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Literary Terms for English Learners


Literary terms can be challenging to English language learners who may feel that mastery of reading skills, as well as good writing skills depends mostly on understanding sentence structure. This guide to basic literary terms will helps students begin exploring different writing techniques, as well as help them become familiar with common stylistic writing tools that will help them in academic English settings, or English tests such as the TOEFL or Cambridge exams.


Definition: Allegory is a style of writing that makes a connection between events, people and places that go beyond the story or sentence.

Example: In Animal Farm by George Orwell the animals and the organization of is an allegory for society in general.

author tone

Definition: The voice or 'feeling' that an author gives to his writing. The author's tone may be ironic, sarcastic, witty, light, serious, and so on.

Example: The howling wind continued to blow as John made his way down the dark lane with only a flashlight to show the way. - In this example, the author's tone could be called 'erie', 'frightening' or 'spooky'.


Definition: A book about someone's life written by that person.

Example: Lee Iacocca's autobiography has provided inspiration for thousands of hard working business people.


Definition: A book about someone's life written by another person.

Example: Steve Job's biography shows both his genius and vengeful character.


Definition: A short chapter or selection at the end of a story or other written work.

Example: Many popular books that are republished many times include epilogues which update the reader on the current thoughts of the author.


Definition: A story that is not true.

Example: Novels, epic tales and science fiction are all examples of fiction. They inspire us to think and entertain, but do not relate factual stories.

figure of speech

Definition: Words or phrases that have a different meaning than what the words literally mean. Idioms, metaphors and similes are all figures of speech.

Example: Every cat has nine lives.


Definition: The type of written work. There are a wide range of genres which include: science fiction, historical fiction, instructional manuals, comedy, poetry, horror, etc.

Example: The genres I most prefer reading are historical and science fiction, as well as autobiographies.


Definition: A phrase that is used in everyday speech that is not literal in meaning. Idioms can also be called figures of speech.

Example: I got a letter from Tim out of the blue. (out of the blue = unexpectedly)


Definition: The use of descriptive language to create a scene in the reader's mind

Example: She opened the creaking door silently and entered the damp, dusty room that looked like something out of the middle ages.


Definition: Making an educated guess about something based on facts and other information known about something.

Example: The author made a number of inferences as to the likely whereabouts of the criminal based on evidence about his movements around the country.


Definition: Indirectly stating something bad about another person.

Example: The fact that senator received most of his donations from corporations might explain why they've had little problem with regulations.


Definition: The use of words to convey a meaning that is opposite of its literally true. Authors also use ironic situations to show that something has turned out quite unexpectedly.

Example: Fancy meeting you at the party! (A character might say this to a person who had told him that he couldn't attend a party)

main idea

Definition: The main idea is also referred to as the thesis in essays or topic sentence in a paragraph.

Example: (In the first paragraph of an essay) Parents must strive to help children strike a balance between study and play.


Definition: A word or phrase which is used to convey representative or symbolic information of something else, but it not literally true.

Example: My daughter's room is a disaster area.


Definition: The reason a character does something.

Example: The main character seemed to desire wealth and status over everything.


Definition: A tone that is neither biassed for or against a subject.

Example: Most news stories strive to take a neutral tone. However, editorials are generally biased for or against the subject of the article.


Definition: Written work that is true, or strives to reflect reality.

Example: Scientific research might be speculative in nature, but it is certainly non-fiction.


Definition: Persuasive writing tries to convince the reader of the author's point of view either for or against something.

Example: (from an essay) In this essay, you will discover why it is essential to fund arts programs for our children.


Definition: The plot is the general story of a written, filmed or theatrical work.

Example: The plot becomes confusing when you discover that the hero used to be a double agent.

point of view

Definition: Point of view refers to how a story is narrated. First person point of view uses I, me, my, etc., while third person point of view employes he, she, her, him, and so on.

Example: (first person narration) I've lived in this town a long time. Come with me, and I'll show you both the good and the bad.


Definition: A beginning to a written or performed theatrical work.

Example: The prologue provides the background essential to understanding what happens during the course of the novel.


Definition: Word for word phrase, sentences, etc. that is placed in quotation marks coming from another person.

Example: Thomas stated, "I don't understand why you find him so attractive."


Definition: Similar to irony, sarcasm is used when stating the opposite of what someone feels in order to criticize the actions of another.

Example: That was SO helpful Anna. Thank you for your contribution. (the character feels Anna's information was not helpful)


Definition: The order in which things occur in a story, or other written work.

Example: First, second, third, next, then, finally, etc.


Definition: The place in which a story takes place.

Example: The setting in the novel is in mid 19th century New York in homes of the upper classes.


Definition: A comparison of two things using 'as' or 'like'.

Example: She felt as free as a bird.

topic sentence

Definition: The main idea of a paragraph.

Example: The ease with which students can learn new vocabulary indicates how successful they will be on tests.

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