These are the kinds of things you can look out for when analysing a passage which can help you focus in more closely on language and sound like you know what you’re talking about.
Although spotting and name-dropping techniques can be useful, note that a technique alone is worth nothing. Pointing out a simile is meaningless (and won’t get you any marks) unless you explain the specific effect of the simile and how exactly its use contributes to portraying a character/theme in a certain way. The effects of a technique always vary depending on the context in which it is used, so there are no hard and fast rules for what each technique must represent in every situation, but I’ve tried to give you some ideas to start with.
Phonetic techniques (based on the sounds of words)
Alliteration: When the same letter or consonantal sound is at the start of two or more words which are next to each other or very close together. The words do not have to start with the same letter to count, and they may be separated by a connective (e.g. “cute and cuddly kittens” is still alliteration). The effect of alliteration really depends on what sound is being repeated.
Assonance: When the same vowel sound is repeated in nearby or connected words.
Consonance: As above, but with consonants. Consonance is a little broader than alliteration, so when in doubt, use it.
Here are a few examples of consonant categories to look out for; the repetition of consonants from one category can give a certain impression:
- Plosives or stops – sounds like b, p, d and t where airflow is completely blocked. These often sound harsh or firm.
- Fricatives – “hissy” sounds like f, v, th, s and z, which can sound angry, spiteful, mocking or even soothing, depending on the context.
- Nasals – m and n, which can sound soft and comforting.
I would love to explain all of English phonology here, but not everyone cares, so here is a rundown if you’re interested.
Vowels can also be categorised (you can find the English vowel classification system here) but are less easy to generalise. As long as you can explain the effect of a particular instance of assonance, it is just as useful to mention it without specifying the type of vowel.
Dissonance: The repetition of harsh sounds.
Onomatopoeia: Words that sound like the sound they represent (plop, buzz, splash etc.).
Sibilance: A specific type of consonance involving the repetition of [s] sounds. This counts as repetition of fricatives (since that [s] sound is known as a voiceless alveolar sibilant/fricative) and has largely the same effect.
Anaphora: The repetition at the same word at the beginning of successive clauses or lines, usually done to emphasise that word or give an impression of drama or urgency.
Asyndeton: The omission of conjunctions (most commonly “and”), usually accompanied by the use of commas instead, for example in a list. This can make the words which would have been separated by “and” seem as if they are merging into one another, suggesting blurred lines/ill-defined concepts. It can also give the effect of a long list, possibly implying tedium, monotony or simply lots of things to do.
Caesura: A pause in the middle of a line in a poem, generally marked by a full stop or semicolon. This has the effect of breaking up the line, which can create a sense of suddenness or abruptness and might also be intended to draw attention to the sentence which breaks off during that line.
Chiasmus: When words or phrases are written, then repeated in reverse order. This repetition extends to words and phrases which are closely related to the original ones. For example, in the phrase “hunger or cold, warmth or food” (from Frankenstein), two words are written, then their opposites are written in reverse order. Another famous example is "ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country"; here, “country” and “you” are repeated in revserse order.
Emphatic positioning: The generic term for when a word is placed in a position in a sentence or line (usually at the start or end) which draws attention to it.
Enjambement: The opposite of caesura, enjambement involves a phrase which continues from one line onto the next. If a line starts with a preposition or another word which is not normally found at the start of a sentence, this is often (but not always) a sign of enjambement. This can create a “flowing”, calm or rambling effect, and encourages the reader to read straight on to the next line without pausing.
Ethos/logos/pathos: These terms were coined by Aristotle and denote methods used by authors to persuade their audiences that a certain character should be sympathised with or a certain account should be trusted. Ethos is an appeal to the audience based on morality, logos is based on logical reasoning and pathos is based on emotion.
Hyperbaton: When word order is reversed or altered for emphasis, e.g. “that, I would like to see” rather than “I would like to see that.”
Juxtaposition: A type of emphatic positioning, involving two words (often representing contrasting concepts) placed next to each other to emphasise their contrast or relationship.
Portmanteau: When two words are put together to create a new one, e.g. “brunch” (breakfast + lunch). Usually, portmanteaus worth commenting on are new inventions by the author, and might indicate how a political regime changes language or the thought processes of characters who invent new words.
Polysyndeton: The opposite of asyndeton. Though it involves repeating the word “and”, it may have a similar ‘list’ effect to asyndeton; however, unlike asyndeton, it implies the detachment of concepts/items from each other as opposed to their “merging.”
Polyptoton: The use of multiple different grammatical forms of a word to draw attention to the concept it represents, e.g. possessive and possessed.
Tricolon: Also known as the rule of three; this involves three objects or ideas being listed or mentioned for emphatic purposes or just because it flows better. Often, a tricolon will consist of three examples to reinforce a point. A tricolon which “builds up” and whose third item is the biggest is called a tricolon crescens (crescens is Latin for “growing”).
Semantic techniques (based on meaning)
Allusion: To allude to something is to hint or imply that it is related to the current topic of discussion. Authors can allude to other texts, events, political or philosophical ideas or specific imagery in order to comment on or develop the ideas they express.
Anthropomorphism: When human qualities are attributed to animals. This can be for the purpose of social critique (Animal Farm is an obvious example) or to highlight the emotions of animals or the unity of humans and nature.
Bathos: Unusually for literary techniques, this one is mostly unintentional; it is an abrupt, anticlimactic change from grand, beautiful language to something silly or trivial.
Colloquialism: Casual or familiar language. If you’re writing about this, you write “the use of the colloquialism [example]” or “the use of colloquial language, such as…”
Euphemism: The description of a situation (usualy involving a taboo topic like sex or death) using words which don’t explicitly mention the taboo topic. For instance, Benedick and Margaret’s discussion of swords in Much Ado About Nothing (I’ll leave you to figure out what that’s a euphemism for ).
Hyperbole: When something is exaggerated for dramatic effect; the opposite of an understatement.
Litotes: The use of a negated adjective to express, in an understated way, the opposite of that verb in the affirmative, e.g. “it’s not bad” means “it’s good” and “it’s not the best” means it’s probably pretty bad.
Metaphor: A reference to something using a noun or adjective that doesn’t literally describe it. A metaphor describes a thing as being something else, rather than resembling something else.
Metonymy: A specific type of metaphor, metonymy refers to a metaphor closely related to the thing it is describing. For instance, the expression “new blood” doesn’t actually refer to blood, but to people; the word “blood” is being used to describe people since the concepts are closely related.
Oxymoron: A description which seems directly contradictory, e.g. “a deafening silence.”
Periphrasis: Expressing something in an indirect way, generally using more words than necessary (“I am going to” as opposed to “I will”). This can emphasise words in the periphrasis (“I am going to”) or emphasise that the character or author is trying to divert attention from the action described by the periphrasis.
Personification: Another type of metaphor, involving the description of non-human, often inanimate objects as if they were human, e.g. “the sky wept.”
Praeteritio: This is strictly more of a speaking technique than a writing one, but it involves a writer mentioning that they will not mention something, in order to draw attention subtly to that thing. The expression “to say nothing of…” is an example of praeteritio.
Semantic field: Words which relate to a certain topic are all in a certain semantic field, e.g. the semantic field of nature. You would make a comment on semantic field by writing something like “the author uses words such as […] which are in the semantic field of […], implying that…”
Simile: The comparison of two objects/concepts to highlight the similarities between them, usually ‘signposted’ by the words “as […] as” or “like […]”
Synecdoche: When part of something is used to refer to the whole, in order to emphasise that specific part. A common example is the expression “all eyes were on [them]”; eyes are only a part of a person, but here they are used to describe how everyone was looking at someone, so as to emphasise the action of looking.
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- Thread Starter
- 02-05-2018 19:58
- 01-06-2018 20:04
thank you for posting this, this is rlly helpful
- 01-06-2018 20:08
Yes, thank you!!!