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Selected Pretentious Literary Terminology

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Ever wanted to wow your peers with a sophisticated and verbose command of the English language, but couldn't be bothered with a linguistics degree? Well, here's your chance! This is a list of terms usually found only in the essays of English students, so you can understand their arcane and esoteric ramblings about, for example, why The Battle of Maldon is a really good bit of Old English, or precisely how Shakespeare made his Sonnets so interesting.

Alliteration and Assonance

These two terms tackle a truly tedious type of terminology - repetition. Alliteration is the term used to denote the repetition of consonants, as in the previous sentence (repeated snakelike 's' sounds are called sibilants), whereas Assonance refers to 'chiming' or repeated similar vowel sounds; 'anger ran sanguine through him', for example.


Anacoluthon is a sentence that lacks grammatical sequence, such as 'while in the garden the chair fell over'.


Anacrusis is where the beginning of a verse of poetry opens with an unstressed syllable. 'And where the great offence is let the great axe fall' from Act IV Scene 5 of Hamlet is a good demonstration of this.


Anaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the start of successive clauses or verse lines. A good example is to be found in Blake's The Tyger:

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp.
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?


Bathos is an anticlimax, or a shift in mood from the sublime to the ridiculous. For example:

... he ran up the stairs, thunder rolling around the house. A sense of dread built like black smoke in his mind. In haste he sped along the landing, breathless. He kicked open the door, ran into the room and slipped on the banana skin in the doorway.'


This is a pause in the middle of a verse line, or a break in metrical rhythm. Examples are to be found in Old English poetry, among others.


This means being either excessively verbose or evasive, by talking 'round' the subject.

The Classical Unities

The three Aristotelian 'Unities' of classical drama are supposed to be the ultimate purist in writing for the stage, an idealised structure which a playwright should strive to include in his work. These Unities are of Time, Place and Action; that is, the events described in a play should ideally be set in 'real time' or at least be set within the space of a single day, in a single place and be concerned with one overriding idea. Of Shakespeare's plays, the one which follows these Unities most closely is The Tempest, as it is set over the space of a day, on an island, and concerns the restoration of the status quo (the end of Prospero's exile, the release of Ariel from his servitude and the marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda).


This is the omission of words from a sentence whose presence is inherently understood but not necessary. For instance, the 23rd [of] February.


A piece of writing or a speech which praises someone, often someone recently deceased.


A softer, milder word or phrase put in place of a harsher or more direct one. Saying someone has 'passed on' instead of 'died' is a typical example.


A word that sounds like another which has a different spelling. A good example is the central character in Blade Runner being called Deckard, which is a homophone of Descartes.


An over exaggerated statement, typically not meant to be taken literally, and sometimes used to convey an ironic tone. 'He's a million times better than you' or 'trying to think of a good example of hyperbole is the most difficult thing in the world', for instance. See also Litotes (qv).

Iambic Pentameter

The principal metre of Shakespeare's verse, which comprises ten syllables or five iambs per verse line. An iamb is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one.

Dactyls, Iambs, Spondees and Trochees

  • Dactyl - a metrical 'foot', or unit of verse metre, that consists of three syllables, the first stressed, the other two unstressed. For example:

    Fraught with a later prize' from Shelley's Hellas, which demonstrates two dactyls in a row.

  • Iamb - see Iambic Pentameter (qv).

  • Spondee - a metrical foot comprising two stressed syllables.

  • Trochee - a metrical foot made up of a stressed syllable followed by a an unstressed one.


The opposite of hyperbole (qv); in other words, pointed understatement for typically ironic effect, where the negative is used to convey the opposite (positive) meaning. Anglo-Saxon verse has many examples of this, such as 'not small was his anger, nor few his enemies.'


Named after the character Mrs Malaprop from Sheridan's play The Rivals (herself named after the French phrase 'mal รก propos'), this is where a difficult to pronounce word is substituted with an inappropriate homophone (qv) for comic effect. For example, 'I'm at the pineapple of my success' (instead of pinnacle).


A figurative comparison which suggests a much closer relationship between the compared things than a simile (qv); that is to say, something is not merely 'like' something else - it practically is something else. The most poetic and elegant form of comparison. For example:

Thou art thy mother's glass, and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime.


This is the term beloved of sadistic English teachers, and is often the really, really hard word to spell at the end of a spelling test. It means a word that sounds like the action or thing it describes. Hence 'buzzing' or 'screech'.


Juxtaposed words with opposite meanings, such as 'bitter-sweet'.

The Pathetic Fallacy

'As above, so below.' More precisely, the central character or narrator's emotions or mood externalised and represented by the macrocosmic world, typically by the weather (eg, rain indicates gloom and so forth). This is typically found in the brooding works of Thomas Hardy.


A word or phrase that is the same when reversed; 'rotor' or 'Satan oscillate metallic sonatas' for example. Sadly, the phrase 'Ipswich is the palindrome of Bolton', despite the claims of Monty Python, is an incorrect usage of this term.


The arousing of sadness, remorse or pity, typically in either speech or the written word.

The Rhetorical Question

This is a question, typically posed in political or public speech, in which the answer (frequently either 'yes' or 'no') is implied in the question itself. The desired effect of this is to convince the speaker's audience of a fact without seeming to be trying to.

Famous examples of this can be found in Mark Anthony's 'Friends, Romans, Countrymen' speech in Act 3 Scene II of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar ('I thrice presented him a kingly crown,/ Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?') and in Squealer's rhetorical speeches in Orwell's Animal Farm.


A figurative comparison using either 'like' or 'as'; for instance, 'eyes as round as saucers' or 'he towered over me like a mountain.'


Needless repetition of the meaning of a word, more often than not an adjective. 'A really big huge dog', for example.


This is where two nouns are both modified by the same verb or adjective, with the meaning of the verb or adjective subtly modified by its usage. 'She broke his heart and windows', for instance.

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