Most Common Literary Devices: Examples and Definitions
Literary devices are techniques and strategies that writers use to strengthen their writing. Whether they are trying to make their arguments more persuasive or better inform readers about a particular topic or create a stronger emotional connection with their audience, authors use literary devices to elevate their work.
When you’re in English class, you will often be required to identify the use of literary devices in the various texts you read and utilize these devices in your own writing.
As such, it’s important for you to know the most common literary devices and how they are used. This Prep Expert guide will help you make strides in English class by walking you through the ins and outs of literary devices.
For additional information about literary devices and other resources for doing well in English, check out our private English tutoring.
The most common literary devices
Here are a few literary devices (with examples!) that you should know:
An allegory is a story that is used to represent and illustrate a significant, big-picture idea or event. Allegories are efficient ways to help readers make sense of complex events and ideologies.
Example: George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a fictional story that uses an animal-run farm to represent the Russian Revolution.
Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of adjacent words. Alliteration is a useful tool for helping writers emphasize certain concepts that they want their readers to remember.
Example: The brawny boy built a bungalow.
Analogies compare two different concepts to help clarify a similarity between the two ideas. Authors use analogies to highlight significant similarities that may otherwise be overlooked.
Example: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet uses analogy in the infamous balcony scene when Juliet compares a name to a rose saying, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other word would smell as sweet./So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called” (2.2.43-45).
Colloquialism involves using informal language to help make a text or speech more relatable, relevant, and realistic.
Example: Having a teenage character say, “What’s up?” instead of “Hello, may I ask how you are doing today?”
Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds in any part of a word. Unlike alliteration, this repetition does not necessarily have to come at the beginning of the word.
Example: The dog barked at the lark as it flew through the park.
Dramatic irony is a writing technique in which the author reveals information to the audience that characters in the story do not know.
Example: If readers know that the enemy in a story has planned an ambush, but the protagonist in the story is unaware and about to walk into the enemy’s trap.
A phrase that replaces a harsher concept or idea. Speakers often use euphemisms to soften bad news and sound more polite.
Example: Saying a dog was “put down,” instead of saying that the dog was euthanized.
Epistrophe is the repetition of the same word or phrase at the end of successive sentences. Speakers often use epistrophe to drive home important points in their speeches.
Example: In the “Gettysburg Address,” Abraham Lincoln says, “…government of the people, by the people, for the people…”
Foreshadowing are hints about what will happen in a story in the future.
Example: A character coughing a lot in the beginning of the movie may foreshadow that the character will develop a serious illness later on in the movie.
Hyperbole is extreme exaggeration that is used to make a point. Writers and speakers use exaggeration to highlight the importance of an idea they are trying to communicate.
Example: Saying, “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse,” “I could defend my argument in a thousand ways,” or “We’ve been fighting for this cause since the Stone Age.”
Imagery involves using vivid descriptions to help readers imagine and experience an idea, story, or poem. Strong authors use imagery to help readers paint a picture of different scenes and ideas in their minds.
Example: Instead of saying, “The food was amazing” saying “The lure of the grilled onions on the lucious hamburgers caused Jim to salivate. As he bit into the burger, the crunch of the lettuce and juice of the patty overwhelmed his senses and made him eager to devour every last bite.”
A metaphor is a figure of speech that uses a direct comparison between two seemingly unsimilar concepts or objects to highlight their similarities.
Example: Emphasizing that someone was moving slowly by saying “he is a sloth.”
Metonymy is a literary device that involves substituting an object or idea for an attribute with which it is closely associated.
Example: Saying, “You ran into the back of me,” in a fender bender instead of “Your car ran into the back of my car.”
A motif is a recurring idea or action in a story that holds a deeper meaning.
Example: The recurring use of balloons and how they are used to attract children toward monsters is deeply symbolic in Stephen King’s It.
An oxymoron is a literary device in which two words with opposite meanings are in close proximity to one another.
Example: That guinea pig is pretty ugly. The girl addressed her father with scalding coolness. There was a deafening silence in the room.
Personification involves giving human qualities and characteristics to nonhuman things. Usually authors use personification to make their work more descriptive.
Example: The wind whistled through the trees. The sun smiled down on the neighborhood.
A rhetorical question is a question that is not meant to be answered. Speakers often use rhetorical questions to provoke thought.
Example: “What’s not to like?” or “Are you kidding me?”
A simile is similar to a metaphor, except for it uses “like” or “as” when making a comparison between two things.
Example: That girl moves like a sloth. That girl is as slow as a sloth.
Synecdoche is a figure of speech in which a part of an object stands in for the entire object.
Example: “All hands on deck” uses synecdoche because “hands” refers to people.
Verbal irony occurs when a speaker or author intentionally says the opposite of what they mean. This is usually used to emphasize a point that they are trying to communicate.
Example: If someone looks at their child’s messy room and says, “Wow, it looks spotless in here!”
Why literary devices are important
Ultimately, authors and speakers use literary devices because they help highlight important ideas that the audience may otherwise miss or gloss over.
Some people are not able to fully understand the importance of historical events like the Russian Revolution and how these events came to be without reading about them through allegory.
Some people are not able to picture how serious a circumstance is until they see it compared with something they recognize is serious through the use of a simile or a metaphor.
Some people will not remember the call-to-action of a speech without the use of alliteration or epistrophe.
Some people are not able to self-reflect and see the role they can play in reaching a collective goal until they are asked a rhetorical question.
Literary devices serve a significant purpose, which is why they are often a major part of many English courses.
Learning more about literary devices
If you want to be an effective writer and communicator, you will want to be able to use the literary devices above as well as other literary techniques and devices that can strengthen your work. If you want to learn more about literary devices, there are a few steps you can take:
While this might seem like a simple step, it is one of the most effective ways to improve your knowledge of literary devices. The more books, plays, speeches, and poems you read, the more familiar you will become with the different literary devices the authors and speakers use to express their ideas.
Practice using literary devices
Using the definitions and examples above for the most common literary devices, start incorporating these devices into your own writing.
Practice makes perfect. The more you use techniques and devices like similes, metaphors, and personification, the easier it will be for you to recognize these devices and use them well.
You can also practice by looking at famous speeches, soliloquies, and excerpts from texts and trying to identify as many literary devices as possible as you read.
A few good texts to start with include Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” and poems written by Walt Whitman.
Work with a private tutor
A private tutor can help you learn to use the terms mentioned in this guide as well as countless other literary devices.
Working with a private tutor will give you the chance to not only learn about these devices but also to understand how to use these devices in an efficient manner.
Prep Expert hires high quality tutors with the expertise and experience necessary to help you learn how to master literary devices and other English-related concepts.
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