Language devices: reference list

Words help us to lock on to our knowledge of all the world around us. There are some formulas for some of the most common word structures which help to communicate ideas vividly.

Here is a summary list of a few of the more useful language devices which can be used in writing. The list shows just a small portion of the possible devices, with some silly “G” certificate examples, but it’s a place to start.

ALLEGORY                when you create a place or person which/ who has a real- life equivalent, then you are using an allegory. Names are often meant to be allegorical: Prudence, Constance, Christian, Peter.

ALLITERATION           where the letters at the beginning of a series of words (consonants only) are repeated for effect: “busy bees buzz about their business.”

AMBIGUITY                using words which may have several meanings in the same context. The most common form is called the pun: “I‘m a bouncer, so barring trouble I‘ll be at the pub all night.” (Well, I thought it was clever…)

AMPLIFICATION         means to add to whatever you are saying by careful choice of words OR by repeating the same words:

ANTICLIMAX              just when you think the real action is to start, something else happens which deflates the effect: “I‘m sick of you, I‘m sick of the dog, I‘m sick of my job, and to top it off I don‘t feel at all well!

ANTITHESIS               putting together ideas which are opposite or in contrast to each other: “We all benefit: you and I, the young and old, the weak and the strong.”

ASIDE                       a character (or a narrator) steps out of the story to make a comment directly to the audience or sometimes another character. No-one else can hear what‘s being said; “Little does he know that I know that he knows that I know all about what he knows!”

ASSONANCE             Same kind of thing as ALLITERATION except that the letters involved are vowels rather than consonants and they tend to be buried in the words rather than at the beginning. There are much more technical definitions in poetry, too.

CARICATURE             take the essential features of something; a person or a thing , and then exaggerate them to make them look funny. Cartoonists use caricature all the time. Once again, we’re back to pictures.

CIRCUMLOCUTION (or periphrasis)  a refusal to speak plainly or come quickly to the point: “This parrot has shuffled off this mortal coil; it has met its maker; it has crossed to the Elysian fields; it has ceased to be. It‘s bloody dead!”

CLICHE                      a phrase used so often that it has become worn out. It has no sincere meaning any more: “We have the matter in hand; I can give you my firm assurance that it will be given the fairest consideration at the earliest possible opportunity in the context of a full and frank exchange of ideas.”

COLLOQUIALISM and JARGON and SLANG loose or informal or specialised language. (You might investigate what REGISTER WRITING is, because it’s related. Wikipedia has a useful article based on sociolinguistics.)

EUPHEMISM             saying something nasty or harsh or bitter in the nicest possible way: “pass over” for die; “tired and emotional” for drunk; “achieved second place” for losing, and so on.

FABLE                       a teaching story which has animals instead of characters, and which makes its theme or moral clear to the audience. (See APOSTROPHE, PARALLELISM, PERSONIFICATION, STEREOTYPE.)

FLASHBACK              where the story starts with a climax, and them moves itself back in time to show the events leading to the climax. Commonly today, flashbacks tend not to bother starting from a climax. That’s just shoddy.

FORESHADOW         careful choice of words or incidents or MOTIFS or SYMBOLS will help to lay the foundation for whatever happens at the climax. “I “felt the texture of the wood around the guncase: it was dark and twisted but silky smooth: except in one corner, which injected a splinter with snake- like speed into my trigger finger” foreshadows danger, the presence of something devious and clever, the use of a gun by the protagonist…

HYPERBOLE             a huge exaggeration for (often comic) effect: “the manager towered colossally over the guilty pair. He drew himself up to his full 5 feet 2 inches and glared.”

IRONY and SARCASM             whatever you say is the opposite of what you mean. Irony is gentle: “I love this liquid sunshine.” Sarcasm is biting: “Brilliant play, Fred. I hadn‘t realised you were so skilful at giving the ball to the opposition.”

MALAPROPISM         using what you think are the right words, but actually talking nonsense: “I’m old and sick so they‘re gonna put me in the Geranium ward for umbilification.” Specifically, it means choosing a wrong word which sounds somewhat similar to the correct word.

METAPHORICAL LANGUAGE   any kind of comparison of one thing with another. A direct comparison is a METAPHOR: “He was a lion in battle.” If “like” or “as” is used, the comparison is called a SIMILE: “He was like a lion in a battle.”

MOTIF                       a SYMBOL or IMAGE which is repeated to create an idea in the mind of the audience. Can also be used as FORESHADOWING. “Hot today, he thought”…”he wiped away the sweat as he drank”…”The merciless sun gloated over the baked corpse.” (The motif is one of extreme heat.)

MOTIVATION              the reasons why a character acts as he/she does: it literally means “that which makes one move or act.”

NEMESIS                  a nasty end which you can‘t escape. Think of Terminators 1 and 2, or death and taxes.

NEOLOGISM              literally a new word. If you can‘t find the word you want, then make it up according to some formula that makes sense to you. Very useful in poetry.

OMNISCIENCE           means you know it all. The writer of a story is omniscient, but may limit the amount he/she gives away during the telling of the story. It‘s a structural decision made by the author.

ONOMATOPOEIA       words which sound like the thing they label: “whoosh, gasp, whizz bang.” Snakes slither silently, so they say.

PARALLEL(ISM)         a writer creates a fantasy world which is really based on the real world. It‘s a way of saying some nasty things about real people and claiming that you didn’t really mean anything defamatory, honest, your Honour.

PARODY                   a kind of PARALLELISM where a real thing or person is made fun of. Fred Dagg’s “FLEA RACE” commentary parodies a horse race. Spike Jones’ Musical Depreciation series parodied real music by using … well, more different real music. Puppet shows like “Spitting Image” parody real people, like politicians. (Real people?)

PATHETIC FALLACY  pathos means feelings; a fallacy is a mistake. What this means is that the way a character feels is reflected in his surrounding, or the other way around. Noddy thinks that because he‘s happy, the sun will always shine on him. People may think that it means something important or significant if it rains at a funeral. The idea that because you‘re feeling sad the sky will fall on everyone’s head is both pathetic and a fallacy.

PERSONIFICATION    take something which has no life, and imagine what would happen if it could talk and act like a human being: your talking rock becomes a person! Donald Duck made millions for Walt Disney out of this idea.

PORTMANTEAU WORD           usually a NEOLOGISM. Take two perfectly good words and cut and paste them together to create a word with a combined meaning and what have you got? A blogodea! “’Twas brillig, and the slithy toags did gyre and gimble in the wabe…” Even blog is a portmanteau of Web and log.

PROPAGANDA          take an idea, ignore its faults and weaknesses, and push it as the god- given truth. Don‘t worry about silly things like being wrong or lying through your teeth. Wouldn‘t be the same if you tried to be reasonable and balanced. Comes from a root which means to spread ideas.

SATIRE                      take a decent, normal person/ thing/ idea and twist it so that it is so distorted that people laugh at it. PARODY is a good way of doing it. Satire usually has some point or comment to make, and it is very good at making pompous people come back to reality.

SHAGGY DOG STORY            a long- winded story which has so many sidetracks that you get lost; usually when you get to the end the joke is so weak as to be an ANTICLIMAX. Usually the way the story is told is the best part by far.

STEREOTYPE           if you are in a hurry to get to the point of a story, you don‘t bother spending time on rounding out a real character. You use a cardboard cut- out instead. People understand: they know what all policeman and all teachers and all 2-year-olds and all mothers- in- law are like.

STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS      the kind of information you might give on the psychiatrist‘s couch or to the nice policeman who‘s taken a personal interest in last Saturday night’s doings… Supposedly it means saying the first thing which comes into your head. It is a difficult kind of writing to do because it looks so easy, but everything you say still has to count in the story (which was the point of using it in psychology and psychiatry). The style is similar to that of many “good” essays sent off to teachers…. ahem…

SYMBOL(ISM)            a thing is used to represent some idea or quality or act: “Members of the jury, my client sits in the shadow of the noose…” “As he prayed, he looked heavenward and bathed in the brilliance of the sun.” “He thought of the magnitude of the task, and felt the black weight of the shadow of the mountain on his back.” Connotation is important here.

TRAGEDY                 a special kind of story which features a hero – who may not be a personally worthy person- with a problem. As he/she tries to solve it, we find that some part of him/her causes whatever he/she does to turn into nasty brown stuff. The hero dies, usually after wrecking the lives of a few of their mates. He/she has a fatal flaw and will meet their NEMESIS and a good thing too in most cases. Read Hamlet. It‘s full of it.

UTOPIA                     a Greek word which means “nowhere.” We use the word to mean any perfect society which a writer has created. There have been many attempts to do this, but there have also been many politicians. On that last point, a society which is an (imaginary) place or has conditions in which everything is as bad as possible is called a dystopia.