Say it Right: Literary devices that make words hum
Are you a student who scrutinizes a piece of literature to its very depths and in every innuendo? Are you an individual who reads for personal pleasure and fulfillment?
Whichever path you choose, certain literary terms may make the travels easier and more rewarding.
Some general terms apply to nearly any piece of literature. A work’s atmosphere speaks of its feeling, emotion or mood.
If this atmosphere is poignant, it has a strong effect on the emotions or senses, especially smell.
A farcical piece is a type of comedy, with highly funny and exaggerated situations, different from other comedy in that its only aim is to make the audience laugh.
Yet another type of humor is satirical. This holds up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn, allowing for sarcasm or irony.
A fallacy is an incorrect belief or reasoning or just an erroneous idea.
More positive is euphony, which describes literature as sweet voiced. Its words and phrases have a sense of melody or loveliness in the sounds they create.
Some literary terms are more specific in their use. An oxymoron is a figure of speech in which two opposite ideas create a contradicting effect: cruel kindness or efficient waste.
It is human to comprehend ideas by means of contrast, so juxtaposition is a device that helps writers show their character in detail, create suspense or provide a rhetorical effect. A writer may thus amplify the goodness in a character by showing him or her beside someone of pure evil.
In “Tale of Two Cities,” Dickens began with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” and continued to show severe disparity, or juxtaposition, throughout the novel.
Shakespeare displayed this also with the juxtaposition of light and darkness in “Romeo and Juliet.”
Pathos in a work of art stirs up emotions of pity, sympathy or sorrow. It is also a method of convincing people with an argument drawn out through emotional responses.
This next term may sound similar to pathos or fallacy, but pathetic fallacy is a device in its own; it attributes human qualities and emotions to inanimate objects of nature. The word pathetic is not used in the derogatory sense of misery; it stands for imparting emotions to something else.
This should not be confused with personification. The former is a category of personification and gives emotions to nature, such as weather reflecting a mood. Personification is the broader term that gives human attributes to abstract ideas, animate objects of nature, or inanimate non-nature objects.
A rather unusual term is hyperbaton, which refers to an inversion in the arrangement of common words. An example of this broader version of hypallage is in Shakespeare’s, “some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.”
One of my favorite devices is a double entendre, which is a phrase that may have multiple senses, interpretations or which might be understood in two different ways: Mae West is quoted as saying, “Marriage is a fine institution, but I’m not ready for an institution.” Institution has two meanings here: marriage is an important custom in our society, and secondly, marriage could be something that causes one to go to a mental institution.
Finally, snark is a term that combines the words snide and remark. It is a witty, cynical and sarcastic comment in writing or speech. Robert Frost in “Mending Walls” and Geoffrey Chaucer in “Canterbury Tales” are among literary giants credited with this variously sophisticated, witty or asinine device. And if you are not interested in old literary pieces, you may well find this term used in current everyday texting.
Sandi Ekberg taught high school English in Medford for 30 years. If you have grammar questions, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.