Literary Devices

February 15, 2021

A list of the most important, the most used, or simply the most useful rhetorical figures you could use while writing.

Literary Devices


This device serves the purpose to validate the impossibility of an event occurring by assuming, by absurdity, the realisation of another fact that can never occur.
i.e. 'It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”


From the Greek allegoréin, "to speak differently": a rhetorical figure consisting in the construction of a discourse in which the literal meanings of the individual terms take second place regarding the symbolic meaning of the whole which refers to an order of metaphysical values, philosophical and moral.
The peculiarity of such a procedure consists, therefore, essentially in the ability to transform abstract notions and moral meanings into often intensely pictorial images, which go well beyond the basic meaning of the terms that make up them and develop into a pregnant and allusive plot.

In this sense, according to some, the allegory would be a sort of continuous metaphor, extended to embrace an entire composition, as with apologues, parables and fables, as well as works such as Dante's Divine Comedy and Goethe's Faust.
Today, this interpretation, which entrusts allegory with the task of transmitting super-sensitive and hidden values but still universally recognisable within a given code, it’s replaced by a more subjective interpretation, in which characters, experiences and particular situations, represented as real and concrete, they become allusive to a different and more general reality without being loaded with demonstrative and didactic explanations.


Consists of affirming one thing intending to make one understand another, which has a relationship of similarity with the first. Such a procedure can originate from a historical event (for example, the expression a Pyrrhic victory to indicate a useless and dearly paid victory, such as those obtained by the king of Epirus, Pyrrhus, against the Romans) or it can derive from events and characters of myth and literature, as in expressions a labyrinth, to allude to an indecipherable situation or an intricate place.


From the Greek anakólothos, "who does not follow", indicates a sentence whose course is irregular, due to a change of subject in the body of the sentence. A similar use, typical for the most part of poets, is also widespread among prose writers, who adopt it in order to reproduce the ways of the spoken language and to characterise certain characters.
Classified in scholastic grammars as an absolute error, the anacoluthon actually represents a very widespread structure in ours and in other languages, including Latin (where it took the name of nominativus pendens; for example, from the Gospel of Matthew: "Qui habet, dabitur illi ").
The syntactic non-connection between two structures has its raison d'être in the unfolding of a discourse that is not syntactically planned and defined but is already constructed from the semantic point of view. These conditions are typical of spoken communication and respond to the need to proceed more quickly in the manifestation and concatenation of ideas. In addition to the spoken word, the anacoluthon is acceptable in the forms of writing that follow it very closely or imitate it expressly, while it is clearly incompatible with the requirements of the texts that must have univocity and explicit meaning.
Examples abound in the classics of all epochs: starting with some cases in King Lear (By William Shakespeare) “I will have such revenges on you both, That all the world shall—I will do such things, What they are, yet I know not…” or "Sleepy reporters commit anacoluthon in this kind of sentence: 'The patrolman said he had never seen "an accident so tragic in all his career."' The patrolman surely said 'my career.'" by John B. Bremner in Words on Words.


From the Greek anadìplosis "doubling": a rhetorical figure consisting of the reprise, at the beginning of a line, of a word or group of words at the end of the previous verse, with a significant effect of insistence and prominence.
I.e. “Strength through purity, purity through faith.” — Chancellor Adam Susan, V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and illustrated by David Lloyd


Anaphora is the repetition of the same word at the beginning of consecutive verses or phrases to give prominence to the repeated word.
One of the most famous uses of anaphora is to be found in one of the most important Churchill’s speech: “We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills.”


Anastrophe is essentially an upheaval. It refers to a repeated word or phrase that comes at the end of each sentence or paragraph in a text.
It consists of reversing the normal order of two words to emphasise one of the two terms. i.e. The very first line of “The Hobbit” by J. R. R. Tolkien: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”


It contrasts with Climax which serves the opposite of anticlimax decreasing the value/ the importance of element in a progression.  
i.e. "He has seen the ravages of war, he has known natural catastrophes, he has been to singles bars." Woody Allen,


A rhetorical figure, also called conversio by Latin grammarians, comprising ending several members of a period with the same word;
i.e. “A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break the bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day. An hour of wolves and shattered shields, when the age of men comes crashing down, but it is not this day. This day we fight.” Aragorn — The Return of the King by J. R. R. Tolkien


From the Greek antìthesis, “contrast”: an approach that is often made more incisive and clear by the symmetrical structure of the sentence.
i.e. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.” - A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.


Antonomasia consists in replacing the proper name of a person or thing with a periphrasis or a term that indicates the quality that characterizes that person par excellence;
i.e “The Iron Lady” referring to the former homophobic leader of the Conservatory Party and UK’s  Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.


The most classical term, commonly called reticence.


Apostrophes address directly to a person or thing personified, present or absent, interrupting the development of speech.
i.e. Dante: “Ahi serva Italia, di dolore ostello, nave sanza nocchiere in gran tempesta, non donna di provincie, ma bordello!” literally translated: “Alas enslaved Italy, inn of sorrow, ship without a helmsman in a great storm, not a queen of her provinces, but a brothel!”
Or in Romeo and Juliet by William Shakspeare “Yea, noise? Then I’ll be brief. O happy dagger! This is thy sheath; there rust, and let me die.”


Asyndeton is the coordination between various elements of a sentence without one or more conjunctions.
i.e. “Veni, Vidi, Vici
Or “He was a bag of bones, a floppy doll, a broken stick, a maniac”  - On the Road by Jack Kerouac


A rhetorical figure consisting of repeating the final word or words of the previous verse in the following verses; it contrasts with the Anaphora.


A figure which consists of the crossed arrangement of the constituent elements of a sentence, so that the logical order of the words is reversed.
i.e."We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us." -Winston Churchill.


From the Greek climax, "scale": a rhetorical procedure which consists in the arrangement of sentences, nouns and adjectives in a "scale" progression, that is, according to an ascending gradation, to suggest a progressively more intense effect e.g. good, best excellent (from the normal degree of the adjective one passes to the comparative degree and finally to the superlative one); two, three, four (which constitutes the simplest gradation, as it is implemented on a numerical level).
A similar procedure is particularly effective especially in poetry, where the intensification of the concept through the natural progression from the weakest to the strongest word is significantly increased by the phonic and rhythmic values ​​of the words.
i.e. “Quivi sospiri, pianti ed alti guai” translated as “There sighs, complaints, and ululations loud”


From the Greek deiknumi, "I show, I indicate": the procedure by which the attention of the reader or listener is drawn to a particular object, to which reference is made through linguistic elements, called deictics, which combine to identify specifically the object in question. Linguistically speaking there are plenty of possible uses. For more elaborated information check HERE


From the Greek diaphoros “different”: it consists of repeating a word used previously with a new meaning or a shade of different meaning. Thus, for example, in the sentence: “the heart has its reasons that reason does not know” (B. Pascal), the word “reason” is used first in the meaning of "motivation" and subsequently in that of rationality.
i.e. “The president is not the president when he compromises his morals and our trust so basely.”


It contrasts to euphemism, whereby a normal word, often pleasant or even affectionate, is replaced (as usual use or as a momentary playful coining) with another word that is unpleasant or offensive in itself, without however giving the expression a hostile tone.
i.e. “Dead tree edition” for the paper version of a publication that can be found online


From the Greek elleipsis, “lack”, it consists in the elimination of some elements within a particular sentence, to achieve a particular effect of conciseness.
i.e. “I don’t know why I did it, maybe I was angry. I’m not sure” become “I don’t know…I’m not sure”


It comes from the Greek enallagḗ “to exchange” or inversion.  It consists in using one part of the speech instead of another to give it greater effectiveness; the tenses and modes of the verb are exchanged, of the adjective instead of the adverb, of the noun instead of the verb.
i.e. Breathe deeply.


From the Greek hèn dià duoîn then latinised means"one thing by means of two" or “one through two”, it consists in using, to express a concept, two complementary terms, coordinated with each other (two nouns or two adjectives), replacing a single noun accompanied by an adjective or a complement. The basic idea is to use two words linked by the conjunction "and" instead of using a modifier.
i.e.”[...] Amaro e noia / La vita, altro mai nulla;” by Giacomo Leopardi “A se stesso”, which translated becomes “Bitterness and boredom is life, nothing else ever;”


From the Greek emphainein "prominence", is a device useful to emphasise a word or an expression thanks to a particular underlining. It can be translated on a phonological level in an exclamation, or it can be affected on a syntactic level, on the other hand, in a particular construction, such as in the sentence “He, he is a friend!”


Rhetorical figure consisting of starting and ending a verse or a sentence with the same word.
i.e. “Love the ones who love, hate the ones who hate


Epanalessi or Epanalepsis come from the Greek epanálēpsis "to resume". That is the repetition after a certain interval, of one or more words to emphasise a particular concept.
i.e. ““Blow winds and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow!” King Lear


From the Greek epanórthōsis "correction", it consists of returning to a certain statement, either to attenuate it, or to correct it. It can be represented visually by a dash “—” which interrupt the flow of the previous sentence to correct it
i.e. "Man has parted company with his trusty friend the horse and has sailed into the azure with the eagles, eagles being represented by the infernal combustion engine–er er, internal combustion engine. [loud laughter] Internal combustion engine! Engine!"


Rhetorical figure consisting in the repetition of the same words at the end of several phrases or verses. It is the opposite of the anaphora.
i.e I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the
beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.

There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.
By Walt Whitman “Song of Myself”


From the Greek euphemia "words of good omen" it’s a literary device used to attenuate an expression considered too crude, disrespectful, such as, for example, the convention of using the verb “to pass” instead of "to die".

Hysteron Proteron

From the Greek hýsteron próteron “the last as the first”, it consists in the inversion of the temporal order of the events, so that what logically should be placed after is placed before, to achieve a particular expressive effect.
i.e "I'm going to kill that magician. I'll dismember him and then I'll sue him." Woody Allen


It is a linguistic phenomenon consisting in the displacement of the constituent elements of a sentence in an arrangement that overturns the normal syntactic structure, to give the element in front a particular expressive prominence. Thus, for example, in the famous Leopardian verse “Sweet and clear is the night and without wind” there is an evident inversion in the normal order of the single terms of the sentence.


From the Greek hypallagḗ, "to exchange", it’s a rhetorical device that consists in attributing to a term of a sentence something (qualification, determination or specification) that logically would belong to a close term.
i.e. "His coward lips did from their color fly."


Also known as Iperbato it consists in the breaking of the natural order of the sentence or period to obtain particular expressive effects.
i.e. "One swallow does not a summer make, nor one fine day." by Aristotle


It consists in expressing a concept by defect or by excess in exaggerated terms.
i.e “I had a million messages to answer”


From the Greek hypóstasis, “condensed matter”. In the context of linguistics it indicates the passage of a word from one grammatical category to another. As a rhetorical figure it indicates the concretisation and personification of an abstract concept.
i.e. “she was happiness itself, in her movements, her glimpses, her smile. Happiness had the face of a woman, and I loved her.”


Rhetorical figure that consists in describing something, with particular clarity and vivacity as it were present before the eyes of the audience
i.e. “they looked at the succulent roast, perfectly cooked and with a thick crust, carved by the skilled hands of a waiter, who then served the meat still pink and warm on the porcelain alongside fondant potatoes, young peas and the most indulgent gravy over the best yorkshire pudding one could desire. The only thing lacking was the smell: it couldn’t pass through the window were they were staring at the scene”


It consists in affirming something which is exactly the opposite of what one intends. It is a type of communication that requires the reader and the listener to be able to grasp the substantial ambiguity of the utterance. There are plenty of different ironies, but nowadays people often fail to recognise different types other than situational irony.
i.e. “Wow, what a timing. The movie only started twenty minutes ago.”


Repetition of words or phrases, often with expressive value so as to constitute a figure of speech.


The attenuation of a concept by denying the opposite.
i.e. “Not too shabby.”


The combination of two or more similar-sounding words, but with different meanings.
i.e. Traitor translator.


The replacement of a term with a figurative phrase linked to that term by a relationship of similarity.
i.e. “They are destroying the lungs of the world”


In modern rhetoric, a figure concerning the level of the content and values ​​of truth (eg the hyperbole "beautiful to die" is a metalogism)


It is a form of antithesis of single words that are combined with paradoxical effects.
i.e hellish paradise or boiling ice


From the Greek para "against" and doxa "opinion" it’s a literary device consisting of an affirmation that appears contrary to common sense, but which actually proves valid upon careful analysis. In the context of literature, this is the name of a work that presents absurd and incredible situations, in contrast with common sense and with the cultural conventions of a given era.


It is a combination of words that have a similar sound but different meaning used with the intent of obtaining particular phonic effects. Otherwise known as a pun


Also commonly called "turn of words", it consists in using, instead of the proper term, a sequence of words to indicate a person or a thing. Such a procedure can respond to different needs and purposes: it can, in fact, be used to avoid unnecessary repetition or to replace an excessively crude term (see Euphemism) or even just to give a particular poetic color to the sentence.
i.e. “In my humble opinion, I think that you deserve now, at this point in time, a better job.”


see Prosopopea.


From the Greek pleonàzein, "overabundance" it’s an expression that is substantially unnecessary in a given context: an expression that does not add anything from a qualitative point of view to the sentence in which it is inserted. Its use within the literary discourse responds to particular expressive needs, which are usually highlighted by the context. It consist in the redundancy in the use of an unnecessary term.
I.e. “It’s a true fact, wikipedia that.”


Rhetorical figure that consists in repeating, in a relatively short turn of sentences, a word, changing its morpho-syntactic functions.
i.e. “I’m so in love I need more love, and I feel I can love you even more than what I used to love.”


Rhetorical figure consisting in countering in advance the possible objections of the interlocutor.
i.e.  “-You have no ri…
-I have all the right to be mad at you!”


From the Latin praeterire, “to pass over”it is a rhetorical device which consists in pretending to ignore something while actually saying it.
i.e. “I cannot tell you the warmth, affection, friendliness with which we were welcomed.”


From the Greek prósopon, 'face' and poiéin, 'to do'. This is a rhetorical figure in which a speaker or writer communicates to the audience by speaking as another person or even an abstract and/or inanimate things, as if they were real people.
i.e. “The iron tongue of midnight hath told twelve: Lovers, to bed; 'tis almost fairy time.” Theseus in William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream


From the Latin reticere, 'to be silent': it consists in interrupting and leaving a sentence in suspense, making the reader or listener guess the conclusion, a conclusion that in any case is deliberately silenced to create a particular and lively—in the listener or reader—impression.
i.e. "All quiet on Howth now. The distant hills seem. Where we. The rhododendrons. I am a fool perhaps." Ulysses by James Joyce


From the Latin similitudo, 'likeness” this is a rhetorical figure consisting of a comparison established between images, things, people and situations, through the mediation of comparative adverbs or adverbial phrases such as similar to, as or like.
i.e. “-He’s kind of similar to Mr. Bean, don’t you think?”


From the Greek synekdékhomai, 'I take together' it’s a semantic figure using the figurative sense of a word with a more or less broad meaning than the actual word. Essentially based on a relationship of extension of the meaning of the word in the first place; this figure expresses:

  • A part for the whole (‘sail’ instead of 'ship');

  • The whole for a part (a seal bag, to indicate a bag made of sealskin);

  • The singular for the plural and vice versa (The British is polite/ Canadian are well-mannered);


From the Greek syn, 'together' and aisthánestai, 'to perceive' it is a rhetorical procedure that consists in associating, within a single image, nouns and adjectives belonging to different sensory spheres, which in a relationship of mutual interference give rise to a vividly original image:

  • warm color (the visual impression is combined with the tactile one);

  • clear voice (the acoustic impression is combined with the visual one);

  • sweet music (the acoustic impression is combined with the gustatory one).


Zeugma: (link) connection of a verb to two or more terms of the sentence which instead would require each one a specific verb individually.
i.e. 'talking and tears will see me together', where talking should have 'you will hear me' and not 'you will see me'.

rhetorical figures, literary devices, zeugma, irony, similitude, metaphor