1.    Symbolism

2.    Irony

3.    Figurative Language

4.    Alliteration

5.    Assonance

6.    Cliché

7.    Hyperbole

8.    Idioms

9.    Imagery

10.                      Metaphor

11.                      Onomatopoeia

12.                      Personification

13.                      Simile


Language is a means of communication by symbolic sounds and graphics. The meaning of these symbols is affected by the use of literary devices which further enhance, illuminate, and embellish them. Effective speakers and writers have always made good use of literary devices and accommodative language. Jesus and other spokesmen for God filled their language with figures of speech.

Many of the literary devices in the Scriptures are easy to recognize; yet some may be too subtle for us unless we are more familiar with the language style and idiom of the time of the writers. To illustrate this, we may think of the student two thousand years from now trying to understand our expressions. He may not be able to comprehend what we meant by a backup forward on a basketball team, plastic glasses, an iron curtain, a third world country, or an airplane that lands on water. He may be puzzled that we park in a driveway and drive in a parkway or that we pay a toll on a freeway. He may conclude that two planes involved in a near miss collided. He might not comprehend how a house could burn up and burn down at the same time.

Trying to avoid the negative feelings that you might have had toward your high school English classes, let us take note of some literary devices in the Scriptures which may add surprising illumination to certain texts. A full exploration of this field would fill a book; we shall look at only a few selected passages some of which have been misunderstood due to more literal interpretation.



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Symbol. Something that on the surface is its literal self but which also has another meaning or even several meanings. For example, a sword may be a sword and also symbolize justice. A symbol may be said to embody an idea. There are two general types of symbols: universal symbols that embody universally recognizable meanings wherever used, such as light to symbolize knowledge, a skull to symbolize death, etc., and constructed symbols that are given symbolic meaning by the way an author uses them in a literary work, as the white whale becomes a symbol of evil in Moby Dick.

A symbol can be a material object whose shape or origin is related, by nature or convention, to the thing it represents: for instance, the cross is the main symbol of Christianity, and the scepter is a traditional symbol of royal power.

A symbol can also be a more or less conventional image (i.e. an icon), or a detail of an image, or even a pattern or color: for example, the olive branch in heraldry represents peace, the halo is a conventional symbol of sainthood in Christian imagery, tartans are symbols of Scottish clans, and the color red is often used as a symbol for socialist movements, especially communism.

More often, a symbol is a conventional written or printed sign (specifically, a glyph), usually standing for anything other than a sound (symbols for sounds are usually called graphemes, letters, logograms, diacritics, etc.). Thus mathematical symbols such as π and + represent quantities and operations, currency symbols represent monetary units, chemical symbols represent elements, and so forth.

Symbols can also be immaterial entities like sounds, words and gestures. The ringing of gongs and bells, and the banging of a judge's gavel, often have conventional meanings in certain contexts; and bowing is a common way to indicate respect. In fact, every word in a natural language is a symbol for some concept or relationship between concepts.

A symbol is usually recognized only within some specific culture, religion, or discipline, but a few hundred symbols are now recognized internationally. See list of common symbols and List of symbols.

Use of symbols

Human beings' ability to manipulate symbols allows them to explore the relationships between ideas, things, concepts, and qualities - far beyond the explorations of which any other species on earth is capable. The discipline of semiotics studies symbols and symbol systems in general; semantics is specifically concerned with the main meaning of words or other linguistic units.

Literary works are often admired for their artful use of symbolism, i.e. the use of words, phrases and situations to evoke ideas and feelings beyond their plain interpretations; these uses are the subject of literary semiotics. Religious and metaphysical writings are also known for their use of esoteric symbolism. Alchemical writings made extensive use of symbols for spiritual and chemical processes (which they also saw as symbols of each other). The interpretation of dreams as symbols of one's experiences is a main feature of Freudian psychoanalysis and Jungian analytical psychology.

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Irony. A mode of expression, through words (verbal irony) or events (irony of situation), conveying a reality different from and usually opposite to appearance or expectation. A writer may say the opposite of what he means, create a reversal between expectation and its fulfillment, or give the audience knowledge that a character lacks, making the character's words have meaning to the audience not perceived by the character. In verbal irony, the writer's meaning or even his attitude may be different from what he says: "Why, no one would dare argue that there could be anything more important in choosing a college than its proximity to the beach." An example of situational irony would occur if a professional pickpocket had his own pocket picked just as he was in the act of picking someone else's pocket. The irony is generated by the surprise recognition by the audience of a reality in contrast with expectation or appearance, while another audience, victim, or character puts confidence in the appearance as reality (in this case, the pickpocket doesn't expect his own pocket to be picked). The surprise recognition by the audience often produces a comic effect, making irony often funny.

An example of dramatic irony (where the audience has knowledge that gives additional meaning to a character's words) would be when King Oedipus, who has unknowingly killed his father, says that he will banish his father's killer when he finds him.

Irony is the most common and most efficient technique of the satirist, because it is an instrument of truth, provides wit and humor, and is usually at least obliquely critical, in that it deflates, scorns, or attacks.

The ability to detect irony is sometimes heralded as a test of intelligence and sophistication. When a text intended to be ironic is not seen as such, the effect can be disastrous. Some students have taken Swift's "Modest Proposal" literally. And Defoe's contemporaries took his "Shortest Way with the Dissenters" literally and jailed him for it. To be an effective piece of sustained irony, there must be some sort of audience tip-off, through style, tone, use of clear exaggeration, or other device.






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Figurative Language


Figurative language or speech contains images. The writer or speaker describes something through the use of unusual comparisons, for effect, interest, and to make things clearer. The result of using this technique is the creation of interesting images.


 Figurative language is not intended to be interpreted in a literal sense. Appealing to the imagination, figurative language provides new ways of looking at the world. It always makes use of a comparison between different things. Figurative language compares two things that are different in enough ways so that their similarities, when pointed out, are interesting, unique and/or surprising.




alliteration (a-LIT-uh-RAY-shuhn): a pattern of sound that includes the repetition of consonant sounds.  The repetition can be located at the beginning of successive words or inside the words. Poets often use alliteration to audibly represent the action that is taking place.  For instance, in the Inferno, Dante states: "I saw it there, but I saw nothing in it, except the rising of the boiling bubbles" (261). The repetition of the "b" sounds represents the sounds of bubbling, or the bursting action of the boiling pitch. In addition, in Sir Phillip Sidney's Astrophel and Stella, the poet states: "Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite" (Line 13). This repetition of  the "t" sound represents the action of the poet; one can hear and visualize his anguish as he bites the pen. Also in Astrophel and Stella, the poet states, "Oft turning others' leaves, to see if thence would flow, / Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburn'd brain" (7-8). Again, the poet repeats the "fr" sounds to emphasize the speaker's desire for inspiration in expressing his feelings. Poets may also use alliteration to call attention to a phrase and fix it into the reader's mind; thus, it is useful for emphasis. Therefore, not only does alliteration provide poetry or prose with a unique sound, it can place emphasis on specific phrases and represent the action that is taking place. See A Handbook to Literature, Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Stacey Ann Singletary, Student, University of North Carolina at Pembroke

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Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds but not consonant sounds as in consonance.

fleet feet sweep by sleeping geeks.



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A trite or overused expression.

The individual unit consisting of the design of a single stamp, combined with others to make up the complete printing plate. Individual designs on modern one-piece printing plates are referred to as subjects.

an over-used phrase or expression

A familiar expression that has been used and reused so many times that it’s lost its expressive power. “Happy as a clam” or “eyes like a hawk” are examples of clichés.

is language or story elements which have been overused.

"Any expression so often used that its freshness and clarity have worn off. The reader or speaker of the expression pays no attention to the real meaning of the words" (Holman and Harmon).

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Hyperbole: An overstatement or exaggeration.


A hyperbole, largely synonymous with exaggeration and overconsulting, is a figure of speech in which statements are exaggerated or extravagant. It may be used due to strong feelings or is used to create a strong impression and is not meant to be taken literally. It gives greater emphasis. It is often used in poetry and is a literary device.
"He is as big as a house!"
"I'm so hungry I could eat a horse!"
"That's the worst idea I've ever heard."
"You are the ugliest person in the world!"
"This book weighs a ton"
"This is pretty much the worst film ever made."

The antonym to hyperbole is understatement.

In show business, hyperbole (known as hype or media hype) is the practice of spending money on public relations in an attempt to bolster public interest in (for example) a movie, television show, or performing artist. Often the entertainment value of the thing being hyped is exaggerated.

A common mis-pronunciation is /ˈhaɪpɚˌboʊl/ ("HY-per-bowl"). The correct pronunciation is phonetically said as /haɪˈpɝbəli/ ("hy-PER-buh-lee").

The modern slang term hype, in its usage as meaning extravagant publicity, is probably derived from the word hyperbole

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Definitions of idiom on the Web:
parlance: a manner of speaking that is natural to native speakers of a language
dialect: the usage or vocabulary that is characteristic of a specific group of people; "the immigrants spoke an odd dialect of English"; "he has a strong German accent"; "it has been said that a language is a dialect with an army and navy"
artistic style: the style of a particular artist or school or movement; "an imaginative orchestral idiom"
an expression whose meanings cannot be inferred from the meanings of the words that make it up

An idiom is an expression whose meaning is not compositional—that is, whose meaning does not follow from the meaning of the individual words of which it is composed. For example, the English phrase to kick the bucket means to die. A listener knowing the meaning of kick and bucket will not thereby be able to predict that the expression can mean to die. Idioms are often, though perhaps not universally, classified as figures of speech.

A use of words peculiar to a particular language.

an expression in the usage of a language that has a meaning that cannot be derived from the conjoined meanings of its elements (eg, raining cats and dogs)

the styles or techniques that are characteristic to a particular artist or period, movement or medium.

an expression of language or dialect of a people that is not understood outside its culture. A special terminology.


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Definition: Imagery is the sensory detail (not just visual) in a literary work. It also refers more specifically to figures of speech like metaphor or simile which produce mental images for the reader.

IMAGERY - The use of words or figures of speech to create a mental picture. Imagery exploits all five senses to produce a single powerful impression or to create a cluster of impressions that convey a dominant mood.

Auditory imagery appeals to the sense of hearing. Sweet melody

Gustatory imagery appeals to the sense of taste. Deliciously sweet

Kinetic imagery conveys a sense of motion. Sometimes called KINAESTHETIC IMAGERY. Rushing down down the road with his hand and legs swinging.  

Olfactory imagery appeals to the sense of smell. Stench of burning flesh and hair.

Tactile imagery appeals to the sense of touch. Sometimes called HAPTIC IMAGERY. Her skin felt so tender and soft.

Verbal imagery is created with words (often with a visual analogue - a "mental picture" is a commonly used metaphor for the operation of verbal imagery).

Visual imagery is created with pictures (often with a verbal analogue - many visual images are pictures of things representing well-known sayings or phrases).


Metaphor: A word which does not precisely or literally refer to the entity to which it is supposed to refer. Metaphors are sometimes thought to exist only in works of literature, but is actually prevalent in language in general. One engages in the metaphorical use of language, for instance, when one says that one is feeling 'down'. See  notes on Metaphor


 (for  Literary Stylistics and Linguistic Analysis of Literature modules) for a longer discussion which covers some literary and linguistic aspects of metaphor; some links are also given at the end of the notes.


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Onomatopoeia is a word that imitates the sound it represents.
also imitative harmony

splash, wow, gush, kerplunk

Such devices bring out the full flavor of words. Comparison and association are sometimes strengthened by syllables which imitate or reproduce the sounds they describe. When this occurs, it is called onomatopoeia (a Greek word meaning name-making "), for the sounds literally make the meaning in such words as "buzz," "crash," "whirr," "clang" "hiss," "purr," "squeak," "mumble," "hush," "boom." Poe lets us hear the different kinds of sounds made by different types of bells in his famous poem "The Bells." His choice of the right word gives us the right sound when he speaks of "tinkling" sleigh bells; "clanging" fire bells; mellow "chiming" wedding bells; "tolling," "moaning," and "groaning" funeral bells.

Tennyson makes us feel the heaviness of a drowsy summer day by using a series of "in" sounds in the wonderfully weighted lines:

The moan of doves in immemorial elms,
And murmuring of innumerable bees.



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personification {PER-son-E-fih-ka-shEn): A figure of speech where animals, ideas or inorganic objects are given human characteristics. One example of this is James Stephens’s poem "The Wind" in which wind preforms several actions. In the poem Stephens writes, “The wind stood up and gave a shout. He whistled on his two fingers.” Of course the wind did not actually "stand up," but this image of the wind creates a vivid picture of the wind's wild actions. Another example of personification in this poem is “Kicked the withered leaves about….And thumped the branches with his hand.” Here, the wind is kicking leaves about, just like a person would and using hands to thump branches like a person would also. By giving human characteristics to things that do not have them, it makes these objects and their actions easier to visualize for a reader. By giving the wind human characteristics, Stephens makes this poem more interesting and achieves a much more vivid image of the way wind whips around a room. Personification is most often used in poetry, coming to popularity during the 18th century. Jennifer Winborne, Student, University of North Carolina at Pembroke


William Wordsworth's "Daffodils" has many good examples of personification.

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simile (sim-EH-lee): a simile is a type of figurative language, language that does not mean exactly what it says, that makes a comparison between two otherwise unalike objects or ideas by connecting them with the words "like" or "as." The reader can see a similar connection with the verbs resemble, compare and liken. Similes allow an author to emphasize a certain characteristic of an object by comparing that object to an unrelated object that is an example of that characteristic. An example of a simile can be seen in the poem “Robin Hood and Allin a Dale”:

With that came in a wealthy knight,
Which was both grave and old,
And after him a finikin lass,
Did shine like glistening gold.

In this poem, the lass did not literally glisten like gold, but by comparing the lass to the gold the author emphasizes her beauty, radiance and purity, all things associated with gold. Similarly, in N. Scott Momaday’s simple poem, “Simile.” he says that the two characters in the poem are like deer who walk in a single line with their heads high with their ears forward and their eyes watchful. By comparing the walkers to the nervous deer, Momaday emphasizes their care and caution. See A Handbook to Literature or Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Crystal Burnette, Student, University of North Carolina at Pembroke


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