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30 Literary Devices Every High Schooler Needs to Know (With Examples)
Writing is a staple of your education and fundamental to nearly every profession, no matter what industry. How do you make your writing effective? One important component of great writing is the use of literary devices.
Why Should I Understand Literary Devices?
Understanding literary devices also helps you comprehend the work of others. For example, on the SAT reading test, you’ll need to understand and analyze the work of others. Being able to spot the literary devices the author is using will help you get a sense of the overall meanings behind the passages you encounter.
This is also useful knowledge to have for any social science or humanities class, where you’ll be expected to analyze and understand long works.
30 Literary Devices You Should Know
What is It: A work that symbolizes or represents an idea or event.
Example: The novel Animal Farm by George Orwell is an allegory for the Russian Revolution, with characters representing key figures in the movement.
What is It: The repetition of the same or similar consonant sounds in succession.
Example: She sells seashells by the seashore.
What is it: An indirect reference to a person, place, thing, event, or idea .
Example: The song “American Pie” by Don McLean is full of allusions to events that occurred in the 1950s and 60s. For instance, “February made me shiver” is an allusion to the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly on February 3, 1959.
What is it: A parallel between disparate ideas, people, things, or events that is more elaborate than a metaphor or simile.
Example: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.” —William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2
In this instance, Romeo is drawing an analogy between Juliet and a rose.
What is it: The interpretation of a nonhuman animal, event, or object as embodying human qualities or characteristics.
Example: Inanimate objects such as Mrs. Potts and Lumiere are anthropomorphized in Beauty and the Beast.
What is it: An intentional or unintentional error in chronology or a timeline.
Brutus: “Peace! Count the clock.”
Cassius: “The clock has stricken three.”
—William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 2, Scene 1
Mechanical clocks did not exist in 44 A.D., when the play takes place, so this the inclusion of the clock here is an anachronism.
What is it: An informal piece of dialogue or turn of phrase used in everyday conversation.
Example: Contractions such as “ain’t” are colloquialisms that are used in everyday conversation or dialogue to make the speaker and speech sound more authentic.
What is it: The word choice and speaking style of a writer or character.
Example: Diction is involved in almost every piece of writing because it is a vehicle for conveying the tone of the work. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck speaks in a distinctive way characterized by his lack of education and outsider status. This is his diction.
What is it: A poem expressing grief over a death.
Example: O Captain! My Captain! by Walt Whitman is an elegy for Abraham Lincoln.
What is it: A moment of sudden realization by a character.
Example: In the movie Clueless, Cher has an epiphany that she is in love with her stepbrother, Josh.
What is it: A less provocative or milder term used in place of a more explicit or unpleasant one.
Example: “I have to let you go” is a euphemistic expression for firing someone.
What is it: Hinting at future or subsequent events to come to build tension in a narrative.
Example: In William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the witches portend evil, chanting, “Something wicked this way comes.”
What is it: A statement that is obviously and intentionally exaggerated.
Example: “I have a million things to do” is a hyperbolic statement, since no individual actually has one million items on her to-do list.
What is it: A figure of speech that is indecipherable based on the words alone.
Example: “Don’t cut any corners” is an idiom; on its surface, it doesn’t make sense but is a known phrase that means don’t take shortcuts.
What is it: A compilation of sensory details that enable the reader to visualize the event.
Example: “Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.” —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
In this passage, Melville uses vivid imagery such as the “yawning gulf” and “sullen white surf” to capture the scene.
What is it: An instance of language conveying the opposite of its literal meaning:
- Verbal irony: speech that conveys the opposite of its literal meaning
- Situational irony: An event that occurs that is the opposite of what is expected
- Dramatic irony: Usually applied to theater or literature, an instance in which the audience knows something the characters involved do not
Verbal Irony: “That’s nice” as a response to an insulting statement is an instance of verbal irony.
Situational irony: In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus’s parents abandon him to prevent the prophecy of him killing his father and marrying his mother from coming true. The abandonment itself leads him to fulfill the prophecy.
Dramatic irony: In Psycho, the audience knows a killer approaching, but Marion does not.
What is it: Ideas, people, images, ideas, or object placed next to one another to highlight their differences.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”
—Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Here, Dickens juxtaposes multiple circumstances, uses opposites for emphasis.
What is it: An incorrect word intentionally or unintentionally used in place of a similar-sounding one, sometimes used for humorous effect.
“Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons.”
—William Shakespeare, Much Ado Without Nothing, Act 3, scene 5
The malapropisms, in this case, are the misuse of “comprehended” in place of “apprehended” and “auspicious” instead of “suspicious.”
What is it: A comparison of two ideas, events, objects, or people that does not use “like” or “as.”
An extended metaphor is a lengthy metaphor that continues the comparison for several sentences, paragraphs, or even pages.
“But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief.”
—William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2
Here, the sun is a metaphor for Juliet.
What is it: The general feeling the speaker evokes in the reader through the atmosphere, descriptions, and other features.
“Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before”
—Edgar Allen Poe, The Raven
Poe evokes an air of mystery in the opening lines of his poem, setting a dark mood.
What is it: A word the is closely associated or identical to the sound it describes.
What is it: A pairing of seemingly contradictory terms used to convey emphasis or tension.
“A fine mess”: this is an oxymoronic characterization because “fine” is typically associated with beauty and order, while “mess” is the opposite.
What is it: An apparent contradiction that, upon further unraveling, may contain truth, used for effect on the reader.
Hamlet: “I must be cruel to be kind.”
—William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 4
In this instance, Hamlet must, in fact, act in a seemingly cruel way in order to ultimately be kind.
What is it: Lending descriptions generally applied to human beings to nonhumans. This term differs from anthropomorphism in that the nonhuman entities are not thought to behave in human-like ways but are merely described in these terms.
Example: The shadows danced on the wall.
Shadows do not actually dance, but the lending of the human action personifies them.
What is it: Multiple instances of a word or phrase, often in succession, used for emphasis.
“The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
—Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
The repetition emphasizes the length of the speaker’s journey.
What is it: A phrase or entire work that uses irony to critique behaviors, events, people, or vices.
Example: Animal Farm is a work of satire, critiquing Stalinism and the politics Soviet Union.
What is it: A comparison between objects, events, or people that uses “like” or “as.”
“I wandered lonely as a cloud
that floats on high o’er vales and hills.”
—William Wordsworth, Daffodils
“Lonely as a cloud” is a simile, comparing the states of isolation.
What is it: Something used to represent a larger concept or idea.
In Macbeth, the “spot” Lady Macbeth cannot get off her dress is a symbol of her guilt-stained conscience.
What is it: An instance of a part representing a whole or vice versa.
Example: When someone refers to looking out at a “sea of faces,” the faces represent whole people.
What is it: The speaker or narrator’s attitude toward the subject of the piece, distinct from mood in that it is not used to evoke a particular feeling in the reader.
“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
—Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken
The speaker is evoking a tone of unhappiness and possible regret with the words “with a sigh.”
To learn more about using rhetorical devices, read How to Use Rhetorical Devices in Your College Essay.
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