Knowing your antimetabole from you anacoluthon might help you with some of thesePixabay: Jarmoluk

If you are an English student (like me), or even just an avid reader (also like me), terms such as ‘alliteration,’ ‘caesura’ and ‘personification’ will form part of your everyday vocabulary. They are a literature lover’s best friend. But have you heard of stichomythia? Do you know the difference between asyndeton and polysyndeton? No, neither did I this time last year, as my bright-eyed fresher-self sat in her first supervision, baffled by the lengthy literary terms she was bombarded with.

What were all these words which seemed to bear more resemblance to a sea anemone or strain of bacteria than something I might find in a poem (is it just me, or does ‘zeugma’ not sound like some sort of nasty infection?). So, I decided to make a list to collect all of these weird and wonderful words together. Granted, many of the terms on this list – now some seventy entries long – still bewilder me, but others have become just as familiar as good old alliteration.

We Englings all like to show off a bit by using long, many-syllabled technical terms in our essays, yet many of these initially perplexing words are, in fact, incredibly useful (once you work out how to pronounce them!). Here is a short list of lesser-known literary techniques that offer so much more than a pretty face!

Anacoluthon

This describes an inconsistency or incoherence within a sentence, especially when there is a shift midway through the sentence from one construction to another. Shakespeare uses anacoluthon to convey King Lear’s tormented mind: ‘I will have such revenges on you both, / That all the world shall–I will do such things, / What they are, yet I know not...’

Antimetabole

Not something which discourages timetabling and planning, but rather a technique where the same words or ideas are repeated in inverse order. Churchill was a dab hand at this: ‘It is not even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’ Oh yes, and so was Shakespeare: ‘Fair is foul and foul is fair’ (from Macbeth).

Asyndeton

This is a rhetorical figure where conjunctions (connecting words like ‘and’ or ‘but’) are omitted, as when the mighty Julius Caesar proclaimed, ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’. The opposite is polysyndeton (the use of several conjunctions, often the same one, in swift succession). Shakespeare, surprise surprise, uses this too, such as in Othello: ‘If there be cords or knives, / Poison, or fire, or suffocating streams, / I’ll not endure it.’

“I use [polyptoton] in almost every essay; poets and writers seem to love it”

Ekphrasis

Originally, this term simply referred to a description of something. Today, we use it primarily to define the literary device in which a visual work of art like a painting or sculpture is described in detail. One of the most famous examples is the Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats. Shakespeare is taking up too much of my word count; let’s leave him out for now (although there is lots of incredible ekphrasis in The Rape of Lucrece, Titus Andronicus, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale…).

Polyptoton

Polyptoton is the repetition of words which come from the same root but have different endings. I use this one in almost every essay; poets and writers seem to love it. Milton was a fan: ‘yet happiest if ye seek / No happier state, and know to know no more’ (Paradise Lost). Shakespeare wasn’t too bad at it either: ‘The Greeks are strong, and skillful to their strength, / Fierce to their skill, and to their fierceness valiant’ (Troilus and Cressida).

Stichomythia

This technique from classical Greek drama describes a dialogue delivered in alternate lines, where characters often sharply take up their opponent’s words. We can find it in Greek plays such as Antigone and Oedipus Rex. And yes Mr Shakespeare, we know you were very good at it too!

A painting by William Salter, depicting the moment where Othello was accosted for mixing his Asyndetons and Polysyndetons (Desdemona slept through the embarassment).Wikipedia: Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection

‘QUEEN: Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.
HAMLET: Mother, you have my father much offended.
QUEEN: Come, come, you answer with an idle tongue.
HAMLET: Go, go, you question with a wicked tongue.’

So, there you have it: my tried-and-tested list of literary terms you will actually use. As you familiarise yourself with these words and their meanings, you will find that they crop up just about everywhere. And if you come across a new literary construction, investigate its definition. You might just discover a hapax legomenon!

No prizes for guessing who made use of that too, though


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