Echoing Your English Teachers: The Basics

You may remember these literary terms — they're among the ones most emphasized in high school and college English classes. In fact, you probably use many of them without thinking of their specific definitions. If you've said you're so hungry you could eat a horse — that's both hyperbole and a cliché. If you've described two outcomes as having the “same difference,” you've used an oxymoron. Look at the list and see which others you recognize.

  • alliteration

    the repetition of beginning sounds in words (e.g., sweet Sue or March Madness)

  • antonym

    a word that is the opposite of another (e.g., happy is an antonym of sad)

  • cliché

    an overused expression (e.g., over the hill and always been there for me)

  • euphemism

    the use of a gentler word or phrase in place of something explicit or harsh (e.g., “buy the farm” instead of “die”)

  • hyperbole

    conscious exaggeration to make a point (e.g., “Sandy is as skinny as a rail”)

  • metaphor

    a comparison without using like or as; (e.g., “The prisoner's icy eyes stared at me”; eyes are compared to ice, with no like or as)

  • onomatopoeia

    words or phrases that sound like what they mean (e.g., buzz and kerplunk)

  • oxymoron

    a phrase in which seemingly incompatible or contradictory terms are combined (e.g., definite maybe)

  • palindrome

    a word or phrase that is spelled the same backwards and forwards (e.g., kayak and a Toyota)

  • parody

    a work that makes fun of or imitates the style of another work, either affectionately or harshly

  • personification

    giving human qualities to places or things that aren't human (e.g., “The sun smiled on my wedding day”)

  • simile

    the comparison of two unlike persons or objects, using the word like or as (e.g., “overcooked meat as dry as the Sahara”)

  • symbol

    something that represents something else

  • synonym

    a word that means the same or nearly the same as another word

As you write, look for places you can use these literary terms. You can add spice to your fiction writing by including more personification, alliteration, onomatopoeia, metaphors, or similes. Alternately, look for clichés; reword them to show more originality.

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