At this point of the year, many students’ minds are turning towards October half term (hooray), and then onto the upcoming mock exams. These will often be the first GCSE-style tests many pupils have to face, with a few nerves playing an inevitable part. One of the most challenging aspects is the sometimes baffling array of specialist terminology that English Literature and Language GCSE candidates have to master. This is a key skill however – for both comprehension papers, as well as longer analysis of books and dramas for the literature component.

Do you know your alliteration from your assonance, or your declaratives from your exclamatives and imperatives!? Well not to worry, help is at hand. Here is my list of the key literary devices that will see you sailing through your GCSE studies. If you have any questions or comments, don’t hesitate to get in touch. Good luck, and happy analysing.

Let’s get started with a few key basics…

  • Simile – comparing something using like or as. He was as fast as a cheetah.
  • Metaphor – saying something is something else; a direct comparison, not meant literally. i.e. He was a cheetah on the racetrack.
  • Personification – Applying human characteristics to objects or things. i.e. the angry sea. (Zoomorphism is the opposite, where you give animals human features!).
  • Alliteration – When the first letter of a word is repeated more than once. Alice always alliterates.
  • Assonance – Repeating vowel sounds (not necessarily rhyming though) – the house is out-rowed with the louts and crows
  • Anecdote – A short story from personal experience. Like that time you missed the bus, got soaked in the rain, then had to cycle all the way to school. You know?
  • Irony – Something contrary to what you might expect. Alanis Morissette knows it (or not, as the case may be).
  • Onomatopoeia – words that sound like what they are. Bang, clap, thud….etc.
  • Sibilance – A repeated ‘s’ sound – either at the start, or in the middle of words (N.B. ‘c’ can sometimes sound like an s!)

More general words for writing and language as a whole…

  • Connotation – Like word associations… think of a lovely word cloud, hovering over you.
  • Semantic field – When a group of words all link to one overall theme.
  • Sensory Detail – Sight, sound, taste, touch, smell.
  • Euphemism – A polite way of saying something often taboo or controversial.
  • Double entendre – When a word or phrase has two meanings, one of which is often rude. Shakespeare had loads of them!
  • Idiom – commonly used phrases or metaphors. i.e. It’s raining cats and dogs.
  • Emotive Language – Powerful describing words or adjectives
  • Evocative Verbs – A doing word which sounds particularly active. The cat slinked, crawled, darted – rather than just walked.
  • Allusion – making reference to people, places, events, literary work, myths, or works of art…. i.e. he alluded to the Van Gogh painting on the wall.
  • Allegory – A type of writing in which the settings, characters, and events stand for other, often larger ideas. i.e. Animal Farm about capitalism vs. communism
  • Didactic – Intended to teach, instruct, or have a moral lesson for the reader. Think about Aesop’s Fables…. The tortoise and the Hare?

Particularly helpful poetry terms…

  • Repetition – Do I need to repeat the meaning of this? Repeat it? And again – repeat it?
  • Rhyme – When words sound the same, like fame and tame.
  • Half rhyme – When words sound similar but are not a full rhyme, like spine and lime.
  • Stanza – The different parts of a poem with gaps in the middle.
  • Minor sentence – A short sentence.
  • Syntactic parallelism – Repetition of a sentence structure. Charge of the Light Brigade uses it a lot.
  • Anaphora – Repetition of the starting line of a poem. Great if you can spot it!

For when it all gets a bit dramatic…

  • Dialogue – When a character speaks aloud
  • Zooming-in / Panning-out – When a narrator focuses in on a particular character, action, or part of the scene – or alternatively, moves out to look at the situation as a whole.
  • Flashback (analeptic reference) or Flashforward (prolepsis) – When the narrator changes time, moving back to the past – or forwards into the future of a story
  • Integral Setting – when the setting, time or place are very important. i.e. History plays.
  • Pathos – When the reader feels particularly sad or emotional. Think pathetic, you feel *really* sorry for them.
  • Pun – essentially a joke, or play on words.
  • Hyperbolic Language – Exaggerating – it was the worst day ever in the history of the universe!
  • Hamartia – The character flaw of a powerful hero that leads to his tragic downfall. Think Macbeth…

For when a little bit of structure is needed…

  • Triadic listing – Triples.
  • Asyndetic listing – Separation with commas.
  • Syndetic listing – Separation with connectives.
  • Hypophora – When the speaker asks a question and then answers it themselves.
  • Rhetorical question – A question not expected to be answered.
  • Interrogative sentence – Just a question really…
  • Imperative sentence – A sentence that commands or demands. Do this, buy that.
  • Exclamatory sentence – A sentence that exclaims and ends with an exclamation mark!!

And finally, for when things are just a bit odd…

  • Incongruent – When something just does not make sense at all.
  • Ambiguity – When something has an unclear meaning. A bit like this list!?
  • Oxymoron – Two opposites together. Loving hate, brawling love, Sweet sorrow….
  • Juxtaposition – When two or more ideas are contrasted near (not necessarily next to) each other.
  • Paradox – A contradiction. You can have paradoxical language – it just doesn’t quite make sense!

Are there any terms I’ve missed off the list? Let me know…

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