Literary Terms and Devices Part II: Approaching Texts

toneFor those of you preparing for AP English Literature exam (May 2015) this summer, read on! For those preparing for essay sections on the ACT or SAT, bookmark this blog post. While we focused on generally foundational literary terms last week (metaphor/simile, symbol, allusion, hyperbole, and irony), today’s post highlights terms you should definitely stow in your tool bag for those essay portions of college entrance exams. These big guys (diction, syntax, tone, mood, imagery, and denotation/connotation) are all top contenders for analyzing a literary passage and most importantly, writing about it clearly and effectively.

On the AP English Literature exam, you will be asked to simply analyze a specific literary passage (prose, poetry, nonfiction) in terms of its, well, literary characteristics. Here is an example essay topic from the 2010 AP English Literature exam.

Read carefully the following poem by Marilyn Nelson Waniek. Then write an essay analyzing how Waniek employs literary techniques to develop the complex meanings that the speaker attributes to The Century Quilt. You may wish to consider such elements as structure, imagery, and tone.


Notice the last sentence in this prompt: “you may wish to consider such elements as structure, imagery, and tone.” The AP English Literature exam will almost always incorporate a sentence very much like this, in which the writers of the exam suggest literary terms for you to consider within your critical reading of the passage. Big hint: they pick these terms for a reason. Structure, imagery, and tone are three of many devices that are sure to be at work within the sample passage. Correctly identified, these devices will be sure, additionally, to assist your argument. Let’s get a solid grasp on them now.


Not to be confused with mood, tone is the author’s attitude toward his or her text, readers, and/or material. Examples of tone include the following: caustic, sarcastic, droll, nostalgic, sinister, formal, ironic, and elegiac. Can you identify the tone in this following passage from William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury?

“When the shadow of the sash appeared on the curtains it was between seven and eight o’ clock and then I was in time again, hearing the watch. It was Grandfather’s and when Father gave it to me he said I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; it’s rather excruciating-ly apt that you will use it to gain the reducto absurdum of all human experience which can fit your individual needs no better than it fitted his or his father’s. I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.”

In this passage, one might say the tone is fatalist, bitter, or caustic; because it departs from the novel’s usual stream-of-consciousness prose, one might even say that the change in diction

The tone of a text is frequently another key to an author’s intent and a text’s purpose. This is why questions about a passage’s “tone” often appear on the AP English exam and the critical reading portions of the ACTs and SATs.


Not to be confused with motif, the theme of a work is often called its “common thread” or overarching idea. A text’s “theme” extends throughout the entire text, and is elucidated in a variety of ways, via other literary devices, characters, plot, and individual passages. Themes can be tricky, because they may be easily confused with symbolism. Just remember that themes are often associated with that question I’ve reminded you to ask yourself in the past: “What’s the point?” Examples of themes are the following:

  • Revenge in Hamlet
  • The psychological and social mechanism of punishment and criminality in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment
  • Literary fanaticism and the danger of reading in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary

As you can see in all of these examples, themes are ideas or notions that the text works through, complicates, highlights, and generally fixates upon.


Your English teacher may have defined “diction” simply as “word choice” (mine did!). This is helpful for grasping the general concept of diction but it gets a little more complicated. Diction is wedded to a work’s larger themes and motifs; it is absolutely essential in elaborating an author’s intent, for words and how they are delivered can radically distort or convey a passage’s meaning. Consider these different types of diction:

Formal v. Casual Diction:

Formal diction, also known as “elevated” or “high” diction, designates precisely what it names: a formal articulation that is lofty, elevated, and very often figurative. Consider this example of formal diction from Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady:

“Her reputation for reading a great deal hung about her like the cloudy envelope of a goddess in an epic.”

Formal diction is free of casual diction, which is precisely the opposite of formal diction. Casual diction is appropriate for informal contexts, and includes many variations such as vulgarity, slang, idioms, and colloquialisms. Casual diction is often conversational and liberal when it comes to adhering to formal rules of punctuation and phrasing. Here is an example of casual diction from Cormac McCarthy’s The Orchard Keepers.

I knowed you wouldn’t turn down nobody from home, the voice said. You from Maryville? I live right near here, comin from Floridy…

Other forms of diction include literal and figurative, or abstract and concrete.

Connotation v. Denotation

These two are essential to a reader’s understanding of a specific word, idea, or event expressed in a text. The connotation of something is its implication, suggestion, or emotional, positive, or negative tenor. Consider the connotation of this passage from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own:

“Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.”

Woolf’s use of imagery in this passage–specifically, the metaphor aligning women with “looking glasses”–along with its diction–words like “magic” and “delicious power”–clearly communicate the passage’s ironic intent. I would say here that these devices connote the irony embedded in Woolf’s thesis: that women have assisted in nothing more than displaying and amplifying man’s image throughout the centuries.

Denotation is quite simply the definition of a word or concept. Denotation is the literal and precise meaning of a word. I.e., “thoroughbred” is the precise denotation of a specific form of horse. Connotation and denotation are critical devices that distinguish a word’s literal versus its suggestive meaning–a balance you will often be asked to play in your essay responses.


Last but not least, syntax is the way in which words, sentences, and passages are ordered within a text. Identifying a passage’s specific syntax can be crucial once again in identifying the text’s tone or intent, for many authors and poets resist the traditional subject-verb syntax of formal English grammar in their works for good reason. Consider the syntax in this passage from Milton’s Paradise Lost:

Abashed the Devil stood,  
And felt how awful goodness is, and saw  
Virtue in her shape how lovely—saw, and pined  
His loss..

Here the placement of “abashed” before the subject (“Devil”) emphasizes Satan’s emotional state. Consider the difference between “abashed the Devil stood” and “the Devil stood abashed” to prove this point. Additionally, polysyndeton (use of many conjunctions)–“and felt…and saw…and pined…”–lends a spiraling effect to this emotional state. As he watches, the Devil increasingly, almost redundantly, recognizes “His loss,” a poignant moment in this passage. Syntax here evokes what the Bible story of Adam and Eve’s fall cannot: Satan’s empathetic state.

One more week of literary terms, and then we’ll move on to something new!

Additional Reading:

Check out the next post in this three part series on literary terms and devices:

Check out my previous post in this series:

About the author: Kathleen McGunagle is a graduate of Princeton University’s English department and Interdisciplinary Humanities Certificate Program. Concentrating in British Renaissance Literature, she completed a thesis this spring on Shakespeare and epistolary culture (“Shakespeare’s Written World: Letters in Hamlet, Antony and Cleopatra, and King Lear”). Kathleen will be attending Boston University’s M.F.A. program in Creative Writing as a fiction writer this fall.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *