AP English Literature and Composition Glossary


We've put an asterisk (*) beside the handful of terms that you absolutely must know.


An abstract style (in writing) is typically complex, discusses intangible qualities like good and evil, and seldom uses examples to support its points.


As an adjective describing style, this word means dry and theoretical writing. When a piece of writing seems to be sucking all the life out of its subject with analysis, the writing is academic.


In poetry, accent refers to the stressed portion of a word. In "To be, or not to be," accents fall on the first "be" and "not." It sounds silly any other way. But accent in poetry is also often a matter of opinion. Consider the rest of the first line of Hamlet's famous soliloquy, "That is the question." The stresses in that portion of the line are open to a variety of interpretations.

aesthetic, aesthetics

Aesthetic can be used as an adjective meaning "appealing to the senses." Aesthetic judgment is a phrase synonymous with artistic judgment. As a noun, an aesthetic is a coherent sense of taste. The kid whose room is painted black, who sleeps in a coffin, and listens only to funeral music has an aesthetic. The kid whose room is filled with pictures of kittens and daisies but who sleeps in a coffin and listens to polka music has a confused aesthetic. The plural noun, aesthetics, is the study of beauty. Questions like What is beauty? or Is the beautiful always good? fall into the category of aesthetics.


An allegory is a story in which each aspect of the story has a symbolic meaning outside the tale itself. Many fables have an allegorical quality. For example, Aesop's "The Ant and the Grasshopper" isn't merely the story of a hardworking ant and a carefree grasshopper, but is also a story about different approaches to living-the thrifty and the devil-may-care. It can also be read as a story about the seasons of summer and winter, which represent a time of prosperity and a time of hardship, or even as representing youth and age. True allegories are even more hard and fast. Bunyan's epic poem, Pilgrim's Progress, is an allegory of the soul, in which each and every part of the tale represents some feature of the spiritual world and the struggles of an individual to lead a Christian life.


The repetition of initial consonant sounds is called alliteration. In other words, consonant clusters coming closely cramped and compressed-no coincidence.


A reference to another work or famous figure is an allusion. A classical allusion is a reference to Greek and Roman mythology or literature such as The Iliad. Allusions can be topical or popular as well. A topical allusion refers to a current event. A popular allusion refers to something from popular culture, such as a reference to a television show or a hit movie.


The word anachronism is derived from Greek. It means "misplaced in time." If the actor playing Brutus in a production of Julius Caesar forgets to take off his wristwatch, the effect will be anachronistic (and probably comic).


An analogy is a comparison. Usually analogies involve two or more symbolic parts and are employed to clarify an action or a relationship. Just as the mother eagle shelters her young from the storm by spreading her great wing above their heads, so does Acme Insurers of America spread an umbrella of coverage to protect its policyholders from the storms of life.


An anecdote is a short narrative.


The word, phrase, or clause that a pronoun refers to or replaces. In The principal asked the children where they were going; they is the pronoun and children is the antecedent.


In literature, when inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena are given human characteristics, behavior, or motivation, anthropomorphism is at work. For example, In the forest, the darkness waited for me, I could hear its patient breathing…Anthropomorphism is often confused with personification, which requires that the nonhuman quality or thing take on a human shape.


An anticlimax occurs when an action produces far smaller results than one had been led to expect. Anticlimax is frequently comic. Sir, your snide manner and despicable arrogance have long been a source of disgust to me, but I've overlooked it until now. However, it has come to my attention that you have fallen so disgracefully deep into that mire of filth which is your mind as to attempt to besmirch my wife's honor and my good name. Sir, I challenge you to a game of badminton!


A protagonist (main character) who is markedly unheroic: morally weak, cowardly, dishonest, or any number of other unsavory qualities.


A short and usually witty saying, such as: "?'Classic'? A book which people praise and don't read."-Mark Twain.


An address to someone not present or to a personified object or idea.


The use of deliberately old-fashioned language. Authors sometimes use archaisms to create a feeling of antiquity. Tourist traps use archaisms with a vengeance, as in "Ye Olde Candle Shoppe"-Yeech!


A speech (usually just a short comment) made by an actor to the audience, as though momentarily stepping outside of the action on stage.


A trait or characteristic, as in "an aspect of the dew drop."


The repeated use of vowel sounds, as in, "Old king Cole was a merry old soul."


The emotional tone or background that surrounds a scene.


A speaker's, author's, or character's nature toward or opinion of a subject.


A long, narrative poem usually in very regular meter and rhyme. A ballad typically has a naive folksy quality, a characteristic that distinguishes it from epic poetry.

bathos, pathos

When writing strains for grandeur it can't support and tries to elicit tears from every little hiccup, that's bathos. When the writing of a scene evokes feelings of dignified pity and sympathy, pathos is at work.

black humor

This is the use of disturbing themes in comedy. In Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, the two tramps, Didi and Gogo, comically debate over which should commit suicide first and whether the branches of the tree will support their weight. This is black humor.


This is pretentious, exaggeratedly learned language. When one tries to be eloquent by using the largest, most uncommon words, one falls into bombast.


A burlesque is broad parody, one that takes a style or a form such as tragic drama and exaggerates it into ridiculousness. A parody usually takes on a specific work, such as Hamlet. For the purposes of the AP exam, you can think of the terms parody and burlesque as interchangeable.


In poetry, cacophony is using deliberately harsh, awkward sounds.


The beat or rhythm of poetry in a general sense. For example, iambic pentameter is the technical name for a rhythm. One sample of predominantly iambic pentameter verse could have a gentle, pulsing cadence, whereas another might have a conversational cadence, and still another might have a vigorous, marching cadence.


The name for a section division in a long work of poetry, similar to the way chapters divide a novel.


A portrait (verbal or otherwise) that exaggerates a facet of personality.


This is a term drawn from Aristotle's writings on tragedy. Catharsis refers to the "cleansing" of emotion an audience member experiences having lived (vicariously) through the experiences presented on stage.


In drama, a chorus is the group of citizens who stand outside the main action on stage and comment on it.

classic, classical

What a troublesome word! Don't confuse classic with classical. Classic can mean typical, as in Oh, that was a classic blunder. It can also mean an accepted masterpiece, for example, Death of a Salesman. But, classical refers to the arts of ancient Greece and Rome and the qualities of those arts.

coinage (neologism)

A coinage is a new word, usually one invented on the spot. People's names often become grist for coinages, as in, Oh, man, you just pulled a major Wilson. Of course, you'd have to know Wilson to know what that means, but you can tell it isn't a good thing. The technical term for coinage is neologism.


This is a word or phrase used in everyday conversational English that isn't a part of accepted "schoolbook" English. For example, I'm toasted. I'm a crispy-critter man, and now I've got this wicked headache.

complex, dense

These two terms carry the similar meaning of suggesting that there is more than one possibility in the meaning of words (image, idea, opposition); there are subtleties and variations; there are multiple layers of interpretation; the meaning is both explicit and implicit.

*conceit, controlling image

In poetry, conceit doesn't mean stuck-up. It refers to a startling or unusual metaphor, or one developed and expanded upon over several lines. When the image dominates and shapes the entire work, it's called a controlling image. A metaphysical conceit is reserved for metaphysical poems only.

connotation, denotation

The denotation of a word is its literal meaning. The connotations are everything else that the word suggests or implies. For example, in the phrase the dark forest, dark denotes a relative lack of light. The connotation is of danger, or perhaps mystery or quiet; we'd need more information to know for sure, and if we did know with complete certainty that wouldn't be connotation, but denotation. In many cases connotation eventually so overwhelms a word that it takes over the denotation. For example, livid is supposed to denote a dark purple-red color like that of a bruise, but it has been used so often in the context of extreme anger that many people have come to use livid as a synonym for rage, rather than a connotative description of it.


The repetition of consonant sounds within words (rather than at their beginnings, which is alliteration). A flock of sick, black-checkered ducks.


A pair of lines that end in rhyme:

But at my back I always hear

Time's winged chariot hurrying near.

-from "To His Coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvell


In order to observe decorum, a character's speech must be styled according to her social station and in accordance with the occasion. A bum should speak like a bum about bumly things, while a princess should speak only about higher topics (and in a delicate manner). In Neoclassical and Victorian literature the authors observed decorum, meaning they did not write about the indecorous. The bum wouldn't even appear in this genre of literature.

details, choice of details

The items or parts that make up a larger picture or story. Writers can use details to bring their characters to life. Chaucer's "Prologue" to The Canterbury Tales is one example of how an author can use details to develop a character.

devices of sound

Various techniques used by poets to create sound imagery through specific word choice (e.g., rhyme, alliteration, assonance, consonance, and onomatopoeia) to evoke an emotional response, clarify meaning, enhance the reader's experience, and so on.

*diction, syntax

The author's choice of words. Whether to use wept or cried is a question of diction. Syntax refers to the ordering and structuring of the words. Whether to say, The pizza was smothered in cheese and pepperoni; I devoured it greedily, or Greedily, I devoured the cheese-and-pepperoni-smothered pizza, is a question of syntax.


A song for the dead. Its tone is typically slow, heavy, and melancholy.


The grating of incompatible sounds.


Crude, simplistic verse, often in sing-song rhyme. Limericks are a kind of doggerel.

*dramatic irony

When the audience knows something that the characters in the drama do not.

dramatic monologue

When a single speaker in literature says something to a silent audience.


A type of poem that meditates on death or mortality in a serious, thoughtful manner. Elegies often use the recent death of a noted person or loved one as a starting point. They also memorialize specific dead people.


This word is used constantly and with the assumption that you know exactly what it means-that is, the basic techniques of each genre of literature. For a quick refresher, here's a short and sweet list for each genre:

short story

characters irony






figurative language











rising action

falling action

sets, props

nonfiction (rhetorical)








The continuation of a syntactic unit from one line or couplet of a poem to the next with no pause.


In a broad sense, an epic is simply a very long narrative poem on a serious theme and in a dignified style. Epics typically deal with glorious or profound subject matter: a great war, a heroic journey, the Fall from Eden, a battle with supernatural forces, a trip into the underworld, and so on. The mock-epic is a parody form that deals with mundane events and ironically treats them as being worthy of epic poetry.


Lines that commemorate the dead at their burial place. An epitaph is usually a line or handful of lines, often serious or religious but sometimes witty and even irreverent.


A word or phrase that takes the place of a harsh, unpleasant, or impolite reality. The use of passed away for died, and let go for fired are two examples of euphemisms.


When sounds blend harmoniously, the result is euphony.


To say or write something directly and clearly (this is a rare happening in literature because the whole game is to be "implicit,"-that is, to suggest and imply).


Today we use this word to refer to extremely broad humor. Writers in earlier times used farce as a more neutral term, meaning simply a funny play; a comedy. (And you should know that for writers of centuries past, comedy was the generic term for any play; it did not imply humor.)

feminine rhyme

Lines rhymed by their final two syllables. A pair of lines ending with running and gunning would be an example of feminine rhyme. Properly, in a feminine rhyme (and not simply a double rhyme) the penultimate syllables are stressed and the final syllables are unstressed.

figurative language

Writing that uses words to mean something other than their literal meaning. Examples of figurative language include metaphor, simile, and irony.

first-person narrator


A secondary character whose purpose is to highlight the characteristics of a main character, usually by contrast. For example, an author will often give a cynical, quick-witted character a docile, naive, sweet-tempered friend to serve as a foil.


The basic rhythmic unit of a line of poetry. A foot is formed by a combination of two or three syllables, either stressed or unstressed.


An event or statement in a narrative that suggests, in miniature, a larger event that comes later.

free verse

Poetry written without a regular rhyme scheme or metrical pattern.


A subcategory of literature. Science fiction and detective stories are genres of fiction.

gothic, gothic novel

Gothic is the sensibility derived from gothic novels. This form first showed up in the middle of the eighteenth century and had a heyday of popularity for about sixty years. It hasn't really ever gone away. The sensibility? Think mysterious gloomy castles perched high upon sheer cliffs. Paintings with sinister eyeballs that follow you around the room. Weird screams from the attic each night. Diaries with a final entry that trails off the page and reads something like, No, NO! IT COULDN'T BE!!


The excessive pride or ambition that leads to the main character's downfall (another term from Aristotle's discussion of tragedy).


Exaggeration or deliberate overstatement.


An author's use of figurative language, images, or sensory details that appeal to the reader's senses (e.g., sight, sound, or touch). Imagery coupled with figures of speech (such as similes, metaphors, personification, and onomatopoeia) creates a vivid depiction of a scene that strikes as many of the reader's senses as possible.


To say or write something that suggests and implies but never says it directly or clearly. "Meaning" is definitely present but it's in the imagery, or "between the lines."

in medias res

Latin for "in the midst of things." One of the conventions of epic poetry is that the action begins in medias res. For example, when The Iliad begins, the Trojan war has already been going on for seven years.

interior monologue

A term from novels and poetry, not dramatic literature. It refers to writing that records the mental talking that goes on inside a character's head. It is related, but not identical to stream of consciousness. Interior monologue tends to be coherent, as though the character were actually talking. Stream of consciousness is looser and much more given to fleeting mental impressions.


Switching the customary order of elements in a sentence or phrase. When done badly it can give a stilted, artificial, look-at-me-I'm-poetry feel to the verse, but poets do it all the time. This type of messing with syntax is called poetic license. I'll have one large pizza with all the fixins-presto chango instant poetry: A pizza large I'll have, one with the fixins all.


This is one term you need to be very comfortable with for the AP Exam. Irony comes in a variety of forms and you need to be able to recognize and be sensitive to it. Actually being able to name the specific type of irony involved is not important. The test writers don't care if you can identify an example of tragic irony and call it by name; they just want you to be able to see that it's irony. The reason irony shows up so much on the AP test is that it's a powerful verbal tool, which is why good writers use it all the time. The test writers also love irony because ironic writing makes for good questions: Strong readers detect irony, weak readers do so less clearly.

One definition of irony is a statement that means the opposite of what it seems to mean, and although that isn't a bad definition, it doesn't get at the delicacy with which the authors on the AP Exam use irony. Simply saying the opposite of what one means is sarcasm. The hallmark of irony is an undertow of meaning, sliding against the literal meaning of the words. Jane Austen is famous for writing descriptions which seem perfectly pleasant, but to the sensitive reader have a deliciously mean snap to them. Irony insinuates. It whispers underneath the explicit statement, Do you understand what I really mean? Think of the way Mark Antony says again and again of Brutus, "But he is an honorable man." At first it doesn't seem like much, but with each repetition, the undertone of irony becomes ever more insistent.


Placing two or more concepts, places, characters, or their actions together for the purpose of comparison or contrast.


A poem of sadness or grief over the death of a loved one or over some other intense loss.


A satire.

loose and periodic sentences

A loose sentence is complete before its end. A periodic sentence is not grammatically complete until it has reached its final phrase. (The term loose does not in any way imply that the sentences are slack or shoddy.)

Loose sentence: Jack loved Barbara despite her irritating snorting laugh, her complaining, and her terrible taste in shoes.

Periodic sentence: Despite Barbara's irritation at Jack's peculiar habit of picking between his toes while watching MTV and his terrible haircut, she loved him.


A type of poetry that explores the poet's personal interpretation of and feelings about the world (or the part that his poem is about). When the word lyric is used to describe a tone it refers to a sweet, emotional melodiousness.

masculine rhyme

A rhyme ending on the final stressed syllable (aka, regular old rhyme).

means, meaning

This is the big one, the one task you have to do all the time. You are discovering what makes sense, what's important. There is literal meaning which is concrete and explicit, and there is emotional meaning.


A form of cheesy theater in which the hero is very, very good, the villain mean and rotten, and the heroine oh-so-pure. (It sounds dumb, but melodramatic movies make tons of money every year.)

*metaphor and simile

A metaphor is a comparison or analogy that states one thing is another. His eyes were burning coals, or In the morning, the lake is covered in liquid gold. It's a simple point, so keep it straight: a simile is just like a metaphor but softens the full-out equation of things, often, but not always, by using like or as. His eyes were like burning coals, or In the morning the lake is covered in what seems to be liquid gold.

metaphysical conceit


A word that is used to stand for something else that it has attributes of or is associated with. For example, a herd of 50 cows could be called 50 head of cattle.


A recurring symbol.

narrative techniques

The methods employed in the telling of a story or an account. Examples of narrative techniques include point of view, manipulation of time, dialogue, and internal monologue.


The protagonist's archenemy or supreme and persistent difficulty.


*objectivity and subjectivity

An objective treatment of subject matter is an impersonal or outside view of events. A subjective treatment uses the interior or personal view of a single observer and is typically colored with that observer's emotional responses.

*omniscient narrator


Words that sound like what they mean are examples of onomatopoeia. Boom. Splat. Babble. Gargle.


One of the most useful concepts in analyzing literature. It means that you have a pair of elements that contrast sharply. It is not necessarily "conflict" but rather a pairing of images (or settings or appeals, for example) whereby each becomes more striking and informative because it's placed in contrast to the other one. This kind of opposition creates mystery and tension. Oppositions can be obvious. Oppositions can also lead to irony, but not necessarily so.


A phrase composed of opposites; a contradiction. Bright black. A calm frenzy. Jumbo shrimp. Dark light. A truthful lie.


Like a fable or an allegory, a parable is a story that instructs.


A situation or statement that seems to contradict itself but on closer inspection does not.


Repeated syntactical similarities used for effect.


To restate phrases and sentences in your own words; to rephrase. Paraphrase is not analysis or interpretation, so don't fall into the thinking that traps so many students. Paraphrasing is just a way of showing that you comprehend what you've just read-that you can now put it in your own words. No more, no less.

parenthetical phrase

A phrase set off by commas that interrupts the flow of a sentence with some commentary or added detail. Jack's three dogs, including that miserable little spaniel, were with him that day.


A work that makes fun of another work by exaggerating many of its qualities to ridiculousness.


A poem set in tranquil nature, or even more specifically, one about shepherds.


periodic sentence


The narrator in a non-first-person novel. In a third person novel, even though the author isn't a character, you get some idea of the author's personality. However, it isn't really the author's personality because the author is manipulating your impressions there as in other parts of the book. This shadow-author is called the author's persona.


Giving an inanimate object human qualities or form. The darkness of the forest became the figure of a beautiful, pale-skinned woman in night-black clothes.


A poem or speech expressing sorrow.

*point of view

The perspective from which the action of a novel (or narrative poem) is presented, whether the action is presented by one character or from different vantage points over the course of the novel. Be sensitive to point of view, because the AP exam writers like to ask questions about it and also like you to mention point of view in your essays.

Related to point of view is the narrative form that a novel or story takes. There are a few common narrative positions:

The omniscient narrator: This is a third-person narrator who sees, like God, into each character's mind and understands all the action going on.

The limited omniscient narrator: This is a third-person narrator who generally reports only what one character (usually the main character) sees, and who only reports the thoughts of that one privileged character.

The objective, or camera-eye, narrator: This is a third-person narrator who only reports on what would be visible to a camera. The objective narrator does not know what the character is thinking unless the character speaks of it.

The first-person narrator: This is a narrator who is a character in the story and tells the tale from his or her point of view. When the first-person narrator is crazy, a liar, very young, or for some other reason not entirely credible, the narrator is unreliable.

The stream of consciousness technique: This method is like first-person narration but instead of the character telling the story, the author places the reader inside the main character's head and makes the reader privy to all of the character's thoughts as they scroll through her consciousness.


An introductory poem to a longer work of verse.


The main character of a novel or play.


The usually humorous use of a word in such a way to suggest two or more meanings.


A line or set of lines repeated several times over the course of a poem.


A song of prayer for the dead.

resources of language

A general phrase for the linguistic devices or techniques that a writer can use. Examples include diction, syntax, figurative language, and imagery.


An intensely passionate verse or section of verse, usually of love or praise.

rhetorical question

A question that suggests an answer. In theory, the effect of a rhetorical question is that it causes the listener to feel she has come up with the answer herself. Well, we can fight it out, or we can run-so, are we cowards?

rhetorical techniques

The devices used to create effective or persuasive language. Common examples of these techniques include contrast, repetition, paradox, understatement, sarcasm, and rhetorical questions.


This is an important term for the AP exam. The test writers are fond of satirical writing, again because it lends itself well to multiple-choice questions. Satire exposes common character flaws to the cold light of humor. In general, satire attempts to improve things by pointing out people's mistakes in the hope that once exposed, such behavior will become less common. The great satirical subjects are hypocrisy, vanity, and greed, especially where those all-too-common characteristics have become institutionalized in society.


The physical location of a play, story, or novel, which often includes information about time and place. The setting can also provide background information to a story.



A speech spoken by a character alone on stage. A soliloquy is meant to convey the impression that the audience is listening to the character's thoughts. Unlike an aside, a soliloquy is not meant to imply that the actor acknowledges the audience's presence.


A group of lines in verse, roughly analogous in function to the paragraph in prose.

stock characters

Standard or clichéd character types, such as the drunk, the miser, and the foolish girl.

strategy, rhetorical strategy

The employment of language (the intentional placement of elements) to achieve a desired effect.

stream of consciousness


The way in which a work is arranged or divided. Structure can also refer to the relationship between the parts of a work and the work as a whole. The most common principles of structure are series (A, B, C, D, E), contrast (A vs. B, C vs. D, E vs. A), and repetition (AA, BB, AB). The most common units of structure in plays are scene and act; in novels, chapter; and in poems, line and stanza.


The manner in which an author writes which can distinguish him or her from another writer. Examples of style include expository, argumentative, descriptive, persuasive, and narrative. Style also refers to the technique(s) writers employ as their mode of expression. Examples of these techniques include diction, syntax, figurative language, imagery, selection of detail, sound effects, tone, and voice.


subjunctive mood

If I were you, I'd learn this one! That's a small joke because the grammatical situation involves the words "if" and "were." What you do is set up a hypothetical situation, a kind of wishful thing: if I were you, if he were honest, if she were rich. You can also get away from the person and into the "it": I wish it were true, would it were so (that even sounds like Shakespeare and poetry).


To imply, infer, and/or indicate. This is another one of those basic tools of literature. It goes along with the concept of implicit. As the reader, you have to do all the work to pull out the meaning.


A simple retelling of what you've just read. It's mechanical, superficial, and a step beyond the paraphrase in that it covers much more material and is more general. You can summarize a whole chapter or a whole story, whereas you paraphrase word-by-word and line-by-line. Summary includes all the facts.

suspension of disbelief

The demand made of a theater audience to accept the limitations of staging and supply the details with imagination. Also, the acceptance on an audience's or reader's part of the incidents of plot in a play or story. If there are too many coincidences or improbable occurrences, the viewer/reader can no longer suspend disbelief and subsequently loses interest.


Something that refers to itself (in a literal sense) while simultaneously representing something else. The use of symbols can add another layer of meaning to a writer's work.


A device in literature where an object represents an idea.


Contracting, or shortening, a word by removing internal sounds, syllables, or letters and inserting an apostrophe; or by dropping unstressed vowels, letters, syllables, or consonants from the middle of a word and replacing with an apostrophe. Examples include "heav'n," "ev'ry," and "fail'd" in Phillis Wheatley's poem "On the Death of J.C. an Infant."


Figure of speech in which a part represents the whole.


See diction.


The methods, the tools, the "how-she-does-it" ways of the author. The elements are not techniques. In poetry, onomatopoeia is a technique within the element of rhythm. In drama, blocking is a technique, as is lighting. Concrete details are not techniques, but tone is. Main idea is not a technique, but opposition is.


The main idea of the overall work; the central idea. It is the topic of discourse or discussion.


The main position of an argument. The central contention that will be supported.


The manner in which an author expresses his or her attitude about a subject. Writers convey tone through the use of many devices, such as word choice/diction.

tragic flaw

In a tragedy, this is the weakness of character in an otherwise good (or even great) individual that ultimately leads to his demise.


A grotesque parody.


A way-too-obvious truth.

unreliable narrator


An idealized place. Imaginary communities in which people are able to live in happiness, prosperity, and peace. Several works of fiction have been written about utopias.


The appearance of being real or true.


The use of a word to modify two or more words but used for different meanings. He closed the door and his heart on his lost love.

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