I learned a lot of useful writing terms while studying for my undergraduate English degree. Admittedly, I’ve forgotten most of them.
But recently, while leafing through some old notebooks, I found the study guide I made for the Major Field Test. The MFT was Lander University’s exit exam for English majors, which tested students’ knowledge on an array of topics. (It’s since been scrapped since I graduated.)
My study guide includes thirteen pages of definitions and literary history from 1200 AD to now. I’m surprised there are no tear stains on it.
I practically squealed when I rediscovered this treasure trove of writerly knowledge, so I thought I’d share a few useful writing terms and devices for all the word nerds out there.
Anachronism: Something that exists outside of its time period.
Think cars in ancient Greece, smartphones in ancient Egypt, Vikings in New York City.
An anachronism isn’t always a physical object; it can refer to anything that exists outside its time period, including slang terms, technologies, social and cultural attitudes, etc.
Anachronisms in fiction aren’t always a sign of bad writing — they can be used intentionally for a variety of purposes, most often comedic.
Auxiliary verb: “Helping” verb that pairs with the main verb.
Most writers know what auxiliary verbs are, but I’ve included it for those who may need to brush up on their grammar.
Auxiliary verbs include, but aren’t limited to:
- He should go to the doctor.
- The museum does offer guided tours.
- They may decide to go to the concert instead.
Auxiliary verbs serve a number of purposes, from establishing verb tense to expressing intention. Sometimes, they’re necessary for accuracy.
People also use them in euphemisms. An example, sourced from Fordham University’s Writing Center’s handout on wordiness:
“She seems to be struggling with the reading.”
Compare that to, “She struggles with the reading,” which is slightly more dysphemistic than the previous example.
I try to eliminate auxiliary verbs — particularly forms of “be” and “have” — where possible. After all, one of Orwell’s rules for good writing is, “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.”
Dysphemism: Using harsher language than necessary, often to offend or shock.
Most people are familiar with the term “euphemism”, which refers to softening language, but its opposite isn’t as well-known. Most dysphemisms are shocking, offensive, or negative.
There are several types of dysphemism, and they cover just about every type of insult or derogatory comment imaginable. Referring to someone as an animal (pig, bitch, old bat, etc.) is dysphemistic. Same goes for racial and homophobic slurs.
But dysphemism isn’t always derogatory, per se — “cancer stick” instead of “cigarette” is another example of dysphemism.
Epizeuxis: Repetition of a word/phrase in immediate succession for emphasis.
Epizeuxis is a rhetorical device often used to convey excitement, anger, or another intense emotion.
Perhaps the most famous literary example of epizeuxis comes from Shakespeare’s King Lear:
King Lear: “Never, never, never, never, never.”
Heart of Darkness has another famous instance:
“The horror, the horror!”
Epizeuxis is an incredibly powerful device when used effectively.
Malapropism: Mistaken use of a word in place of a similar sounding one.
Malapropisms are often amusing or nonsensical, and they’re, understandably, common with non-native speakers. The example the internet gives is flamingo vs. flamenco.
Gloria, a character on the show Modern Family, is known for her malapropisms. Here are just a couple:
But it’s not just ESL speakers who screw up — we native speakers aren’t perfect. Ever heard someone say, “For all intensive purposes?” That’s a malapropism.
Or what about, “I could care less?” Malapropism.
“Should of, would of, could of?” Yep, you guessed it.
In fact, we’re probably just as guilty of misusing words and phrases as non-native speakers. (Take that, prescriptivists!)
Polyptoton: Words derived from the same root word repeated in a sentence for emphasis.
Polyptotons most often appear in the same sentence as different parts of speech. The internet’s example is strong and strength.
Here’s another, better example, from T.S. Eliot’s The Dry Salvages:
“There is no end of it, the voiceless wailing,
No end to the withering of withered flowers,
To the movement of pain that is painless and motionless,
To the drift of the sea and the drifting wreckage,
The bone’s prayer to Death its God. Only the hardly, barely prayable
Prayer of the one Annunciation…”
(Example taken from Literary Devices)
Shakespeare was also a champion of the polyptoton. You’ll find examples in several of his plays and poems.
This rhetorical device is common in poetry and theatre, as well as in political speeches. FDR’s famous line, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” is a perfect example of polyptoton.
Portmanteau: A word sandwich! (smoke + fog = smog)
Okay, so a portmanteau isn’t always a word sandwich. Technically, a portmanteau is a combination of two or more words and/or sounds whose meanings form a new word. “Brunch” is one of the most well-known portmanteaus.
In fact, the word “portmanteau” is actually a portmanteau! The French word portmanteau refers to a suitcase that opens in two parts, and derives from the French porter, to carry, and manteau, cloak.
The French have mastered the art of word-sandwich-making, yet it was Lewis Carroll who (perhaps) coined this meaning of portmanteau:
“You see it’s like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up into one word.” — Through the Looking Glass
My favorite portmanteau comes from one of my favorite shows, Archer:
(Lana’s face says it all.)
And there you have it: 7 useful writing terms to add to your arsenal. I think these are some of the most useful terms every writer should know, regardless of their skill level or expertise.
(I’ll admit, I had trouble narrowing my list of 60+ writing terms down to just 7, so keep your eyes peeled for part 2…)
What are your favorite literary devices? Got a question about how to use these devices effectively in your own writing? You know what to do, my friend!
Your posts always are so informative and helpful to us writers— keep ‘em coming!
Thank you so much, Emily! Glad you find them helpful!