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AP English Literary Terms

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abstract An abbreviated synopsis of a longer work of scholarship or research.
adage A saying or proverb containing a truth based on experience and often couched in metaphorical language.
allegory A story in which the narrative or characters carry an underlying symbolic, metaphorical, or possible an ethical meaning. The characters represent values beyond themselves.
alliteration The repetition of one or more initial consonants in a group of words or lines of poetry or prose. Writers use alliteration for ornament or for emphasis. Alliteration generally enhances the aesthetic quality of a prose passage or poem.
allusion A reference to a person, place or event meant to create an effect or enhance the meaning of an idea (usually in mythology or history)
ambiguity A vagueness of meaning; a conscious lack of clarity meant to evoke multiple meanings and interpretation.
anachronism A person, scene, event, or other element in literature that fails to correspond with the time or era in which the work is set.
analogy A comparison that points out similarities between two dissimilar things.
annotation A brief explanation, summary, or evaluation of a text or work of literature.
antagonist A character or force in a work of literature that, by opposing the protagonist produces tension or conflict.
antithesis A rhetorical opposition or contrast of ideas by means of a grammatical arrangement of words, clauses, or sentences. (ex. ""They promised freedom but provided slavery"")
aphorism A short, pithy statement of a generally accepted truth or sentiment.
Apollonian In contrast to Dionysian, it refers to the most noble, godlike qualities of human nature and behavior.
apostrophe A locution that addresses a person or personified thing not present. (ex. ""Oh you cruel streets of Manhattan, how I detest you."")
archetype An abstract or ideal conception of a type; a perfectly typical example; an original model or form.
assonance The repetition of two or more vowel sounds in a group of words or lines in poetry and prose.
ballad A simple narrative verse that tells a story that is sung or recited
bard A poet; in olden times, a performer who told heroic stories to musical accompaniment.
bathos The use of insincere or overdone sentimentality.
belle-lettres French term for the world of books, criticism, and literature in general.
bibliography A list of works cited or otherwise relevant to a subject or other work.
Bildungsroman A German word referring to a novel structured as a series of events that take place as the hero travels in quest of a goal.
blank verse Poetry written in iambic pentameter, the primary meter used in English poetry and the works of Shakespeare and Milton. It is ""blank"" because the lines gnereally do not rhyme.
bombast Inflated, pretentious language used for trivial subjects.
burlesque A work of literature meant to ridicule a subject; a grotesque imitation.
cacophony Grating, inharmonious sounds.
caesura A pause somewhere in the middle of a verse, often (but not always) marked by punctuation.
canon The works considered most important in a national literature or period; works widely read and studied.
caricature A grotesque likeness of striking qualities in persons and things.
carpe diem Literally, ""seize the day"", enjoy life while you can, a common theme in literature.
catharsis A cleansing of the spirit brought about by the pity and terror of a dramatic tragedy.
classic A highly regarded work of literature or other art form that has withstood the test of time.
classical, classicism Deriving from the orderly qualities of ancient Greek and Roman culture; implies formality, objectivity, simplicity, and restraint.
climax The high point, or turning point, of a story or play.
coming-of-age story/novel A tale in which a young protagonist experiences an introduction to adulthood. The character may develop understanding via disillusionment, education, doses of reality, or any other experiences that alter his or her emotional or intellectual maturity.
conceit A witty or ingenious thought; a diverting or highly fanciful idea, often stated in figurative language.
connotation The suggested or implied meaning of word or phrase. Contrast with denotation.
consonance The repetition of two or more consonant sounds in a group of words or a line of poetry.
couplet A pair of lines in a poem. Two rhyming lines in iambic pentameter is sometimes called a ""heroic couplet"".
denotation The dictionary definition of a word. Contrast with connotation.
denouement The resolution that occurs at the end of a play or work of fiction.
deus ex machina In literature, the use of an artificial device or gimmick to solve a problem.
diction The choice of words in oral and written discourse.
Dionysian As distinguished from Apollonian, the word refers to sensual, pleasure-seeking impulses.
dramatic irony A circumstance in which that audience or reader knows more about a situation than a character.
elegy A poem or prose selection that laments or meditates on the passing or death of something or someone of value.
ellipsis Three periods (...) indicating the omission of words in a thought or quotation.
elliptical construction A sentence containing a deliberate omission of words. (ex. ""May was hot and June the same"")
empathy A feeling of association or identification with an object or person.
end-stopped A term that describes a line of poetry that ends with a natural pause often indicated by a mark of punctuation.
enjambment In poetry, the use of successive lines with no punctuation or pause between them.
epic An extended narrative poem that tells of the adventures and exploits if a hero that is generally larger than life and is often considered a legendary figure.
epigram A concise but ingenious, witty and thoughtful statement.
euphony Pleasing, harmonious sounds.
epithet An adjective or phrase that expresses a striking quality of a person or thing.
eponymous A term for the title character if a work of literature.
euphemism A mild or less negative usage for harsh or blunt term.
exegesis A detailed analysis or interpretation of a work of literature.
expose A piece of writing that reveals weaknesses, faults, frailties, or other shortcomings.
exposition The background and events that lead to the presentation of the main idea or purpose of a work of literature.
explication The interpretation or analysis of a text.
extended metaphor A series of comparisons between two unlike objects.
fable A short tale often featuring nonhuman characters that act as people whose actions enable the author to make observations or draw useful lessons about human behavior.
falling action The action in a play or story that occurs after the climax and that leads to the conclusion and often the resolution of the conflict.
fantasy A story containing unreal, imaginary features.
farce A story containing unreal, imaginary features.
figure of speech, figurative language In contrast to literal language, figurative language implies meanings. Figures of speech include metaphors, similes, and personification, among many others.
first-person narrative A narrative told by a character involved in the story, using first-person pronouns such as ""I"" and ""we"".
flashback A return to an earlier time in a story or play in order to clarify present action or circumstances.
foot A unit of stressed and unstressed syllables used to determine the meter of a poetic line. While scanning the meter of a poem, mark unstressed syllables with U; mark stressed syllables with /.
foreshadowing Providing hints of things to come in a story or play.
frame A structure that provides premise or setting for a narrative.
free verse A kind of poetry without rhymed lines, rhythm, or fixed metrical feet.
genre A term used to describe literary forms, such as novel, play, and essay.
Gothic novel A novel in which supernatural horrors and an atmosphere of unknown terrors pervades the action.
harangue A forceful sermon, lecture, or tirade.
heroic couplet Two rhymed lines written in iambic pentameter and used widely in eighteenth-century verse.
hubris The excessive pride that often leads tragic heroes to their death.
humanism A belief that emphasizes faith and optimism in human potential and creativity.
hyperbole Overstatement; gross exaggeration for rhetorical effect.
idyll A lyric poem or passage that describes a kind of ideal life or place.
image A word or phrase representing that which can be seen, touched, tasted, smelled, or felt.
in media res A Latin term for a narrative that starts not at the beginning of events, but at some other critical point.
indirect quotation A rendering of a quotation in which actual words are not stated but only approximated or paraphrased.
invective A direct verbal assault; a denunciation.
irony A mode of expression in which the intended meaning is the opposite of what is stated, often implying ridicule or light sarcasm; a state of affairs or events that is the reverse of what might have been expected.
kenning A device employed in Anglo-Saxon poetry in which the name of a thing is replaced by one of its functions or qualities, as in ""ring-giver"" and ""whale-road"" for ocean.
lampoon A mocking, satirical assault on a person or situation.
light verse A variety of poetry meant to entertain or amuse, but sometimes with a satirical thrust.
litotes A form of understatement in which the negative of the contrary is used to achieve emphasis or intensity (ie. ""He is not a bad dancer"").
loose sentence A sentence that follows the customary word order of English sentences (subject-verb-object) and then is followed by one or more subordinate clauses.
lyric poetry Personal, reflective poetry that reveals the speaker's thoughts and feelings about the subject.
maxim A saying or proverb expressing common wisdom or truth.
melodrama A literary form in which events are exaggerated in order to create an extreme emotional response.
metaphor A figure of speech that compares unlike objects.
metaphysical poetry The work of poets, particularly those of the seventeenth century; that uses elaborate conceits, is highly intellectual, and expresses the complexities of love and life.
meter The pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables found in poetry.
metonymy A figure of speech that uses the name of one thing to represent something else with which it is associated (ie. ""The White House says..."").
Middle English The language spoken in England roughly between 1150 and 1500 A.D.
mock epic A parody of traditional epic form. It usually treats a frivolous topic with extreme seriousness, using conventions such as invocations to the Muse, action-packed battle scenes, and accounts of heroic exploits. An example is Alexander Pope's ""Rape of the Lock,"" a poem that portrays a woman applying makeup and fixing her hair.
mode The general form, pattern, and manner of expression of a work of literature.
montage A quick succession of images or impressions used to express an idea.
mood The emotional tone in a work of literature.
moral A brief and often simplistic lesson that a reader may infer from a work of literature.
motif A phrase, idea, or event that through repetition serves to unify or convey a theme in a work of literature. Tolstoy, for example, repeatedly uses descriptions of nature to reflect the personality and emotions of his characters. Similarly, Hemmingway often uses rain to evoke feelings of death and despair.
muse One of the ancient Greek goddesses presiding over the arts. The imaginary source of inspiration for an artist or writer.
myth An imaginary story that has become an accepted part of the cultural or religious tradition of a group or society. Myths are often used to explain natural phenomena.
narrative A form of verse or prose that tells a story.
naturalism A term often used as a synonym for realism; also a view of experience that is generally characterized as bleak and pessimistic.
non sequitur A statement or idea that fails to follow logically from the one before.
novella A work of fiction roughly 20,000 to 50,000 words -- longer than a short story, but shorter than a novel.
novel of manners A novel focusing on and describing the social customs and habits of a particular social group. ex. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
ode A lyric poem usually marked by serious, respectful, and exalted feelings toward the subject.
Old English The Anglo-Saxon language spoken in what is now England from approximately 450 to 1150 A.D.
omniscient narrator A narrator with unlimited awareness, understanding, and insight of characters, setting, background, and all other elements of the story.
onomatopoeia The use of words whose sounds suggest their meaning.
ottava rima An eight-line rhyming stanza of a poem.
oxymoron A term consisting of contradictory elements juxtaposed to create a paradoxical effect.
parable A story consisting of events from which a moral or spiritual truth may be derived.
paradox A statement that seems self-contradictory but is nevertheless true.
parody An imitation of a work mean to ridicule its style and subject.
paraphrase A version of a text put into simpler, everyday words.
pastoral A work of literature dealing with rural life.
pathetic fallacy Faulty reasoning that inappropriately ascribes human feelings to nature or nonhuman objects.
pathos That element in literature that stimulates pity or sorrow.
pentameter A verse with five poetic feet per line.
periodic sentence A sentence that departs from the usual word order of English sentences by expressing its main thought only at the end. In other words, the particulars in the sentence are presented before the idea they support.
persona The role or facade that a character assumes or depicts to a reader, a viewer, or the world at large.
personification A figure of speech in which objects and animals are given human characteristics.
plot The interrelationship among the events in a story; the plot line is the pattern of events, including exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.
picaresque novel An episodic novel about a rogue-like wanderer who lives off his wits. ex. Don Quixote
point of view The relation in which a narrator or speaker stands to the story or subject matter of a poem. A story told in the first person has an internal point of view; an observer uses an external point of view.
prosody The grammar of meter and rhythm in poetry.
protagonist The main character in a work of literature.
pseudonym Also called ""pen name"" or ""nom de plume,"" a pseudonym is a false name or alias used by writers, such as Mark Twain (Samual Clemens).
pulp fiction Novels written for mass consumption, often emphasizing exciting and titillating plots.
pun A humorous play on words, using similar-sounding or identical words to suggest different meanings.
quatrain A four-line poem or a four-line unit of a longer poem.
realism The depiction of people, things, and events as they really are without idealization or exaggeration for effect.
rhetoric The language of a work and its style; words, often highly emotional, used to convince or sway an audience.
rhetorical stance Language that conveys a speaker's attitude or opinion with regard to a particular subject.
rhyme The repetition of similar sounds at regular intervals, used mostly in poetry.
rhyme scheme The pattern of rhyme within a given poem.
rhythm The pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables that make up a line of poetry. (Meter)
roman á clef French for a novel in which historical events and actual people appear under the guise of fiction.
romance An extended narrative about improbable events and extraordinary people in exotic places.
sarcasm A sharp, caustic expression or remark; a bitter jibe or taunt; different from irony, which is more subtle.
satire A literary style used to poke fun at, attack or ridicule an idea, vice, or foible, often for the purpose of inducing change.
scan The act of determining the meter of a poetic line. The pattern is called scansion. If a verse doesn't ""scan,"" its meter is irregular.
sentiment A synonym for ""view"" or ""feeling""; also a refined and tender emotion in literature.
sentimental A term that describes characters' excessive emotional response to experience; also nauseatingly nostalgic and mawkish.
setting The total environment for the action in a novel or play. It includes time, place, historical milieu, and social, political, and even spiritual circumstances.
simile A figurative comparison using the words ""like"" or ""as.""
sonnet A popular form of verse consisting of fourteen lines and prescribed rhyme scheme.
stanza A group of two or more lines in poetry combined according to subject matter, rhyme, or some other plan.
stream of consciousness A style of writing in which the author tries to reproduce the random flow of human thoughts in the human mind.
style The manner in which an author uses and arranges words, shapes ideas, forms sentences, and creates a structure to convey ideas.
subplot A subordinate or minor collection of events in a novel or play, usually connected to the main plot.
subtext The implied meaning that underlies the main meaning of a work of literature.
symbolism The use of one object to evoke ideas an associations not literally part of the original object. ex. The letter ""A"" worn by Hester Prynne in ""The Scarlet Letter.""
synecdoche A figure of speech in which a part signifies the whole (""fifty masts"" for ""fifty ships""). When the name of a material stands for the thing itself, as in ""pigskin"" for ""football.""
syntax The organization of language into meaningful structure; every sentence has a particular syntax, or pattern of words.
theme The main idea or meaning, often an abstract idea upon which a work of literature is built.
title character A character whose name appears in the title of the novel or play; also known as the eponymous character.
tone The author's attitude toward the subject being written about. The tone is the characteristic emotion that pervades a work or part of a work--in other words, the spirit or quality that is the work's emotional essence.
tragedy A form of literature in which the hero is destroyed by some character flaw and a set of forces that cause the hero considerable anguish.
trope the generic name fir a figure of speech such as image, symbol, simile, and metaphor.
verbal irony A discrepancy between the true meaning of a situation and the literal meaning of the written and spoken words.
verse A synonym for poetry. Also a group of lines in a song or poem; also a single line of poetry.
verisimilitude Similar to the truth; the quality of realism in a work that persuades readers that they are getting a vision of life as it is.
versification The structural form of a line of verse as revealed by the number if feet it contains. ex. ""monometer"" = 1 foot, ""pentameter"" = 5 feet etc.
villanelle A French verse form calculated to appear simple and spontaneous but consisting of nineteen lines and a prescribed pattern of rhymes.
voice The real or assumed personality used by a writer or speaker. In grammar, active voice and passive voice refer to the use of verbs.
wit The quickness of intellect and the power and talent for saying brilliant things that surprise and delight by their unexpectedness; the power to comment subtly and pointedly on the foibles of the passing scene.