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10 Literary Terms You Should Know

abstract:When discussing books and examining literature we sometimes run into literary devices whose name and definition have escaped us since college and university days. Recognizing them and discussing their use elevates your discussions. Here is a test to refresh your memory.

Match these literary terms with the definitions below. 10/10: Head of the class; 8/10 Still teacher's pet; 6/10 Some review required; 4 or less: Purchase one of the reference books below.

  1.  Allegory
  2.  Metaphor
  3.  Parody
  4.  Allusion
  5.  Irony
  6.  Satire
  7.  Simile
  8.  Aphorism
  9.  Personification
  10.  Paradox


A. An imitation of the work of another for the purpose of ridicule that is sometimes humorous.

B. A brief reference to a person, event, or place -- real or fictitious, or to a work of art. May be drawn from history, geography, literature or religion.

C. The comparison of two unlike things using the verb "to be" and not like or as.

D. A literary device used to make fun of human vice or weakness, often with the intent of correcting or changing the subject of attack.

E.  A form of extended metaphor, in which objects, persons, and actions in a narrative are equated with the meanings that lie outside the narrative itself. In other words it's when a story has two (or more) meanings: a literal meaning and a symbolic meaning.


March 12, 2011
F. A comparison of two unlike things using like or as such as this well known Robbie Burns verse, "My love is like a red, red rose." It sets two unlike things together so that we can infer qualities between them - the simplest of poetic devices.

G. A contradictory truth: "I always lie," or "Standing is more tiring than walking."

H. A brief saying embodying a moral statement or principle: Lost time is never found again.

I. An expression or utterance marked by a deliberate contrast between apparent and intended meaning, often for humorous or rhetorical effect. A situation may have been coincidental or improbable but leads us to draw a conclusion about the inconsistencies of human condition or fate itself: Suzie moved from New York to California to find a husband and there she met and married a man from New Jersey.

J. Giving human qualities to inanimate objects or animals: The smiling moon


  1. C
  2. A
  3.  B
  4.  I
  5. D
  6. F
  7. H
  8. J
  9. G

Online Sources For Literary Terms

We highly recommend you have at least one resource book at your bedside and desk for easy reference. Here are a few good ones:

The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory: Scholarly, succinct, comprehensive and entertaining...and indispensable work of reference. The Times Literary Supplement

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms: This is a clear and comprehensive reference for academics, intellectuals, and anyone else who wants to hold forth intelligently on subjects literary and critical. --Jane Steinberg  

The Norton Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism: promises to become the standard anthology in its field. Edited by scholars and teachers whose interests range through an exhaustive source of literary theories and provide actual text excerpts the reader must interpret for themselves.

The Oxford Dictionary of  Allusions contents have been drawn from a wide-ranging reading program designed to identify the allusions encountered most frequently in literature both modern and canonical. Thus, it covers classical myths and modern culture and ranges from "Ahab" to "Teflon," "Eve" to "Darth Vader."  A supremely useful dictionary that is highly recommended.

The Describer's Dictionary We threw this one in as it seems to have pushed the buttons of the reviewers in different ways.  More a writer's reference when in a word stump, but equally useful to readers looking for a broader, more colloquial sense of word usage.  



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