AP Literature & Composition, Literary Terms

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Last updated: April 27, 2019
refers to language that describes concepts rather than concrete images.

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Ad Hominem
In an argument, this is an attack on the person rather than on the opponent’s ideas. It comes from the Latin meaning “against the man.”

a work that functions on a symbolic level.

– the repetition of initial consonant sounds, such as “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.”

a reference contained in a work.

the multiple meanings, either intentional or unintentional, of a word, phrase, sentence, or passage.

involves repeating a word or expression while adding more detail to it, in order to emphasize what otherwise might be passed over.

a literary device employed to serve as a basis for comparison. It is assumed that what applies to the parallel situation also applies to the original circumstance. In other words, it is the comparison between two different items.

the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive phrases, clauses, or lines.

transposition of normal word order; most often found in Latin in the case of prepositions and the words they control. (a form of hyperbaton)

a story or brief episode told by the writer or a character to illustrate to a point.

placing a good point or benefit next to a fault criticism, or problem in order to reduce the impact or significance of the negative point.

reversing the order of repeated words or phrases (a loosely chiastic structure, AB-BA) to intensify the final formulation, to present alternatives, or to show contrast.

one word irony, established by context.

repetition of the same word or phrase at the end of successive clauses.

the presentation of two contrasting images. The ideas are balanced by word, phrase, clause, or paragraphs.

“To be or not to be…” “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.


a terse statement of known authorship which expresses a general truth or moral principle. (If the authorship is unknown, the statement is generally considered to be a folk proverb.) An aphorism can be a memorable summation of the author’s point.

(also called praeteritio or occupatio) asserts or emphasizes something by pointedly seeming to pass over, ignore, or deny it.

expression of doubt (often feigned) by which a speaker appears uncertain as to what he should think, say, or do.

a form of ellipse by which a speaker comes to an abrupt halt, seemingly overcome by passion (fear, excitement, etc.) or modesty.

a figure of speech that directly addresses an absent or imaginary person or personified abstraction, such as liberty or love. The effect may add familiarity or emotional intensity. William Wordsworth addresses John Milton as he writes, “Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour: England hath need of thee.”

a noun or noun substitute placed next to (in apposition to) another noun to be described or defined by the appositive.

use of an older or obsolete form.

a single assertion or a series of assertions presented and defended by the writer

repetition of the same sound in words close together.

lack of conjunctions between coordinate phrases, clauses, or words.

the emotional mood created by the entirety of a literary work, established partly by the setting and partly by the author’s choice of objects that are described. Even such elements as a description of the weather can contribute to the atmosphere. Frequently, atmosphere foreshadows events.

the relationship an author has toward his or her subject, and/or his or her audience.

a general term for abbreviated or condensed expression, of which asyndeton and zeugma are types.

harsh and discordant sounds in a line or passage in a literary work.

Cause and effect
analyses explain why something happened or what the consequences are or will be from a particular occurrence

two corresponding pairs arranged not in parallels (a-b-a-b) but in inverted order (a-b-b-a)

a form of division, but instead of starting with a single subject as a division does, classification starts with many items, and groups or sorts them into categories.

an overused common expression. The term is derived from a French word for a stereotype printing block. Just as many identical copies can be made from such a block, so clichés are typically words and phrases used so frequently that they become stale and ineffective. Everyone uses clichés in speech: “in less than no time” they “spring to mind,” but “in the last analysis,” a writer ought to “avoid them like the plague,” even though they always seem “to hit the nail on the head.”

arrangement of words, phrases, or clauses in an order of ascending power.

the use of slang in writing, often to create local color and to provide an informal tone.

Huckleberry Finn is written in a colloquial style.

Comic Relief
the inclusion of a humorous character or scene to contrast with the tragic elements of a work, thereby intensifying the next tragic event.

a fanciful expression, usually in the form of an extended metaphor or surprising analogy between seemingly dissimilar objects. A conceit displays intellectual cleverness due to the unusual comparison being made.

words describe things that exist and can be experienced through the senses. Abstractions are rendered understandable and specific through concrete examples.

the interpretive level of a word based on its associated images rather than its literal meaning.

the process of moving from a general rule to a specific example.

involves placing a word first in a general class and then adding distinguishing features that set it apart from other members of that class: “A Dalmatian is a breed of dog (general class) with a white, short-haired coat and dark spots (distinguishing feature).” Most college writing assignments in definition require extended definitions in which a subject is analyzed with appropriate examples and details.

the literal or dictionary meaning of a word.

repetition of a word or phrase after an intervening word or phrase

the recreation of regional spoken language, such as a Southern dialect. Zora Neale Hurston uses this in such works as Their Eyes Were Watching God.

is the choice of words used in speaking or writing. It is frequently divided into four levels: formal, informal, colloquial, and slang. Formal diction is found in traditional academic writing, such as books and scholarly articles; informal diction, generally characterized by words common in conversation contexts, by contractions, and by the use of the first person (I), is found in articles in popular magazines. Bernard R. Berelson’s essay “The Value of Children” (p.

231) uses formal diction; Judy Brady’s “I Want a Wife” (p.441) is informal.

From the Greek, didactic literally means “teaching.” Didactic works have the primary aim of teaching or instructing, especially the teaching of moral or ethical principles.

Dirimens Copulatio
mentioning a balancing or opposing fact to prevent the argument from being one-sided or unqualified.

is an explicit reference to a particular meaning or to the various meanings of a word, in order to remove or prevent ambiguity.

indicated by a series of three periods, the ellipsis indicates that some material has been omitted from a given text. It could be a word, a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph, or a whole section.

Be wary of the ellipsis; it could obscure the real meaning of the piece of writing.

is an informally-stated syllogism which omits either one of the premises or the conclusion. The omitted part must be clearly understood by the reader.

etailing parts, causes, effects, or consequences to make a point more forcibly.

repeats the beginning word of a clause or sentence at the end.

the use of a quotation at the beginning of a work that hints at its theme. Hemingway begins The Sun Also Rises with two epigraphs. One of them is “You are all a lost generation” by Gertrude Stein.

is an adjective or adjective phrase appropriately qualifying a subject (noun) by naming a key or important characteristic of the subject.

repetition of one word (for emphasis).

substitutes for a particular attribute the name of a famous person recognized for that attribute.

a more acceptable and usually more pleasant way of saying something that might be inappropriate or uncomfortable.

“He went to his final reward” is a common euphemism for “he died.” Euphemisms are also often used to obscure the reality of a situation. The military uses “collateral damage” to indicate civilian deaths in a military operation.

the pleasant, mellifluous presentation of sounds in a literary work.

citing an example; using an illustrative story, either true or fictitious.

background information presented in a literary work.

Extended Metaphor
a sustained comparison, often referred to as a conceit. The extended metaphor is developed throughout a piece of writing

Figurative Language
the body of devices that enables the writer to operate on levels other than the literal one.

It includes metaphor, simile, symbol, motif, and hyperbole, etc.

Figures of speech
e deliberate departures from the ordinary and literal meanings of words in order to provide fresh, insightful perspectives or emphasis. Figures of speech are most commonly used in descriptive passages and include the following: Simile, Metaphor, Personification, Hyperbole, Etc..


the shape or structure of a literary work.

are assertions or conclusions based on some specific instances. The value of a generalization is determined by the quality and quantity of examples on which it is based. Bob Greene in “Cut” (p.57) formulates ma generalization–being cut from and athletic team makes men super achievers later in life–on the basis of fiver examples. For such a generalization to have validity, however, a proper statistical sample would be essential.

use of two words connected by a conjunction, instead of subordinating one to the other, to express a single complex idea.

this term literally means “sermon,” but more informally, it can include any serious talk, speech, or lecture involving moral or spiritual advice.

(“exchanging”) transferred epithet; grammatical agreement of a word with another word which it does not logically qualify. More common in poetry.

separation of words which belong together, often to emphasize the first of the separated words or to create a certain image.

extreme exaggeration, often humorous, it can also be ironic; the opposite of understatement.

onsists of raising one or more questions and then proceeding to answer them, usually at some length.

using subordination to show the relationship between clauses or phrases (and hence the opposite of parataxis).

Hysteron Proteron (“later-earlier”)-
inversion of the natural sequence of events, often meant to stress the event which, though later in time, is considered the more important.

a verbal approximation of a sensory impression, concept, or emotion.

the total effect of related sensory images in a work of literature.

the process that moves from a given series of specifics to a generalization.

a conclusion one can draw from the presented details.

a verbally abusive attack.

an unexpected twist or contrast between what happens and what was intended or expected to happen. It involves dialog and situation, and can be intentional or unplanned.

Dramatic irony centers around the ignorance of those involved; whereas, the audience is aware of the circumstance.

understatement, for intensification, by denying the contrary of the thing being affirmed. (Sometimes used synonymously with meiosis.)

the process of reasoning

Logical Fallacy
a mistake in reasoning

consists of a brief statement of what has been said and what will follow.

qualifies a statement by recalling it (or part of it) and expressing it in a better, milder, or stronger way.

a direct comparison between dissimilar things.

“Your eyes are stars” is an example.

a figure of speech in which a representative term is used for a larger idea (The pen is mightier than the sword).

Loose sentence
A type of sentence in which the main idea (independent clause) comes first, followed by dependent grammatical units such as phrases and clauses. If a period were placed at the end of the independent clause, the clause would be a complete sentence.

A work containing many loose sentences often seems informal, relaxed, and conversational.

a speech given by one character (Hamlet’s “To be or not to be…”).

this term has two distinct technical meanings in English writing. The first meaning is grammatical and deals with verbal units and a speaker’s attitude. The indicative mood is used for only factual sentences.

For example, “Joe eats too quickly.” The subjunctive mood is used for a doubtful or conditional attitude. For example, “If I were you, I’d get another job.” The imperative mood is used for commands. For example, “Shut the door!” the second meaning of mood is literary, meaning the prevailing atmosphere or emotional aura of a work. Setting, tone, and events can affect the mood.

In this usage, mood is similar to tone and atmosphere.

the repetition or variations of an image or idea in a work used to develop theme or characters.

an image of contradictory term (bittersweet, pretty ugly, jumbo shrimp).

a story that operates on more than one level and usually teaches a moral lesson. (The Pearl by John Steinbeck is a fine example.


A statement that appears to be self-contradictory or opposed to common sense, but upon closer inspection contains some degree of truth or validity. The first scene of Macbeth, for example, closes with the witches’ cryptic remark “Fair is foul, and foul is fair…


also referred to as parallel construction or parallel structure, this term comes from Greek roots meaning “beside one another.” It refers to the grammatical or rhetorical framing of words, phrases, sentences, or paragraphs to give structural similarity. This can involve, but is not limited to, repetition of a grammatical element such as a preposition or verbal phrase.

A famous example of parallelism begins Charles Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities: “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…” The effects of parallelism are numerous, but frequently, they act as an organizing force to attract the reader’s attention, add emphasis and organization, or simply provide a musical rhythm.

surprise or unexpected ending of a phrase or series.

writing successive independent clauses, with coordinating conjunctions, or no conjunctions.

a final form of hyperbaton, consists of a word, phrase, or whole sentence inserted as an aside in the middle of another sentence.

a comic imitation of a work that ridicules the original. It can be utterly mocking or gently humorous. It depends on allusion and exaggerates and distorts the original style and content.

use of similar sounding words; often etymological word-play.

the aspects of a literary work that elicit pity from the audience.

An appeal to emotion that can be used as a means to persuade.

a term used to describe writing that borders on lecturing. It is scholarly and academic and often overly difficult and distant.

Periodic Sentence
a sentence that places the main idea or central complete thought at the end of the sentence, after all introductory elements. The effect of the periodic sentence is to add emphasis and structural variety.

use of superfluous or redundant words, often enriching the thought.

the repetition of conjunctions in a series of coordinate words, phrases, or clauses.

pretended omission for rhetorical effect.

in logic is a proposition-a statement of a truth-that is used to support or help support a conclusion.

by anticipating an objection and answering it, permits an argument to continue moving forward while taking into account points or reasons opposing either the train of thought or its final conclusions.

the anticipation, in adjectives or nouns, of the result of the action of a verb; also, the positioning of a relative clause before its antecedent.

Reduction ad Absurdum
The Latin for “to reduce to the absurd.” This is a technique useful in creating a comic effect and is also an argumentative technique. It is considered a rhetoric fallacy, because it reduces an argument to an either/or choice.

a mode of writing based on ridicule, that criticizes the foibles and follies of society without necessarily offering a solution.

Sentence structure
when an essay question asks you to analyze sentence structure, look at the type of sentences the author uses. Remember that the basic sentence structures are simple, compound, and complex, and variations created with sentence combining. Also consider variation or lack of it in sentence length, any unusual devices in sentence construction, such as repetition or inverted word order, and any unusual word or phrase placement.

As with all devices, be prepared to discuss the effect of the sentence structure. For example, a series of short, simple sentences or phrases can produce a feeling of speed and choppiness, which may suit the author’s purpose.

quoting a maxim or wise saying to apply a general truth to the situation; concluding or summing foregoing material by offering a single, pithy statement of general wisdom.

an indirect comparison that uses the words like or as to link the differing items in the comparison. (“Your eyes are like the stars.


Subjective writing
expresses an author’s feelings or opinions about a particular subject. Editorials or columns in newspapers and personal essays tend to rely on subjective judgments.

the format of a formal argument that consists of a major premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion.

combining anaphora and epistrophe, so that one word or phrase is repeated at the beginning and another word or phrase is repeated at the end of successive phrases, clauses, or sentences.

a figure of speech that utilizes a part as representative of the whole. (“All hands on deck” is an example.


the grammatical structure of prose and poetry.

repetition of an idea in a different word, phrase, or sentence.

simply, the main idea of a piece of writing. It presents the author’s assertion or claim. The effectiveness of a presentation is often based on how well the writer presents, develops, and supports the thesis.

the author’s attitude toward his subject.

a word or phrase that links one idea to the next and carries the reader from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph.

can refer to two different areas of writing. One refers to the relationship between a sentence’s subject and verb (active voice and passive voice).

The second refers to the total “sound” of a writer’s style.

two different words linked to a verb or an adjective which is strictly appropriate to only one of them.

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