Literary Terms

Have you wondered how authors of literary text evoke certain responses in the reader? They do this with the help of certain techniques which add meaning to a text.

Literary Terms Literary Terms

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Table of contents

    Literary terms: meaning

    Literary terms These are the techniques and devices used by writers to create or add layers of meaning to their works.

    Literary terms are an important factor to consider when analysing novels and short stories. Literary terms are used to create meaning in texts, as well as to create vivid images in stories. Examples of literary terms include metaphor, symbolism and themes.

    Literary terms vs literary devices

    Literary device – This refers to any technique used to create meaning, or emphasize a particular idea, theme, or object in a story.

    Literary devices are the techniques that are used to enhance key elements of a story. These devices can affect the novel on a word, sentence, or structural level. Literary terms are the names that are given to these devices. They are integral to the formation of a literary work. Examples of literary devices include personification, simile, and imagery.

    Literary terms in English literature

    Literary terms include figurative language and plot devices.

    1. Figurative language

    Figurative language – A form of writing that uses literary devices to create an image in the mind of the reader.

    Figurative language employs literary devices in a text to aid the reader in forming a mental image. This type of language will not use a word's literal meaning to convey an idea. Instead, figurative language uses devices such as metaphors and similes to create images.

    2. Plot devices

    Plot devices – This refers to any literary device that will move the plot forward.

    Plot devices refer to a broad category of literary devices that can be used to move a plot forward. Plot devices are found in almost all novels and are used to create the plot of the story. Literary terms that are often associated with plot devices include character, action, and symbolism.

    Literary terms: personification, simile, and metaphor

    Personification, similes, and metaphors are all types of literary terms that involve figurative language and comparisons.


    Personification is a type of figurative language that is used to create emphasis in a text.

    Personification - A device where human characteristics are assigned to non-human objects.

    Personification can be used to humanise objects and animals to the reader. It can also be used to create innovative ways to convey common phrases. In doing this, personification is a useful way to grab the reader's attention. This device is also important for describing settings, as it can be used to make a description more vivid. A notable example of personification is found in Emily Dickinson's poem 'Because I could not stop for Death' (1890). In this poem, the speaker personifies death as a carriage driver.

    Because I could not stop for Death –

    He kindly stopped for me –


    Similes are an important and frequently used literary term.

    Simile A literary device that compares one object to another. These comparisons will use 'like' or 'as'.

    They often use exaggeration and so are a useful way to hold a reader's attention in a story. Similes are also used by writers to introduce abstract ideas such as love or death. One of the most famous similes in English Literature is found in William Shakespeare's Macbeth (1606). In this scene, Lady Macbeth uses a simile to show her husband how to hide his true intentions.

    Look like th' innocent flower,But be the serpent under ’t.

    Top Tip! An easy way to tell the difference between a simile and a metaphor is to look for 'like' or 'as' – if these words are present, it's a simile!


    A metaphor is similar to a simile, however, here the device will directly apply the comparison, rather than using 'like' or 'as'.

    Metaphor - A literary term where a phrase is applied to something when it is not literally applicable.

    Metaphors are primarily used to describe either an idea, setting, or character. They are effective as they can provide unconventional ways of presenting descriptions. This is because of the vivid imagery that can be created through the use of metaphors. Sometimes metaphors are used to describe natural scenery. An example of this can be found in Lord of the Flies (1954) by William Golding. In this example, a metaphor is used to describe a sunset.

    The sun in the west was a drop of burning gold that slid nearer and nearer the sill of the world.

    Literary terms: imagery and symbolism

    Imagery and symbolism are created through the use of personification, metaphors and similes. These are images that are used to represent a deeper meaning in the text.


    Imagery is created by using other literary devices such as metaphor or simile.

    Imagery - Visual images, described using figurative language.

    Imagery is created by using other literary devices such as metaphor or simile. These devices are used together to create a picture in the mind of the reader. Imagery will often use sensory descriptions in these depictions. This can include language that focuses on the smell, sight, sound, or touch of the image.

    These images are sometimes used to represent a key idea in the text. An example of imagery is found in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story, The Yellow Wallpaper (1892). In the story, the imagery of the wallpaper is used to represent the protagonist's sickness, madness, and despair.

    The colour is repellant, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.

    It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others.


    Symbolism is a way of introducing themes into a text.

    Symbolism - A practice in literature where an object is used to represent an idea or theme.

    This is an easy way to present themes in a text without directly addressing them. Symbolism is found in almost all literary works and can be one of the most memorable parts of a novel. It is also used to create memorable characters. For example, in The Catcher in the Rye (1951) by J.D Salinger, Holden Caulfield is defined by his red hunter's hat. This hat is a symbol of Caulfield's alienation from society. A famous piece of symbolism is found in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925). In this novel, the green light becomes a symbol of Gatsby's hopes and dreams for the future. Specifically his hope to reunite with Daisy - a married woman.

    Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.

    Literary terms: themes

    Themes are found throughout literature and are formed through the use of literary terms such as symbolism or metaphor.


    Themes are a key element of literature and can be found in all literary works.

    Themes – In literature, a theme is a key idea or meaning that is in the text.

    Themes are a key element of literature and can be found in all literary works. Themes are created in literature through the use of literary terms and devices such as metaphor, imagery, or symbolism. In literature, themes are typically abstract and tackle key issues regarding, politics, society, or the human condition.

    Examples of themes include love, death, war, sexuality, and nature. Gender is a key theme in Jane Austen's novel, Pride and Prejudice (1813). The book explores how strict gender roles intersect with themes of class, reputation, and family at the turn of the 19th century.

    It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

    Literary terminology examples

    Now that we understand what some of the key literary terms are, let's look at how these can appear in a piece of literature.

    That mouse ain't fresh, Lennie; and besides, you've broke it pettin' it. You get another mouse that's fresh and I'll let you keep it a little while.

    In John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men (1937), mice are a symbol of false hope. Like the men in the novel, the mice have no real say in their fate and are subject to the whims of those who are stronger (physically or socially) than them. In the novel, Lennie has mice that he hopes to keep as pets, however, he kills each one.

    There were but few lights in sight at sea, for even the coasting steamers, which usually ‘hug’ the shore so closely, kept well to seaward, and but few fishing-boats were in sight.

    Personification can be seen frequently in the descriptions in Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897). Here, personification is used to describe the sea. The literary term helps emphasise the isolation that the narrator feels while out in the water, while also creating an image of the sea in the reader's mind.

    All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.

    William Shakespeare's play As You Like It (1599) features one of the most famous metaphors in English Literature. The metaphor uses the image of a stage and actors to say that life is a performance and human beings are assigned roles to perform in life.

    Literary terms: effect

    Literary terms are an extremely effective way to improve your work. They are able to add detail to writing as well as present common phrases in new and exciting ways. Terms like symbolism can be used to create subtext and a deeper meaning to writing also. Literary terms are a simple way to elevate your writing and make it more memorable.

    Literary Terms - Key takeaways

    • Literary terms are the techniques and devices used by writers to create meaning in their works.
    • Literary devices are any technique used to create meaning or emphasise a particular idea, theme, or object in a story.
    • Literary terms are used to create figurative language and plot devices.
    • Literary terms include metaphor, simile, personification, and symbolism.
    • Literary terms are effective as they can add detail and subtext to a piece of writing.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Literary Terms

    What does literary term mean?

    These are the techniques and devices used by writers to create meaning in their works. 

    What is a theme in literary terms?

     In literature, a theme is a key idea or meaning.

    How many literary terms are there in English literature?

    There are numerous literary terms in English literature. Some examples of literary terms include personification, metaphor, and simile. 

    What is a literary term for a play on words?

    A literary term for a play on words is a pun.

    What does irony mean in literary terms?

    Irony is when contradictory statements reveal a different situation than what would be expected.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Choose (more than one answer is possible): satire was popular in the 18th century with writers like

    Nightmare Abbey is a parody of... (there is more than one answer is possible). 

    Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is the story of imaginative Catherine Morland, an avid reader of 


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