Teacher's Guide

A Literary Glossary for Literature and Language Arts

Illustration of two women reading with banner "Literary Society" below the image. 
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Illustration of two women reading with banner "Literary Society" below the image. 

“For last year's words belong to last year's language 
And next year's words await another voice.” 

― T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

Our literary glossary provides a comprehensive list of terms and concepts along with lesson plans for teaching these topics in K-12 classrooms. Whether you are starting with a specific author, concept, or text, or teaching a specific literary term, but do not have a lesson or activity for students to work with, teachers and students will find what they're looking for here.

Guiding Questions

How do authors use figurative language to convey emotions and ideas?

What is a metaphor and why is it used?

What constitutes an epic in literature?

How do authors convey irony, sarcasm, and foreshadowing? 

What terms are used to explain what you are reading and writing?

Literary Terms: A-D


Aisling—(The Irish word for “dream-vision”) A traditional Irish poetic genre that flourished in Ireland in the 17th and 18th centuries. These poems were allegorical and frequently recounted a visit by a supernatural female figure to a poet in a dream-vision. These early aislings were political where the female apparition or spéirbhean (“sky-woman”) often served as a metaphor for the poet’s dispossessed Irish homeland or for the Irish people. William Butler Yeats and subsequent modern Irish poets adopted aspects of the aisling into their poetry.

Allegory—An extended metaphor, whether in prose or verse, in which characters and objects hold both a literal meaning as well as a secondary, implied meaning through the careful use of specific symbols. Usually this secondary meaning offers relevant commentary on contemporary social, political, or religious issues.

Alliteration—A repetition of the initial consonant sounds in a series, as in the following example from "Those Winter Sundays" by Robert Hayden. Note that the repetition of consonant sounds in other places in a sequence of words is called consonance and is often used in conjunction with alliteration, as with the hard "c" sound in "blueblack" and "ached."

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached

Allusion—A reference to a person, place or thing or to another literary work, often brief or indirect.  Allusions are often used to contain complex emotions and ideas in a single powerful image.

Ambiguity—The quality of having more than one possible meaning or interpretation.

Apostrophe—A direct address to an absent person, inanimate object, or abstract ideal as though expecting a reply.

Archetype—A universal symbolic form, such as a figure, plot action, motif, object or pattern of behavior developed in a literary work or a fairytale that reappears in similar manifestations in other stories, myths and legends of cultures throughout the world and across time.

Assonance—A repetition of vowel sounds, initially and/or within a word, as in the following example from Wilfred Owen's "The Things That Make a Soldier Great" (note the repetition of the "u" sounds within the first few lines, including the endings of lines 2 and 4).

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Autobiography—An account of a life written by the individual detailed in the account. A self-authored biography.



Character—A person who appears, or is referred to, in a work of literature. A character described in detail and/or who changes over the course of the work is usually referred to as "round." A "flat" character is generally one-dimensional, and changes little over time. Character can also refer to an individual's moral, social, or ethical qualities (e.g., good/bad).

Characterization—A literary device that authors use to deliver details about a character’s personality in a story. It serves to create an emotional or intellectual reaction to a character or to make the character more vivid and realistic. Writers use two basic types of characterization to serve varying purposes: direct or indirect. Direct characterizations are direct statements an author makes about a character’s personality and intentions. Indirect characterizations are details that enable readers to infer what is not directly stated.

Comedy—A story, often light in tone, that ends with a happy resolution of the central conflict. In classic Greek drama, a comedy is the opposite of a tragedy.

Connotation—Ideas or qualities associated with or implied by a word or expression beyond that word or expression’s explicit or primary meaning (See Denotation) 

Consonance—The repetition of consonant sounds in a sequence of words, as in the following example from Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est" (note the hard "c" sound). Unlike alliteration, the consonant sounds need not be in the initial syllable of each word.

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,



Decadent—A term describing a movement in literature that has its beginnings in 19th- century Symbolist-Romantic poets in France, such as Charles Baudelaire. This literature and poetry is characterized by a fascination with the morbid and macabre and emanates from the belief that life is meaningless.

Denotation—An actual or direct meaning for a word or expression as distinguished from the ideas or meanings associated with it or implied by it. (See Connotation)

Dialect—A regional or local variation of a language, complete with unique idioms and pronunciations.

Dialogue—A Conversation between two or more characters as a feature of a book, play, or film. It reveals character and advances the action.

Drama—A specific genre of fiction represented through performance. Dramatic works tell a story, usually of human conflict, by means of dialogue and action, to be performed by actors. They may or may not have a narrator. In many plays the reader or audience members interpret the actions and words of the characters on their own instead of having the story filtered through the narrator. In classical Greek theatre, there is often a group of actors who serve as a “chorus,” who describe and comment on the main action of the play through song, dance or recitation.

Dramatic Monologue—A poetic form in which a speaker addresses an implied listener, and in which the reader perceives a gap between what the speaker says speaker says and what the speaker actually reveals. Robert Browning’s "My Last Duchess" is a superb example of the form.

Dystopia—A society real or imagined in a repressive and controlled state, often depicted under the guise of being utopian

Literary Terms: E-H


Ecocriticism—The study of the relationship between nature and literature.

Ekphrasis—A descriptive work of prose or poetry that describes a visual work of art. It highlights through its rhetorical vividness what is happening, or what is shown in the artwork, and in doing so, may enhance the original art and so take on a life of its own through its description.

Elegy—A poem that reflects on the death of a person. A traditional elegy explores several stages of loss, including a lament, followed by praise of the dead individual, and finishing with consolation.

Enjambment—The continuation of a line of poetry to the next line with no end-stop or punctuation, but usually retaining continuity in meaning, as with the following example from Gwendolyn Brooks' "We Real Cool":

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Epic—A long narrative poem, usually of oral origin, that recounts the larger-than-life deeds of a great hero, who is often of divine descent. An epic hero embodies the values of a particular society and struggles against terrific odds or adversaries. Epic poetry often employs elevated diction and a host of sophisticated stylistic devices. Beowulf is an oral epic, as are the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Aeneid and Paradise Lost are literary, not oral or traditional epics. The Ramayana is a well-known epic in the East.

Essay—A short piece of non-fiction prose, usually written from a personal point of view on a specific topic. The first collection of personal essays is credited to Michel de Montaigne; his Essais was first published in 1580. The word essay comes from the French verb essayer, which means "to try."

Expressionism—A movement in art and literature that had its roots in Germany in the 1910s with the work of Swedish playwright August Strindberg. Unifying features included rebellion against artistic and social conventions of the day, and bold innovation. The overall aim of Expressionism was to offer a total spiritual renewal by confronting the darkest aspects of reality. The movement influenced a number of artists, writers, and poets around the world. Among them were 20th-century American writers who questioned widely-accepted beliefs. They opened new psychological and emotional dimensions within their works. In the 1920s, Expressionism found an outlet on the American stage through experimentalists from the Theatre Guild and Provincetown Players such as Susan Glaspell and Eugene O’Neill. Starting in the 1940s Tennessee Williams incorporated Expressionist techniques into his works such as The Glass Menagerie (1944), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), and Camino Real (1953).



Fable—A short story or folk tale, often with a specific moral outcome intended to instruct the audience.

Fairy Tale—Stories either created or strongly influenced by oral traditions. The plots often feature stark conflicts between good and evil, with magic and luck determining the usually happy endings.

Fantasy—A type of story that includes elements of magic in plot, setting, or theme. The story's main characters may or may not enter the fantasy world from the real world.

The Fates—In Greek Mythology these three female figures were considered the spinners of the thread of life, responsible for determining a human beings span from birth to death. Their decision was final—no god could interfere. They personified “destiny” and each played a role in the process: Clotho spun the thread of destiny with a distaff to determine the time of birth of an individual; Lachesis measured the thread to determine the length of life; Atropos cut the thread to determine the time of death.

Fiction—Literary works, most often prose narrative, that are imaginative rather than factual.

First-person narrative—A story told from the viewpoint of a character writing or speaking  directly about themselves and their first hand experiences. It uses first-person pronouns (I or we) to provide an account of an event. The story, therefore, is colored by the narrator’s views and personality.

Foil—In literary studies a foil is a character who shows qualities that contrasts with another character. The objective is to highlight particular character traits in the other character, usually the protagonist. The foil is often a secondary character who contrasts with the major character to enhance their importance (i.e., Fallstaff to Hal in Shakespeare’s Henry plays). Though the term is generally being applied for a contrasting character, it may also be used for any comparison that is drawn to portray a difference between two things.

Folklore—First coined in 1846 by William John Thoms, a British antiquarian. Folklore can be divided into its two component words, folk and lore. Folklore is thus all the lore shared by a particular folk.

Folk Tale—A traditional prose narrative that conveys a story originating in popular culture, typically circulated and preserved orally.

Frame Story—A literary technique, whereby a main narrative is presented, at least in part, for the purpose of setting the stage for a second narrative embedded in it. The frame story leads readers from a first story into another, smaller one (or several ones) within it.



Genre—In literary studies a type or category that a written work can be classified under because it shares the same general characteristics as others of that type (i.e., poetry, fiction, hymn, scientific writing, sermon, drama, and so on). The word genre come from the French meaning “kind, sort, or style.”

Gothic—An artistic style characterized by melodrama, terror, madness, and irony. Southern Gothic, a specific type of the Gothic, is unique to American literature and includes elements of the "grotesque," deeply flawed and repulsive characters or situations.

Graphic Novel—A type of book that, in the visual style of comics, presents its fully developed story in panels of juxtaposed text and illustration.

Grotesque—A literary device used to describe aspects of fictional characters where normal features and/or behaviors are manifested by distortions expressed in extremes that are meant to be frightening and/or disturbingly comic. These characters may induce both disgust and empathy.



Haibun—A combination of prose and poetry developed in Japan in the late 17th century by Matsuo Munefusa (Basho). Haibun focuses on objective reporting of the everyday moment through prose entries (as in a journal) , with the conclusion focusing the insights of that moment into a theme developed in a brief poem (usually a haiku or tanka).

Haiku—A terse, three-line poem intended to capture an image in juxtaposition with another image or thought, leading to an intuitive realization about the essence of that object or both objects.

History—In a literary sense, a genre of drama. Also, generally, a narrative of past events.

Holistic—An approach that is concerned with an entity in its entirety rather than focusing on a single part or aspect.

Hyperbole—A figure of speech not meant to be taken literally which reflects exaggerated statements or claims. Often used for emphasis or effect, hyperbole can infuse life into a narrative.

Literary Terms: I-M


Imagery—Images within a literary work, which serve either as figurative language or as descriptions to evoke the senses. Imagery can be used in a variety of ways -- to create mood, set a tone, or evoke tension, e.g.

Intercalary Chapters—Chapters inserted into a novel that interrupt the regular narrative flow. They function to describe landscape and setting, and social and historical conditions in which the story is set or technical details relating to the story, etc. Examples of famous texts that use them are Melville's Moby-Dickand Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.

Irony—An effect created by a contradiction between what is said and what in context is known to be true.



Kenning—A kind of metaphor often seen in Anglo-Saxon texts such as Beowulf. From the use of the Old Norse verb kenna 'to know, recognize', kennings can be seen as mini-riddles, in which a compound phrase is used to describe a place or a thing. For example, the "swansrad" ("swan road") is the "sea."



Legend—A usually fictional story handed down over time, often involving some supernatural elements. Legends can be used to explain some element of culture or history, such as a natural phenomenon, or detail the rise of a famous person.

Limerick—A five-line poem with one couplet (a two-line, rhymed poem) contained inside one triplet (a three-line, rhymed poem). The rhyme pattern is A, A, B, B, A, with lines 1, 2 and 5 forming the triplet, and lines 3 and 4 forming the couplet. Each line of the triplet has three beats, while each line of the couplet has two, such as the following example from Edward Lear:

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, 'It is just as I feared!
Two Owls and a Hen,
 Four Larks and a Wren,
 Have all built their nests in my beard!'

Local Color—Characterized by remote settings that sometime take on the role of a character in a story. The narrator is often an educated observer from the world beyond who serves as mediator between the rural folk of the tale and the urban audience to whom the tale is directed. Often very little “happens,” but they contain lots of storytelling that revolves around the local community and its unique rituals. Many of these stories share an antipathy to change and nostalgically harken back to a golden age in the past. Though the terms regionalism and local color are sometimes used interchangeably, there is a distinction. Local color specifically refers to a regionalist form of writing in the United States prominent during the latter part of the 19th century. Regionalism has broader connotations. See the EDSITEment-reviewed Documenting the American South for further discussion.



Magical Realism—A style of literature where fantastical and magical elements are melded within a realistic narrative. These magical elements are explained like normal occurrences using matter-of-fact tone which allows the "fantastic" to be accepted along with “the real” in the same stream of thought.

Metaphor—A comparison between two seemingly unrelated things, such as the following example from Langston Hughes’ "Dreams":

Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Extended Metaphor—The term “extended metaphor” refers to a metaphor that is introduced and continues through additional lines in a poem or sections in a literary work. (i.e., Robert Frost uses two roads as an extended metaphor in his poem, “The Road Not Taken.”)

Medieval—A period of time between the 5th century to the 16th century AD; also known as the Middle Ages.

Meter—A series stressed and unstressed syllables arranged in patterns called feet. Iambic pentameter, for example, is a line with five feet, each of which has one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable, as with this line from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130:

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;

The primary types of feet are:

  • Iambic – unstressed, stressed
  • Trochaic – stressed, unstressed
  • Anapestic – unstressed, unstressed, stressed
  • Dactylic – stressed, unstressed, unstressed

Metrical lines (the number of feet in a line) are named as follows:

  • One foot: Monometer
  • Two feet: Dimeter
  • Three feet: Trimeter
  • Four feet: Tetrameter
  • Five feet: Pentameter
  • Six feet: Hexameter
  • Seven feet: Heptameter
  • Eight feet: Octameter

EDSITEment Lesson Plans that use "Meter":

mise-en-scène—Describes all of the production design aspects that go into creating a play or film. The term expresses all the ways the story is being told through visual art. In theatre this encompasses the placement of the actors, lighting, scenery, props, costume, etc. In film, it includes storyboarding the frame and cinematography.ie

Modernism—A cultural and artistic movement after World War I characterized by disillusionment with the past and a rampant desire to, in the words of Ezra Pound, "make it new."

Mythology—A collection of traditional narratives that are passed down through various textual and visual sources and that convey commonly held beliefs in a particular society about natural phenomena, historical events, and proper behavior.

Literary Terms: N-P


Narrator—The person who tells the story. First-person narrators tell the story from the perspective of a single individual, who usually hold a role in the story. Omniscient narrators have a broad scope of multiple characters, with insights into any or all aspects of the story. Limited, or limit-omniscient, narrators often take a 3rd-person approach of omniscient narration, but has deep insight into the mind and motives of one or very few characters.

Naturalism—A style of literature written at the turn of the 20th-century that espouses objective observation of humans from a detached, scientific perspective. Naturalism is often described as the representation of the negative forces of real life, and fiction in this literary sub-genre is often populated with characters whose relationship with their surroundings is especially difficult or challenging. In fact, naturalist plots typically follow a noticeable "plot of decline," or a plot that often depicts a character's progression (or retrogression) toward degeneration or death. Determinism is often a prevailing theme, in which the characters struggle against the environment and are unable to express free will or agency. These narratives tend to be written in the third person, omniscient point of view.

Noh—The oldest surviving Japanese dramatic form, noh combines elements of dance, drama, music, and poetry into a highly stylized, aesthetic retelling of a well-known story, often from Japanese literature such as The Tale of Genji or The Tale of the Heike.

Non-fiction—A work rooted in fact and history, as opposed to fiction, or works of imagination.



Onomatopoeia—Describes words that sound like their meanings (e.g. buzz, pop).

Oral History—Description of past events by word of mouth, and more recently through audio and video recordings.



Persona—The person created by an author to tell the story. See also: narrator.

Personification—Attributing human characteristics to animals, abstract ideas, or inanimate objects.

Plot—Attributing human characteristics to animals, abstract ideas, or inanimate objects.

Point-of-view—The perspective from which a story is told. See also: voice.

Proverb—A short, memorable, and often highly condensed saying with bold imagery that embodies some fact, belief or experience held in common by a group.

Literary Terms: R-V


Realism—A literary style predominantly found in the latter part of the 19th century that attempted to provide an accurate, objective portrayal of life without embellishment. Frank Norris famously claimed that "Realism is the minute, it is the drama of a broken teacup, the tragedy of a walk down the block." Practitioners of a realist style in the American tradition include William Dean Howells, Mark Twain, and Henry James.

Regionalism—The literary presentation of qualities unique to certain geographic locations, such as Willa Cather’s portrayal of Nebraska or Kate Chopin’s vision of Creole culture in Louisiana. Local color, though the two terms overlap, more specifically refers to a regionalist form of writing in the United States prominent during the latter part of the 19th century. See the EDSITEment-reviewed Documenting the American South for further discussion.

Repetition—A technique used to provide emphasis through the repeated use of sounds, words, or phrases within a literary work.

Reverdie—A popular medieval poetic genre, found in courtly romances and lyrics. These poems feature a poet in pastoral surroundings approached by a beautiful, otherworldly woman who personifies the bounty of spring and love. The reverdie heralds the coming of spring, providing assurance of the annual return of vegetation and fertility and of the sustaining power of the sun (for example: the opening lines of the Canterbury Tales). Irish aislings are believed to be derived from this model.

Rhetoric—The art of persuasive speech and writing. See the EDSITEment-reviewed Silva Rhetoricae website for an extensive definition.

Rhythm—In poetry, a series of stressed and unstressed syllables. See: meter.

Romanticism—A broad cultural movement of the 19th century that developed as a reaction to the rationalism of the Enlightenment. The Romantics prized the imagination as the supreme faculty and championed the use of intuition as well as emotion railing against the imperatives of a society they saw as corrupt and deceitful.



Satire—A story or argument that brings folly to light through the use of sarcasm and wit.

Setting—The location of a story’s action.

Simile—A comparison of two seemingly dissimilar things using "like" or "as."

Slave Narrative—An account of a slave’s experience, usually told as a memoir, biography, or oral history.

Shakespeare—A prominent playwright and poet (1564-1616) generally considered to be one of the finest contributors to literature in the English language.

Soliloquy—A dramatic technique reveals the inner working of the character to the audience or reader. It is used not only to convey the development of the play but also to provide an opportunity to see inside the mind of a certain character. There are distinction between three literary techniques: monologue; soliloquyaside. Like soliloquy, a monologue is a speech, but the purpose and presentation is different. In a monologue, a character usually makes a speech in the presence of other characters, while in a soliloquy, the character speaks to himself or herself. In doing so, the character keeps these thoughts from the other characters in the play. An aside is a short comment by a character towards the audience relating something about another character, usually without that character knowing about it.

Sonnet—Popularized by the 14th-century Italian poet Petrarch, who established the custom of presenting a problem, situation, or incident in the octave, followed by a resolution in the sestet. In Petrarch's work, these were usually problems, situations, and incidents arising from his love for the unattainable Laura. When English poets began imitating Petrarch's sonnets in the early 16th century, they continued this thematic focus on the pleasures and frustrations of love. But English poets eventually developed a more flexible sonnet form which could be divided into octave and sestet, in the manner of Petrarch, or into three quatrain-length variations on a theme followed by an epigrammatic couplet. More information about the Petrarchan and English sonnet forms (and other varients) is provided in "Poetic Form: Sonnet" via the EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American Poets.

Stave—Designates a chapter, a passage or a portion of poetic lines in a literary work. The term is primarily reserved for poems and songs.

Stream-of-consciousness—A literary technique in which the character’s thoughts are revealed in a free-associative manner intended to replicate as closely as possibly the free range of an individual’s thought process.

Symbol—An object or other entity used to represent or suggest something else that is either implicitly or explicitly associated with it. Symbols take the form of visual images, words, and gestures used to convey an idea or belief. All human cultures use symbols to express underlying ideals and structures.

Symbolism—An offshoot of Romanticism that originated with a group of French poets in the late 19th century and spread across the arts. Formed as a reaction against Realism, Symbolism centered on individual emotional experience and a belief that truth could be obtained through the poet’s rendering of individually significant symbols in metaphorical language. Symbolist poets include Charles Baudelaire and are identified with the Decadent movement.



Tanka (Japanese form)—The traditional tanka is a poem of 31 on (sound symbol or unit) which expresses a personal response to an image in nature. In Japan, a tanka consists of 31 on, usually patterned as 5-7-5-7-7.

Theme—An author’s view about the universal truths in life that reflects the author’s understanding about how people behave and how the world wags. A theme is presented indirectly within the elements of a story and the reader is expected to extract it. There can be multiple themes in a work of fiction, but there is usually one major theme that binds all the story elements together.

Time—A sequence of events or sounds. Time can carry various meanings in a literary context, both formally and thematically. In poetry, time can be linked to meter, and the pacing of the poem can offer various enhancements to interpretation. In narratives (novels, short stories, and so forth), time can be manipulated in various ways through techniques like foreshadowing, retrospection (such as a framed narrative, in which the narrator recalls past events and relates them to the reader), and so on.

Tone—The general attitude of a writer toward a subject, theme, place, or situation as well as audience. It is conveyed through author’s word choice and reflects his/her viewpoint.

Tragedy—A story that ends in misfortune or disaster for the main character. In classic Greek drama, tragedy is the opposite of comedy.

Transcendentalism—American literary movement that believed in transcending the materialistic world of sensory experience and becoming conscious of the spirit of the universe, which could be found by looking into one's own soul.



Utopia—A society real or imagined thought to exemplify the ideal and operate in a state of perfection



Voice—The speaker in a narrative or poem. Often conflated with point-of-view, although there are occasions when who "speaks" (voice) and who "sees" (point-of-view or focalization) are not always the same. This voice can come from a variety of different perspectives, including: 

  • First person is told from the perspective of one or several characters, each of whom typically uses the word “I.”
  • Second person usually addresses the audience by using “you.”
  • Third person is told from the perspective of an outsider who does not participate directly in the events of a story, and uses “he,” “she,” and “it.”

EDSITEment Lesson Plans that use "Voice"

Victorian—The term used to delineate the literature, art, and culture during the reign of Queen Victoria during the latter two-thirds of the 19th century. Born in 1819, she ascended to the throne in 1837 and reigned until her death in 1901.

Villanelle—A verse form consisting of nineteen lines divided into six stanzas -- five tercets (three-line stanzas) and one quatrain (four-line stanza). The first and third lines of the first tercet rhyme, and this rhyme is repeated through each of the next four tercets and in the last two lines of the concluding quatrain. The villanelle is also known for its repetition of selected lines. A good example of a twentieth-century villanelle is Dylan Thomas’s "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night."