Literary devices can be loosely defined as techniques or methods a writer uses to convey messages and enhance writing. Literary devices are numerous and diverse, serving different purposes depending on the writer’s intention. Some of the reasons a writer uses literary devices are to refine the language, create more vivid descriptions, enrich narratives, and highlight important concepts or ideas.
Literary Devices as Beautifying Language
The use of literary devices is particularly common in literature and creative writing, such as when writing a creative essay, creative non-fiction, or descriptive essay. Poetry, drama, prose, legends, folktales, myths—all of these are beautified through the use of various literary devices. But most students know a few literary devices, there are many others that are not as well-known. Simile, metaphor, and personification are certainly some of the most popular. How about the rest? Refresh your memory with these commonly used literary devices:
Simile features the direct comparison of two things that are often unrelated to each other but have something in common. This can be considered as the easiest and most straightforward way to describe something since it uses comparative phrases such as “like” and “as.” The simile is a very old technique and has existed since ancient times. The great philosopher Aristotle, for instance, wrote about simile, while writers like William Shakespeare used this technique. The simile is often used in both verse and prose because of its wide application. The following are examples of simile:
“In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whispering and the champagne and the stars.”
– F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby. This example likens men and women to moths to give the description an elegant quality.
“And when I felt like I was an old cardigan”
– Taylor Swift, “Cardigan”. In this song, Taylor likens herself to an old cardigan to describe how she has been discarded by her lover.
A metaphor is also a figure of speech that compares two things that are unrelated but have some similarities. There is a difference between simile and metaphor, however. Whereas simile directly compares two things, metaphor is a less direct way of comparing things. The metaphor does not use signal words such as “like” or “as”. Like simile, the metaphor has existed for as long as language has been around. It can be seen in every genre of literature. The following are examples of metaphor:
“You’re not my homeland anymore
So what am I defendin’ now?
You were my town
Now I’m in exile seein’ you out”
– Taylor Swift, “Exile”. In this song, Swift compares her boyfriend to her hometown or homeland to show how she once felt so comfortable being with him.
"There was a time when love was blind
And the world was a song
And the song was exciting”
– “I Dreamed a Dream” (From the musical Les Miserables). This song compares the world to a song in order to suggest that the world was once a beautiful place.
Personification is done by representing an inanimate object or abstract idea as if it is a person. In other words, the key idea behind personification is giving human-like characteristics to something not human. Personification is a very old literary device. Scholars claim that it existed as early as biblical times thousands of years ago and was widely used by the Greeks and the Romans in their art and literature. The following are examples of personification:
“When Summer lies upon the world, and in a noon of gold,
Beneath the roof of sleeping leaves the dreams of trees unfold;
When woodland halls are green and cool, and wind is in the West,
Come back to me! Come back to me, and say my land is best!”
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. In this example, Summer and leaves are given human attributes since they are described as capable of laying down and dreaming.
“Have you ever heard the wolf cry to the blue corn moon
Or asked the grinning bobcat why he grinned
Can you sing with all the voices of the mountains”
– “Colors of the Wind” (From the film Pocahontas). In this example, the bobcat is given the human ability to smile while the mountains are given the human ability to speak.
Hyperbole refers to deliberately exaggerated statements or claims. Such statements are usually impossible or simply untrue and therefore are not meant to be taken literally; rather, exaggeration is done to emphasize meaning, create a deep impression, or elicit strong emotions. Hyperbole comes from the Greek words “huper”, which means “over”, and “ballein”, which means “to throw”. In other words, hyperbole derives from the idea of going way over. The following are examples of hyperbole:
“You’re giving me a million reasons to let you go
You’re giving me a million reasons to quit the show”
– Lady Gaga, “Million Reasons”. Lady Gaga probably cannot list one million reasons, but the exaggerated number emphasizes how the singer has a lot of reasons to leave.
“And when you smile
The whole world stops and stares for a while
‘Cause girl, you're amazing
Just the way you are”
– Bruno Mars, “Just the Way You Are”. The lyrics of this song are made overly dramatic to emphasize the singer’s devotion to his loved one.
Alliteration is a literary device that features the repetition of a similar vowel or consonant sounds close to each other. Alliteration has been used for over a thousand years and is present in many languages apart from English. But the term was coined only in the 15th century by Giovanni Pontano, an Italian humanist and writer. Alliteration is often used to create rhyme and is especially prominent in children’s rhymes and tongue twisters. The following are examples of alliteration:
“Whisper words of wisdom, let it be”
– The Beatles, "Let It Be." This example shows how alliteration adds rhyme to the lyrics of a song.
“Godric Gryffindor”; “Rowena Ravenclaw”; “Helga Hufflepuff”; and “Salazar Slytherin.”
– J.K. Rowling (From the Harry Potter book series). The Harry Potter book series features alliterative names to make the characters more colorful and magical.
Analogy refers to the comparison of two things that are largely different from each other in order to draw similar aspects. By drawing similar aspects between two things, the writer is able to explain one thing through the other thing. In other words, the first thing sets a pattern, and this pattern is used to explain the second thing. The following are examples of analogy:
“You are sunlight and I moon
Joined by the gods of fortune”
– “Sun and Moon” (From the musical Miss Saigon). This song compares the singer and his or her partner with the sun and the moon. Like the sun and moon which naturally belong in the same sky, the singer and the partner belong to each other.
“The mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone.”
– Tyrion Lannister (From The Game of Thrones drama series). In this example, Tyrion likens the mind to a sword. Just as a whetstone keeps a sword sharp, reading keeps the mind intelligent.
Antithesis is a literary device that features the use of words or phrases that are opposites. These opposing elements are introduced together, often using parallel structure, for the purpose of emphasizing a single message. Antithesis can also come in the form of a statement that reverses a previous statement. The contrast created by opposites or reversal helps illuminate the point as well as enhance the rhetorical appeal of the message. Like most literary devices, antithesis has been used since ancient times; and the philosopher Aristotle wrote about it in his work titled “Rhetoric.” The following are examples of antithesis:
“Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick, a shadow on the wall. And a very small man can cast a very large shadow.”
– Lord Varys (From The Game of Thrones drama series). In this example, the character Lord Varys contrasts the size of a small man with the size of his shadow to give the message that even seemingly insignificant people can amass great power.
“I can make the bad guys good for a weekend”
– Taylor Swift, “Blank Space”. In this example, Swift contrasts “bad” with “good” to make the point that she can charm men into changing.
Euphemism is the use of a word or a phrase considered as more acceptable as a substitute for a word or phrase considered as negative, offensive, or vulgar. This literary device may also refer to using a milder tone, often to indicate sympathy or mask the harshness of a word. Euphemism comes from the Greek word “euphemia,” which means “good prophetic words.” The following are examples of a euphemism:
“He felt something strike his chest, and that his body was being thrown swiftly through the air, on and on, immeasurably far and fast, while his limbs were gently relaxed. Then, because the picture-making mechanism was crushed, the disturbing visions flashed into black, and Paul dropped back into the immense design of things.”
– Willa Cather, “Paul’s Case”. In this example, Cather offers a less graphic description of the character’s death after getting hit by a train.
“...thanks to our fear of death in this country, I won't have to die. I'll [just] pass away.”
George Carlin, Euphemisms. In this example, Carlin utilized euphemism as it is for a stand-up comedy session.
Imagery basically refers to the use of descriptive language in writing with the aim of making the reader create mental images. In other words, imagery helps the reader imagine what is happening. Imagery is perhaps the most commonly used literary device since the description is essential in the narrative. Effective imagery uses vivid language that appeals to the senses (i.e., sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste). For instance, when describing a house, do not just tell the reader that there is a house; rather, describe its dimensions, color, and state in detail. The following are examples of imagery:
“It was a big, squarish frame house that had once been white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily lightsome style of the seventies, set on what had once been our most select street. But garages and cotton gins had encroached and obliterated even the august names of that neighborhood; only Miss Emily's house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps—an eyesore among eyesores.”
– William Faulkner, “A Rose for Emily”. This example shows how Faulkner uses detailed descriptions to help the reader imagine the setting.
“The castle of Cair Paravel on its little hill towered up above them; before them were the sands, with rocks and little pools of salt water, and seaweed, and the smell of the sea and long miles of bluish-green waves breaking for ever and ever on the beach. And oh, the cry of the seagulls!”
– C.S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. This example shows how Lewis uses creative words to describe the setting of the scene.
Metonymy refers to using a concept when referring to another concept that is closely associated with it. In other words, this literary device uses one concept as a substitute for another concept simply because the chosen concept is associated with the other concept being referred to. Metonymy comes from the Greek word “metonymia,” which means “a change of name.” The following are examples of metonymy:
“The Crown and the Faith are the twin pillars upon which the world rests. Together we will restore the Seven Kingdoms to glory.”
– Tommen Baratheon (From The Game of Thrones drama series). In this example, the character Tommen uses “crown” to refer to the monarchical government that rules the Seven Kingdoms.
“Our ambassador to the United States of America, Sir Roger Makins. The only honest thing to come out of Washington.”
– Princess Margaret (From The Crown drama series), using “Washington” to refer to the government of the United States.
Irony refers to the use of a completely opposite notion in place of what is actually meant. The tricky part about irony is that it can easily be taken literally and therefore incorrectly interpreted. Detecting irony requires understanding the context or situation in which it is delivered. According to English scholar Henry Watson Fowler, the most essential definition of irony is that a statement’s surface meaning is different from its underlying meaning. Sarcasm is an example of verbal irony. The following are examples of irony:
“Shall I explain to you in one easy lesson how the world works”
“Use small words. I am not as bright as you.”
– Tywin Lannister (From The Game of Thrones drama series). On the surface, Tyrion appears to be telling his father Tywin that he (Tyrion) is less intelligent. But this statement is sarcasm and its underlying meaning indicates that Tywin is being preachy and controlling.
Mrs. Bennet: “You have no compassion for my poor nerves.”
Mr. Bennet: “You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these last twenty years at least.”
– Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice. On the surface, Mr. Bennet is telling Mrs. Bennet that he regards Mrs. Bennet’s nerves as friends. But Mr. Bennet is being sarcastic here. What he means is that Mrs. Bennet has been nagging him for a very long time.
Onomatopoeia is the use of words that sound like the actual sounds they refer to. Like many other literary devices, onomatopoeia is derived from Greek. The literal meaning of this word is “imitating the sound.” This literary device is often used to add color to the description. The following are examples of onomatopoeia:
“Boom, boom, boom. Even brighter than the moon, moon, moon.”
– Katy Perry, “Firework”. In this song, Perry uses the word “boom” to imitate the sound of fireworks and maintain the motif set by the song’s title.
“While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.”
– Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven.” This is an excellent example onomatopoeia, as Poe imitates the actual sound the speaker hears in the poem.
These are only just a few of the literary devices that the English language has. While using these literary devices gives your writing depth and vitality, coming up with fresh and original literary devices can be difficult. So many literary devices have been made up and used before that there is always that risk of crafting something flat or cliché.
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