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.
  • Extended Metaphor – exactly the same as a normal metaphor, but you’ll see the same idea repeating over multiple sentences, lines, paragraphs (or stanzas). Think: You’re a lion. When you speak, you roar. You’re the king of the jungle, the bravest of the beasts.
  • Personification – (or Anthropomorphism), applying human characteristics to objects, Gods or things. i.e. the angry sea. (Zoomorphism is when you give humans (or other things!) animal features, i.e. he growled with wolfish hunger).
  • Pathetic fallacy – when human characteristicsc are applied to things (often found in nature), i.e. the “angry sky” or “the wind whispered through the trees”. Usually done to set the tone or reflect the mood of characters.
  • 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!)
  • Colloquial Languange – informal or slang words and phrases (i.e. just how you’d speak everyday!). Think wanna rather than “want to”.

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
  • Figurative Language – the creative use of words or phrases to create a special meaning, that isn’t literally what they say.
  • 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!!
  • Motifs – a recurring subject, image, theme or idea within a text (this could be articles, poetry, novels… you name it!).

**N.B. I’ll post separately on analysing structure soon… (there’s lots more to say here) this is a *really* important part of GCSE English Language that lots of people find tricky.

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.
  • Antithesis – something (or someone) that’s the direct opposite of something (or someone) else.
  • 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…

Need more help? Take a look at these extra language and structure posts:

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12 thoughts on “Key terminology for GCSE English analysis

  1. Great resource – thanks! I’d add motifs and links to structure, as they are often present in the extract for GCSE Language Paper 1. Just a note: I think that anthropomorphism is when you give animals (or gods) human characteristics; zoomorphism is when you give humans (or gods) animal characteristics.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Mia,

      Thank you so much for your comment – and apologies for my silly mistake!! 🙂

      I’ve updated this, and also added in your excellent thoughts on motifs (with more to follow on structure later, I agree, it’s definitely so important for the Language Papers) – thank you.

      I hope it helped your work.



  2. Thanks for this great resource. I think that zoomorphism is when you give humans characteristics of animals; anthropomorphism is when you give animals human characteristics.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ha ha thanks for adding them!
    I appreciate it. 🙂
    (I don’t mean to be annoying but I think adding pathetic fallacy to the list would be great.)
    Thank you for adding the three I suggested,


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Amelia and this really is the best gcse key terminology for english language
      It is a wonderful website and I could sit here all day and write down all the ones you missed but that would be sad so I will leave you with the ones you have because they are great
      Thanks again
      Have a nice day


      Liked by 1 person

  4. I couldn’t help it!
    Lexical field
    Declarative sentence
    These really help in the GCSE test so I thought I would write them down because they are ones you must know I searched it up and made sure they were must haves.
    I won’t bother you again, see ya


    Liked by 1 person

  5. this is such an amazing resource thank you
    I think it would be helpful to have extended/sustained metaphor one here because I found that came up a lot more than expected during my GCSE

    Liked by 1 person

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