7 wonders of literary language

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Posted on 
May 11, 2020

Acclaimed scientist Lewis Thomas once argued that certain beetles and viruses are so fascinating, he’d go as far as to label them “modern wonders.” As a teacher of English literature, however, I’d like to propose a list of seven wonders in the area of literary language. Authors use a myriad of techniques and devices to enhance their writing, and while there are over thirty such strategies regularly employed in both fiction and non-fiction, I'll share my top seven.

7. Alliteration

Alliteration is primarily used in poetry. It’s the repetition of certain consonant sounds in words for a specific effect. Soft consonants like “f,” “h,” or “l” can create serene, whimsical emotions, whereas hard ones like “b,” “d,” or “p” can create sharp or exciting moments. Poet Edgar Allan Poe was clearly a lover of alliteration: “While I nodded, nearly napping” and “the silken, sad, uncertain rustling” are just two of the countless alliterative phrases in his classic poem “The Raven.” Alliteration is taught to students in North American classes as early as the second grade, and many children develop a fondness for poetry and literature through this melodic device.

6. Irony

Irony is a technique more often seen in non-fiction. Whether it’s dramatic, situational, or verbal, irony elevates writing to an art form that true lovers of literature can appreciate. William Shakespeare’s plays Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth are fraught with irony. A slightly more contemporary example is Roald Dahl’s short story “Lamb to the Slaughter”: Unbeknownst to the police investigating the murder of a fellow officer, they are served the same lamb that was used – in its frozen form – to kill the victim. In the penultimate line of the story, one of the officers remarks that the murder weapon is “probably right under our very noses” as he and the other men continue eating. The dramatic irony is palpable in that scene, since the reader knows exactly the consequences of what is happening, while the characters are none the wiser.

5. Emotional appeal

This rhetorical device is typically found in non-fiction. Writers often use emotive language to get readers to sympathize with their causes and persuade them to believe or act in certain ways. Winston Churchill did this spectacularly in his speeches throughout the Second World War. He declared his thirst for victory with more emotional language than any politician of his time: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. … We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.” Churchill mobilized the British people to stand together against the Nazi bombings and continue fighting when defeat seemed almost certain. Thus, when done well, emotional appeal can manipulate not just a solitary reader, but an entire population.

4. Personification

Personification is a device that attributes human qualities to animals and other non-human entities. Mary Shelley romantically depicted how a moon can “gaze” upon someone’s labours, and F. Scott Fitzgerald captured everyone’s frustration when he referred to car horns as “groaning.” One of Canada’s great novelists, Yann Martel, skilfully personifies life and death in Life of Pi: “Life is so beautiful that death has fallen in love with it, a jealous, possessive love that grabs at what it can. But life leaps over oblivion lightly, losing only a thing or two of no importance, and gloom is but the passing shadow of a cloud.” The anthropomorphic verbs effectively demonstrate the delicate balance between these abstract concepts.

3. Imagery

As the word implies, imagery is meant to employ the five senses to create a setting and vivid sensations for the audience. A solitary sentence sometimes feels flat, but one that contains imagery effortlessly floats above the others and lingers in a reader’s mind. Ray Bradbury was an author who certainly appreciated visual imagery and used it to describe the setting in the dystopian world of Fahrenheit 451: “The autumn leaves blew over the moonlit pavement in such a way as to make the girl who was moving there seem fixed to a sliding walk, letting the motion of the wind and the leaves carry her forward.” Almost everyone can recollect a fond fall experience from when they were growing up. Through the imagery, the reader feels a sense of nostalgia and is thereby immersed in the scene.

2. Metaphor and simile

For my number two choice, simile and metaphor are a close tie. Although they are quite similar as comparison tools, and many prefer the extended simile, I prefer the more compact metaphor. When great writers use metaphors effectively, readers get crystal clear images in their minds regarding specific characters or scenarios. Whether the metaphor is Richard Kadrey’s “Memories are bullets,” Kate Chopin’s “Her mouth was a fountain of delight,” or Kahlil Gibran’s “For thought is a bird of space,” one clearly understands the intended connotations while hopefully seeing the references in a new light. The metaphor is also one of the oldest literary devices and so divine that it has been avidly used in the world of psychology and religion.

1. Satirical hyperbole

My first choice is by far my favourite: satirical hyperbole. Many treasured writers have imagined exaggerated dystopian worlds that may border on the absurd but are often based on some past or present reality. Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron” is about a future with exaggerated equality. Smart people are forced to wear mental handicapping devices on their ears, the strong must bear heavy weights, and the most attractive are required to wear masks. In other words, Vonnegut presents an artificially egalitarian world where no one is smarter, stronger, or better looking than anyone else. The underlying dismal theme of government control is satirically juxtaposed with just the right amount of exaggeration, making this potentially disturbing future seem comical and thus potentially realistic.

In this passive post-industrial age, it’s easy to forget the power of literature. I understand that literary devices are not everyone’s cup of tea, but try searching for these seven wonders in the next piece of writing you read. You may be surprised at how easy they are to spot when you look more deeply at the threads in the literary fabric that enriches our language.

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About the author

Nadia Helal

Nadia Helal

Nadia Helal is an English teacher at LaSalle College in Montreal. She has a B.A. from Concordia University in Creative Writing and Spanish Literature, as well as a B.Ed. and M.Ed. from the University of Ottawa. She has worked as an English teacher in South Korea, England, and Canada. She recommends the Language Portal to all her students for its various grammar quizzes, as well as its clear explanations of the answers.

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Thanks, Nadia. Excellent summary!! You wrote this, eh? Keep it up!

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