A Brief List of Some Key Terms in Literature

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Compiler: Associate Professor Ismail S. Talib; e-mail: ellibst@leonis.nus.edu.sg.

The following list of key terms in literature is intended primarily for students who do not do literature at university level. Those of you who did or are doing literature, should be familiar with the terms, although you may be interested in looking at some of the items or exploring the hypertext links indicated in the document, including links to some of Prof Talib's workshop notes on the Web. The list is not exhaustive, and there may also be additional and/or slightly different definitions of the terms in my own lectures or workshops (or, for that matter, in the lectures of other teachers). For a more detailed glossary of literary terms, students are urged to consult the following:

Literature students should be familiar with the above books. If you are taking a linguistic approach to literature, the following may be of additional interest:

On the WWW, the following electronic documents or sites may be of interest:

Several hypertext links to the University of Victoria site will be given in this document.

For terms pertaining to narrative, more detailed treatments of some aspects of narrative are given in in my web-book, Narrative Theory.

For further definitions or links to other sites of relevance, you may want to visit the following:

Accent: See stress.

Allegory: A story which represents an idea or belief. An allegory can be religious or political. The most famous example of an allegorical work in English literature is John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress

Alliteration: The reiterated initial consonants of the proximate words in a poem. For more details, click the page written by Ted Nellen.

Allusion: A reference to an idea, place, person or text (or part of a text) existing outside the literary work.

Ambiguity: A word or expression which has more than one meaning. Ambiguity is not necessarily negative in literary criticism.

Antithesis: A contrast or polarity in meaning.

Ballad: A song which tells a story.

Character: The 'person' in a work of fiction or drama. The way the author creates characters in a literary work is called characterization. You may also want to take a look at the entry on character and characterization in the University of Victoria's electronic list of Literary and Rhetorical Terms. You may also want to read Chapter 4: Characters in my Narrative Theory web-book for more details on characterization in literature.

Comedy: A literary work which is intended to amuse, and which normally has a happy ending. The term is usually applied to drama, but it can also be used for other literary kinds. Like many literary terms (tragedy and epic being prominent examples), the term has its origin in ancient Greece, but Aristotle's discussion on comedy in his Poetics is believed to be missing, and one consequence of this is that the term is less rigidly defined than tragedy. More details on comedy are given in the University of Victoria's electronic list of Literary and Rhetorical Terms.

Connotation: The associated meanings of a word or expression (for the opposite term, see denotation).

Criticism or literary criticism: The evaluation of one or more literary works. The act of criticizing in literary criticism is not necessarily negative.

Denotation: The actual meaning of a word or expression (for the opposite term, see connotation).

Diction: The selection of words in a particular literary work, or the language appropriate for a particular (usually poetic) work. The term poetic diction refers to the appropriate selection of words in a poem.

Drama: A literary work meant to be performed in a theatre. If viewed from this functional angle, the definition of drama as a literary kind is non-controversial. But problems may arise when one tries to define it in terms of the intrinsic qualities which a work must have in order for it to be classified as dramatic.

Dystopia: A utopia gone sour. A prominent example is George Orwell's 1984.

Elegy: A poem which mourns the death of someone. For the entry on elegy in the University of Victoria's electronic list of Literary and Rhetorical Terms, click here.

Elizabethan: The adjective refers to British literary works which were written during the era of the British monarch Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) (click here if you want to take a look at her portrait, and here if you want to read her poems: yes, she wrote poetry too, quite unlike the second Elizabeth).

Epic: A long narrative poem on a serious subject, usually centred on a heroic or supernatural person. The term is now also used for other long literary works (usually novels) with historical settings. For more details, click here.

Euphemism: The use of a more palatable word or phrase in place of a more direct or crude one.

Fiction: Any narrative which has not actually occurred in the historical or real world, usually written in prose. Stylistically, the description or narration of fictional events usually has some noteworthy linguistic manifestations in the literary work. Fiction is often associated with the novel.

Figurative language: Language which goes beyond what is denoted (see denotation), and has a suggestive effect on the reader. A figure of speech is an instance of figurative language.

Free verse: Poetry which lacks a regular stress pattern and regular line lengths (and which may also be lacking in rhyme). Free verse should not be confused with blank verse.

Genre: A literary form; examples of literary genres are tragedy, comedy, epic, and novel. Generic classifications may appear simple on the surface, but one faces serious practical problems when one tries to define terms such as comedy and tragedy with reference to an actual corpus of literary works. One solution is to place spatio-temporal constraints on generic definitions (for example, the 'early Victorian novel', or 'Wordsworth's conception of the lyric poem'). It may be useful for students of linguistics to compare the literary use of the term with its use in linguistics and discourse analysis: for a comprehensive treatment, see David Chandler's An Introduction to Genre Theory. You may also be interested to look at the entry for genre in the University of Victoria's electronic list of Literary and Rhetorical Terms, and the chapter on genre in my Narrative Theory web-book..

Hyperbole: An overstatement or exaggeration.

Imagery: Often taken as a synonym for figurative language, but the term may also refer to the 'mental pictures' which the reader experiences in his/her response to literary works or other texts. The term however, may refer to sensory experiences that go beyond the visual; see, for example, the document on Five Types of Imagery, which explains that our other senses, apart from sight, may be involved as well.

Kind (or literary kind): A literary genre which has a distinctive collection of external features.

Litotes: The opposite of a hyperbole where the significance of something is understated.

Lyric: A short non-narrative poem that has a solitary speaker, and that usually expresses a particular feeling, mood, or thought. Click here for more details.

Metaphor: A word which does not precisely or literally refer to the entity to which it is supposed to refer. Metaphors are sometimes thought to exist only in works of literature, but is actually prevalent in language in general. One engages in the metaphorical use of language, for instance, when one says that one is feeling 'down'. See my notes on Metaphor (for my Literary Stylistics and Linguistic Analysis of Literature modules) for a longer discussion which covers some literary and linguistic aspects of metaphor; some links are also given at the end of the notes. There is also a discussion on metaphor in Chapter 12: Symbol and Allegory of my Narrative Theory web-book (see especially, sections 12.7 onwards).

Metre: The recurrence of a similar stress pattern in some or all lines of a poem. More discussion on metre is given in the fourth and fifth workshop notes of my Literary Stylistics module.

Modern period: The modern age in English literature is often taken as the period which began from the start of the First World War onwards. But the problem here is that there were works written before 1914 which displayed modernist tendencies, like Joseph Conrad's Nostromo and the late novels of Henry James. Another problem is that the modern age is already with us for more than three-quarters of a century, and is now longer than the Victorian age, which in itself is quite a lengthy period in the history of English literature. One solution adopted by some critics is to proclaim a post-modern age, but what period comes after the post-modern age is anybody's guess. It is perhaps high time for both modern and post-modern to be rechristened, as many works belonging to both these ages are now old hat, and it may not be legitimate to describe them as 'modern' any more. However, the modern age is a fruitful period as far as stylistic research is concerned, as experimentations with language are often carried out in both poetry and prose. Partly for this reason, quite a number of works or passages from works from the modern period are used in the Literary Stylistics and Linguistic Analysis of Literature modules.

Motif: An element which recurs in a literary work, or across literary works.

Narrator: The personage who 'tells' the story in a narrative work. Like the persona, the narrator should not be confused with the author. It may also be useful for you to think about the difference between narrative, narration and the narrator. (In addition to the entry on point of view below, see also the section on point of view in the notes to workshop 11 of my Literary Stylistics module; for a more detailed treatment, see the chapter on the Narrator in my Narrative Theory web-book).

Novel: A long work of prose fiction. The novel as a more realistic literary genre, is sometimes distinguished in academic literary criticism from the romance; but this distinction is not maintained by all literary critics. There is more information on the novel in the University of Victoria's electronic list of literary and critical terms.

Occasional poem: A poem written for a specific occasion (eg. a birthday, a wedding etc.).

Onomatopoeia: A word or expression which resembles the sound which it represents, like the meow of a cat or the quack of a duck. For more details, see the entry by Ted Nellen in his list of literary terms.

Pastoral: A literary genre. Originally a poem dealing with shepherds, a pastoral is usually written by an urban poet who idealizes the shepherds' lives. The term has now been extended to include any literary work which views and idealizes the simple life from the perspective of a more complex life. Click here for more details.

Pathos: The sense of pity or sorrow aroused by a particular element or scene in a literary work.

Persona: The unidentified personage who 'speaks' (see speaker) in a poem or prose work. The persona should not be identified with the author of the work. You may also be interested in taking a look at the same entry in the University of Victoria's electronic list of Literary and Rhetorical Terms.

Plot: The arrangement of actions in a particular (usually narrative) work of literature. Click here for more details. I have also dealt with the plot in chapter 6 of my Narrative Theory web-book.

Point of view: The perspective established by the narrator of a literary work. Point of view can either be of the first-person, in which case a character narrates the story, or it can be told from the narrative perspective of the third-person, where a personage who is not a character in the story, tells the story. You may also be interested in looking at the entry for point of view in the University of Victoria's electronic list of Literary and Rhetorical Terms. Point of view is another concept which I deal in my Literary Stylistics and Linguistic Analysis of Literature modules: see Point of View in Narrative Fiction: Some Observations. It is also a concept dealt with in my narrative modules: see the discussion on the narrator in chapter 7 of my Narrative Theory web-book.

Postcolonialism: The term postcolonialism may refer to what happens after colonialism, i.e. after a state has gained independence from a foreign power. Conceptually however, the term should not be viewed in this strict chronological sense, as indicating that colonialism is over. Often, it refers to the remnants of colonialism even after independence. For further discussion, refer to my book, The Language of Postcolonial Literatures (2002), pp. 17-20; brief examples from or references to postcolonial literary works in English can be found in the rest of the book 

Pun: A word which has the same sound, but with different meanings.

Rhyme: The identity of the sounds of the final syllables (usually stressed) of certain proximate lines of a poem. English language rhyming dictionaries can be found on the Internet, such as Rhyme Zone, English Rhyming Dictionary and Rhymer.

Romantic Age: Literary works which were mainly written between 1798 and 1932. Among the characteristics of Romantic literary works are an emphasis on the individual and on the expression of personal emotions, a tendency to explore new literary forms or new means of expression, and a highlighting of nature or the natural landscape.

Satire: A literary work which belittles or savagely attacks its subject. A distinction is sometimes made between direct and indirect satire.

Scan: To assign stress patterns to a poem.

Soliloquy: The act of talking to oneself; in drama, a soliloquy is used by the playwright to reveal the character's thoughts.

Speaker: The personage or persona responsible for the voice in a poem; like the persona, the speaker should not be confused with the poet.

Stream of consciousness: A technique or method in modern narrative fiction which attempts to convey the characters' rambling thoughts. The workshops on speech and thought presentation in my Literary Stylistics module will be useful for the analysis of this technique in modern fiction: see Speech and Thought Presentation and Further Considerations on Speech and Thought Presentation.

Stress (or accent): The loud 'beats' in a poem; a regular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a poem often gives the poem its distinctive quality. In literary criticism, there is no basic difference between stress and accent, and one concentrates only on two degrees of stress, unlike the four degrees of stress sometimes distinguished in phonetics and phonology. More details on this term are given in my fourth and fifth workshops notes of my Literary Stylistics course.

Symbol: A word or expression which signifies something other than the physical object to which it directly refers. A rose for example, may symbolise love, and the cross, Christianity. For more details, click here. You may also be interested to take a look at Chapter 12: Symbol and Allegory in my Narrative Theory web-book.

Tone: The attitude, as it is revealed in the language of a literary work, of a personage, narrator or author, towards the other personages in the work or towards the reader.

Tragedy: A broad term, originally taken from drama; the term may refer to any work of literature which has an unhappy ending for the main character. The most prominent examples in English literature of tragedy as a literary kind, were found in the Elizabethan and Jacobean era, with Shakespeare being the most famous writer of tragic works (for a hypertext article by Professor Hilda D. Spear on Elizabethan theatre in general, click here). There have been various attempts to define tragedy, beginning with Aristotle's Poetics (which it must be noted, is more correct in its description of the tragic elements of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex than of Greek tragedy in general). Like most literary genres however, tragedy must frequently be re-defined when referring to individual works of literature. One is usually more successful if one defines tragedy in terms of certain periods of literature, or with reference to certain authors: for example Elizabethan tragedy, or tragedy in the works of Thomas Hardy. There is an entry on tragedy in the University of Victoria's electronic list of Literary and Rhetorical Terms.

Tragicomedy: A literary work which combines elements of both tragedy and comedy. Tragicomic plays were quite common during the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods of English literature.

Utopia: A literary work which describes the ideal state or way of life. The most famous example of a Utopian work is Thomas More's Utopia (from which the term is derived). For quotations which will enable you to have a fuller understanding of the concept, click here

Victorian: The adjective Victorian refers to British literary works which were written, or which resemble those written during (or shortly before or after) the era of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). The adjective is also used to describe the code of morality which was believed to be predominant during her reign.

Voice: The dominating ethos or tone of a literary work. The voice existing in a literary work is not always identifiable with the actual views of the author (cf. narrator and persona). 


Last revised: 17 May 2017.
© Ismail S Talib 1995-2017.