM

Symbolism refers to the use of various of symbols in literature. Symbols can be anything; a character, concept, word, object, situation or an action. Rather than saying something explicitly, a writer may use symbolism to convey various meanings to various readers depending on how they perceive it.

The simple colours we see have a symbolic meaning. For example:

  • ‘White’ is a symbol of purity.
  • ‘Red’ is a symbol of danger.
  • ‘Black’ is a symbol of evil.

Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Because I Could not Stop for Death” is rich in symbolism:

Because I could not stop for Death 
He kindly stopped for me 
The Carriage held but just Ourselves 

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring 
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain
We passed the Setting Sun.

In the first stanza, ‘the carriage’ is a symbol of death. ‘The setting sun’ in the second stanza symbolises the end of life (again death).

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SYNECDOCHE

Synecdoche is a figure of speech in which a portion (a word or phrase) of something is used to represent the entire thing, or the other way around, the entire thing is used to represent part. Good examples for synecdoche:

  • The hired hands were paid off at the end of the harvest season.
  • Two boots were killed during the gun fight.

In the first example, ‘hired hands’ refers to workers. In the second example, ‘boots’ represents the soldiers.

Below are lines from the poem ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner‘ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Here the phrase ‘western wave‘ refers to the ‘sea‘.

The western wave was all a-flame.
The day was well nigh done!
Almost upon the western wave
Rested the broad bright Sun
 
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TAUTOLOGY

Tautology is a literary device which denotes a writer’s use of repetitive words or phrases or different/reverse words to explain the same thing in different terms. It’s sometimes seen as pointless, a style flaw. Others defend it as a useful poetic licence. See the following examples of tautology:

  • Bad people are people who lack good qualities.
  • The conference will begin at 10 am, two hours before noon.
  • He’s the cleverest, cleverer than all others.
  • My friend is a single bachelor.
  • I personally designed this shirt for you with my own hands.

There’s another type of tautology known as logical tautology. A logical tautology is a sort of tautology in which the assertion is always true because it covers both ends.

  • Either he will come or he will not.
  • Wing is clever or he is not clever.
  • I will go to the function or will not.
  • He is a fool or he is not a fool.
  • It’s similar or it is not.

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VERISIMILITUDE

Verisimilitude signifies the degree to which a reader is able to willingly suspend disbelief and believes a fictional work. Even works of fiction that have little resemblance to fact, genres like science fiction and fantasy, strive to construct a world with consistent rules and laws so that the reader can suspend disbelief and believe that the plot’s events are true, balancing reality and imagination.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Moby Dick by Herman Melville and Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift are some of the examples for verisimilitude. Though these are books of imagination, they have resemblance of truth and the readers find them interesting.

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ZOOMORPHISM

Zoomorphism is a literary technique in which animal characteristics and animal features are ascribed to non-animal things, humans, events, gods, and other animate or inanimate objects.

  • The children appeared in spiderman dress.
  • It’s a continuation of the Catwoman storyline in.

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