English Literature Technical Terms

Written by ann craney
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English Literature Technical Terms
(Aged vintage classic hardback books in a pile image by Paul Hill from Fotolia.com)

Literary terms describe and categorise literary devices, traditions and standards writers used throughout literary history and up to modern times, each generation of writer influencing the next generation. Learning English literary terms aids in both discussing and writing about literary works. It also help a student narrow down topics to research. Any student studying English Literature should purchase a glossary of literary terms for easy reference during their studies.


The term prose refers to the type of writing found in novels, fiction or nonfiction, in contrast with poetics. Prose uses a natural, unstructured quality as compared to poetry, which generally has a more regimented structure. Scholars classify eras of writing by either major societal changes, such as the industrial revolution, or to the generational ideals and era that preceded them. For instance, postmodernism refers to both the time and cultural changes that took place after modernism, a period in the early 1900s when writers experimented with styles such as Surrealism. However, both encompass a wide range of styles and writers.


Poetry utilises its own set of conventions and definitions. Discussion of poetry involves discussing meter, the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line. Meter affects the reading and understanding of a poem. One structure of meter is iambic, a meter of one unstressed syllable and then a stressed syllable, together called a foot. Poetic form is also important. For instance, a poem can be a sonnet form, which has 14 equal rhyming lines, or a free verse form, which has no set restrictions.

Other Terms

Both poetry and prose can use other literary devices. For instance, both poets and prose writers use allegory, the use of a fictional person and their actions to discuss important people and political and societal conditions of their time. In the past, writers used allegory because they faced serious consequences for their writings, and could not engage in direct social commentary. Metaphor, a device which transfers the association of one entity to another, accomplishes a similar effect. For instance, to say someone ate like a horse transfers the idea of a horse's large appetite to a person.

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