The Ultimate List of English Techniques: 49+ Literary Devices to Analyse Any Text
Many of the English literary techniques in this category will often be found across different written mediums. From allegory to zeugma, here’s a comprehensive list of 49 literary techniques to analyse any written text. You’re welcome!
Definition: An allegory is a text that has a second meaning beyond its literal one. Allegories are often used to explain morals or political situations.
Example: George Orwell’s Animal Farm is an allegorical novel about communism. All of the animals on the farm represent different members of a communist society.
Quick Clue: Can you interpret a deeper meaning for the whole story? If so, it’s probably an allegory.
Definition: Alliteration is the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words in a sentence or group of sentences.
Example: Susan Smith saw some sneaky squirrels snatching her snacks, so she sought out Sheriff Sanders to spy on several suspicious squirrely suspects.
Quick Clue: If the sentence that you’re reading sounds a bit like a tongue-‐twister, it’s definitely using alliteration.
Definition: An allusion is an indirect reference to something else. Authors often allude to things like culture, politics, history, and other works of literature.
Example: Charlie lies so often that I’m surprised his nose isn’t a foot long by now! This sentence is an allusion to the story of Pinocchio, whose nose grew every time he told a lie.
Quick Clue: Do you recognize a reference as being familiar? Congratulations, you caught an allusion!
Definition: Anaphora is the repetition of or a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines or sentences. Authors use this to create a dramatic significance for what they’re saying.
Example: I remember when we met. I remember our first date. I remember our first kiss. I remember saying, “I do.”
Quick Clue: Do you see the same few words repeated with a different set of words following them? If so, that’s anaphora.
Definition: Anastrophe is inversion of certain words in a sentence. This usually happens with the subject, verb, and object.
Example: Pretty much all of Yoda’s speech pattern is anastrophe. “Judge me by my size, do you?”
Quick Clue: If the sentence makes sense but the words are in a slightly different order than what’s considered to be a normal speech pattern, it’s anastrophe.
Definition: An aphorism is a common phrase or saying that suggests something wise and truthful. Aphorisms are often sprinkled throughout a text and offered as advice or wisdom from sage characters.
Example: Dying is easy. Living is hard. Calculus is harder.
Quick Clue: Is it a phrase that sounds a bit clever and witty and seems to share some useful tips for life? It might be an aphorism.
Definition: Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds within sentences. Along with
consonance, it is a common technique within lines of poetry.
Example: John thought he lost his mom’s frog, Bob.
Quick Clue: If the vowel sounds rhyme but the endings don’t, it’s assonance.
Definition: Asyndeton is the absence of conjunctions in a sentence in places where they would normally be.
Example: I came, I saw, I ate twelve burritos, I immediately regretted it. Oops.
Quick Clue: Is there a distinct lack of conjunctions in the sentence? It’s asyndeton.
Definition: A bildungsroman is a story that follows the main character as he or she grows up and changes. It is also known as a coming-‐of-‐age story.
Example: Famous examples of bildungsroman include everything from Great Expectations to American Pie. It all works as long as the main character goes on some sort of journey of self-‐development.
Quick Clue: If the protagonist ages and matures in a significant way in the story, you can call it a bildungsroman.
Definition: Characterisation is the way that the author describes a character throughout a text. This can either be done either directly, in which the author plainly says that a character has a certain trait, or indirectly, in which the author says what a character does and you draw your own conclusions.
Example: Alex is soft-‐spoken, has trouble talking to girls, and never speaks up in class. The author has characterised him as being shy.
Quick Clue: Are you learning something about a character’s personality? If so, he or she is being characterised.
Definition: Diction is the specific language that the speaker or narrator uses. Diction can indicate someone’s age, education, economic background, place of birth, or other character traits. Diction is the word choice, while syntax is the word order.
Example: If someone says “y’all” instead of “you,” he or she is probably from the American South.
Quick Clue: Is the character using language that is distinct to a certain social group? His or her diction would show this.
Definition: Ellipsis is when the author skips over a period of time from the narrative. This can range from a few seconds or minutes to hundreds or thousands of years.
Example: In chapter three, our main character is ten years old. In the next chapter, she’s sixteen years old. The ellipsis is this passage of time.
Quick Clue: Has any time gone by without us actually seeing it? If so, the author used ellipsis.
Definition: Emotive words are words that are purposely chosen by the writer to elicit a strong emotional response from the reader.
Example: Saying “I saw a twisted mass of mangled steel and shattered glass” is a lot more emotive than “I saw a car crash.”
Quick Clue: If you had a strong reaction when you read it, the author probably used emotive words.
Definition: An epithet is a word or phrase that is added to a person’s name. It usually describes a very prominent personality trait or a specific event in his or her life that has shaped him or her. Sometimes epithets can be mocking or sarcastic in tone.
Example: A character called Tony the Snitch might make a habit of giving information over to the authorities, though probably not for much longer.
Quick Clue: Does the character have a nickname in the format of ______the ______? That’s an epithet.
Definition: A euphemism is a word or phrase used to describe something in a more polite way. There are euphemisms about a wide variety of subjects, but many common ones concern either the subject of death or people’s intelligence and physical appearance.
Example: Someone might be really, really stupid, but a nicer way to put it is that he or she has an IQ that’s about room temperature.
Quick Clue: Can you rephrase it into something more harsh or direct? It might be a euphemism.
Definition: Euphony is when a text is written in such a way that it is enjoyable to the ear. To achieve euphony, authors will often use other devices such as alliteration and assonance, and they may also write using pleasant imagery.
Example: Many people consider words like “endeavour,” “calligraphy”, and “iridescent” to be beautiful sounding words. “Mellifluous” is another example that’s also a synonym for being euphonic! In comparison, “moist,” “mucus,” “clogged,” and “gurgle” all sound pretty nasty.
Quick Clue: If it sounds sweet and almost musical to hear, it has a euphonic quality.
Definition: A foil is a character who behaves in the complete opposite way compared to another character in the text. He or she usually foils the protagonist, but it is important to know that this does not mean that the foil is the antagonist. In fact, a foil can often be the protagonist’s close friend or family member. The foil exists to draw attention to the traits of the character that they are foiling.
Example: Sarah is wild and spontaneous. Her best friend, Ella, is cautious and boring. You’ll notice Sarah’s reckless behaviour more because the difference between her and Ella is so huge.
Quick Clue: Does this character highlight another character’s traits because they both act differently? He or she is a foil.
Definition: Foreshadowing is when the author drops hints about something that will be more meaningful later in the story.
Example: Fred mentions offhand that he’s allergic to peanuts in chapter two. In chapter nineteen, he is accidentally served something with peanuts in it and almost dies.
Quick Clue: You might not necessarily notice that something is foreshadowing when you first read through a text (unless you’re psychic), but once you know the ending, it should be pretty clear.
Definition: The genre of a story is the basic category that it falls into. Common genres include science fiction, fantasy, romance, historical fiction, and non-‐fiction. Storytelling elements and devices like mood, style, tone, and theme all contribute to the genre.
Example: Most of Edgar Allan Poe’s works are horror stories because they are dark and suspenseful and because they deal with things like death and madness.
Quick Clue: Every story has a genre. It’s up to you to figure out which one it is, so look at things the subject matter and other relevant literary techniques to find some clues.
Definition: Hyperbole is the overstatement of something, often for comedic effect.
Example: I’m so hungry for Christmas dinner that I could eat all of Santa’s reindeer.
Quick Clue: Does it sound way too exaggerated? It’s hyperbole.
Definition: Imagery is when authors use language to evoke one or more of the five senses in a strong, descriptive way.
Example: He was so distracted by the warm, sweet smell of baking cookies that he tripped and fell down the rough stone staircase.
Quick Clue: Can you almost see, smell, touch, taste, or hear what’s happening? If so, the author used very vivid imagery.
Definition: Situational irony occurs when there is a difference between what is expected to happen and what actually happens.
Example: Everyone has that one annoying friend who always posts on Facebook complaining how useless and stupid Facebook is.
Quick Clue: If the events that occur are pretty much the opposite of what “should” happen, and the difference between these effects is interesting or humorous, it’s probably situational irony. Also, none of the examples in that Alanis Morissette song are actually real irony, so as catchy as it is, try to wipe those out of your brain.
Definition: Verbal irony is the difference between what a character says and what actually happens. Verbal irony is often sarcastic in tone.
Example: You’ve just finished the most difficult exam you’ve ever taken in your life, and you turn to your friend to say, “Well that was easy!”
Quick Clue: If the characters words and actions contradict, that’s verbal irony.
Definition: Juxtaposition is when two differing objects or concepts are placed near to each other. This is usually done to highlight the differences between them, much like how a foil works. Juxtaposition can appear as an element of the story or part of the writing itself.
Example: A wealthy person is having a lavish party that displays tons and tons of wastefulness, and across the street there is a poor family who is struggling to survive.
Quick Clue: If you can see the differences between two things more clearly after they’ve been thrown together, it’s because they were juxtaposed.
Definition: A metaphor is a comparison between two seemingly different things. You are encouraged to notice the resemblance between these objects because one word or phrase is literally replaced by another word or phrase.
Example: The child was a monkey, climbing all over the table and chairs and screaming at the top of his lungs.
Quick Clue: If what’s being described is not literally happening but instead makes a judgment on the similarity between the two things, that’s a metaphor.
Definition: Metonymy is the act of referring to something by a closely related object rather than by its own name.
Example: Saying that “the White House issued a major decision today” doesn’t mean that it grew a mouth and started to speak. It means the President of the United States issued a major decision, and he or she happens to live in the White House.
Quick Clue: If the literal meaning of the sentence sounds slightly off, it’s metonymy. Unless it’s synecdoche, so be sure to know the difference.
Definition: Mood is the atmosphere that the author creates based on the language that he or she uses.
Example: If a story starts off with the sentence, “It was a dark and stormy night,” the author has set an ominous and threatening mood.
Quick Clue: If the story gives off a certain vibe, that means you’ve noticed its mood.
Definition: A motif is a reoccurring image or idea that has a deeper meaning. As a literary device, it’s slightly stronger than a symbol as it occurs more than once, but not quite as big as a theme, although it might contribute to the theme.
Example: Dana goes on a journey through a forest, and she continues to see owls as she travels. Each time she sees one, she is reminded of her grandmother who told her that owls are a sign of good fortune and wisdom.
Quick Clue: If you keep seeing the same object throughout the text and it seems to be important, it’s probably a motif.
Definition: A first-‐person narrator is one who tells the story from his or her own perspective. He or she is involved in the action personally.
Example: I turned to see him standing in the doorway, and my stomach did a backflip. “I missed you,” he said.
Quick Clue: Does the narrator use “I” and “me” when telling the story? If so, it’s is being told from a first-‐person point of view.
Narrator, third-‐person limited
Definition: A third-‐person limited narrator is one who tells the story from one character’s perspective. This narrator’s point of view is limited because it only shows the internal thoughts and feelings of one character.
Example: She turned to see him standing in the doorway, and her stomach did a backflip. “I missed you,” he said.
Quick Clue: If the narrator does not use “I” or “me,” and you can only see inside one character’s mind, the story is being told from a third-‐person limited point of view.
Narrator, third-‐person omniscient
Definition: A third-‐person omniscient narrator is one who tells the story from more than one character’s perspective. The narrator’s point of view is omniscient because it shows the internal thoughts and feelings of multiple characters.
Example: She turned to see him standing in the doorway, and her stomach did a backflip. His did the same.
“I missed you,” he said, and he meant it.
Quick Clue: If the narrator does not use “I” or “me,” and you can see inside more than one character’s mind, the story is being told from a third-‐person omniscient point of view.
Definition: Onomatopoeia is use of words that sound like the noises they describe. Example: Words like buzz, boom, crash, creak, sizzle, hiss, and zap.
Quick Clue: If saying the noise’s name out loud sounds like the noise itself, it’s onomatopoeia.
Definition: A parody is a text that copies the style of another text but changes certain details in a humorous way in order to draw attention to how absurd they are. The difference between parody and satire is that satire is more critical while parody is usually done just for laughs.
Example: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a book that incorporates zombies in to Jane Austen’s world.
Quick Clue: Does the text make you laugh because it’s an exaggerated imitation of something else? It’s probably a parody.
Definition: Pathetic fallacy is the attribution of human traits to non-‐humans, especially the weather or other elements within nature. It is a type of personification.
Example: The dark, heavy clouds looked pregnant with rain.
Quick Clue: Is a natural phenomenon being described in a human way? The author is probably using pathetic fallacy. Also, keep in mind that “pathetic” here does not mean sad and pitiful.
Definition: Personification is describing a plant, animal, or other non-‐human object with human characteristics. The difference between this and anthropomorphism is that personification is just a description. That is, personified objects will never actually get up and start walking around or speaking like anthropomorphic objects will.
Example: The sad, lonely flower hunched over in its pot.
Quick Clue: Is something described as seeming a little bit human but not actually doing the things that humans do? That object is being personified.
Definition: Prose is a form of writing in which the structure of the text as a whole is somewhat unimportant compared to what the text is actually saying. Short stories, novellas, novels, and speeches are all forms of prose.
Example: This text is an example of prose. The form and layout are relatively unimportant, so there is no need to pay attention to things like the meter or rhyme scheme, for example. You would also never attempt to do scansion with a work or prose.
Quick Clue: This one’s super simple: If it comes in paragraphs, it’s prose.
Definition: A pun is a humorous play on words that creates multiple layers of meaning in a sentence.
Example: Did you hear about the psychic dwarf who escaped from prison? They say that there’s a small medium at large.
Quick Clue: If it makes you laugh and groan at the same time, it’s a pun.
Definition: Sarcasm is the use of words that mean the opposite of how someone actually feels, usually either to show disdain or to achieve a comedic effect.
Example: I absolutely looove getting stuck in traffic. It’s my faaavorite!
Quick Clue: It can be difficult to catch in written form, so don’t worry too much, but if it appears that a character is mocking another person, it is probably sarcasm.
Definition: Satire is the comedic ridicule of someone’s flaws or shortcomings in order to draw attention to a specific issue. The difference between satire and parody is that typically, parodies are strictly meant to be funny while satire often attempts to supplement the humour with a call to action to create social change.
Example: Saturday Night Live is full of skits that satirize political figures. The cast of the show dresses up as people such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and then mocks their speech patterns and mannerisms in a way that is lightly critical.
Quick Clue: If it makes you laugh but also makes you question what exactly is being made fun of and why, it’s satire.
Definition: A simile is a comparison between two seemingly unlike things that uses words such as “like,” “as,” or “than.”
Example: She was as welcome as a fart in an elevator.
Quick Clue: If you see two different things being compared and the words “like” or “as” between them, it’s probably a simile.
Stream of consciousness
Definition: Authors use a stream of consciousness style of writing to mimic the way we think inside our own heads. This technique often ignores normal punctuation and grammatical structure.
Example: Okay, while I’m at the store I need to pick up milk, birthday candles, and…ugh, what else? Oh yeah, flowers! I hope Lynette likes roses. Did I make our dinner reservation yet? I should call to confirm. Ah, here are the candles!
Quick Clue: Are the character’s thoughts jumping from place to place in a rapid way that doesn’t totally make complete sense? If so, the author is using stream of consciousness.
Definition: A symbol is an object in a text that has a deeper meaning beyond what it actually is. There are some classic symbols like certain flowers, colours, foods, and the weather, but authors often create symbols that are specific to individual stories.
Example: Water is often linked to things like purity, cleansing, and rebirth.
Quick Clue: Many stories have multiple symbolic items throughout, but don’t drive yourself crazy trying to look for them. Sometimes a blue kettle is just blue because the author felt like it. For the most part, symbolism will be fairly obvious in the majority of texts.
Definition: Syntax is the grammatical structure that the author chooses to use. Syntax is the word order, and diction is the word choice.
Example: Anastrophe is one way that writers play around with syntax to achieve a certain dramatic effect.
Quick Clue: Every sentence in every text has some sort of syntax, so it’s up to you to figure out what it means about a given story or character.
Definition: Synecdoche is the act of referring to the whole of something by the name of one of its parts.
Example: If someone says, “Check out my new wheels,” they’re probably talking about a whole car rather than just a pile of wheels because that would be weird.
Quick Clue: Is the literal meaning of the sentence just slightly off? It’s synecdoche. Unless it’s metonymy, so be sure to know the difference.
Definition: The theme of a text is the message or idea that the author is trying to communicate. Many stories, especially longer ones, have more than one theme.
Example: The main character in a novel is a tennis player. First she breaks her wrist, then her coach gets hit by a bus, and then she gets dumped by her jerk boyfriend for being too into the sport, but she still goes on to win Wimbledon. One of the themes in this story would be overcoming adversity.
Quick Clue: Can you see an overarching idea throughout the whole story? That’s the theme. Sometimes the theme can also be a moral, but that’s not always the case.
Definition: Tone is the way that the author or a character shows his or her opinion towards a subject. Tone can be positive or negative, but it can also be many other things such as nostalgic, light-‐hearted, satirical, or reverent.
Example: The tone in a news article should be neutral because a journalist would not want to sway the readers’ opinions.
Quick Clue: The language that is used should give you a clue about how the author or speaker feels.
Definition: Truncated sentences are a shortcut that authors use when the rest of a sentence’s meaning can be implied.
Example: If you say, “I like cats more than Jeremy,” you’re most likely implying that you like cats more than Jeremy likes cats. Not that you dislike Jeremy, the poor guy.
Quick Clue: If you could add a few words on to the end to make it slightly clearer, it’s probably a truncated sentence.
Definition: Verse is a form of writing in which the structure of the text is just as important as the text itself. Those who write verse will pay attention to things like rhyme scheme and meter, while those who write in prose will not.
This is an example of verse.
I suppose that it could be worse, But these lines are a nice little clue,
Of what verse should look like to you!
Quick Clue: If it’s written in anything besides paragraphs, it’s probably verse.
Definition: Zeugma is when the writer uses a word that has multiple meanings for different phrases in the same sentence.
Example: Gina lost her wallet and her mind. “Lost her wallet” literally means that she misplaced it, but “lost her mind” is a figure of speech that means she went crazy.
Quick Clue: Did you need to pause for a second to make sure you read it correctly because the phrases didn’t quite flow? The author might have used zeugma.
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