Literary Terms and Definitions


Topic: Literary Terms and Definitions


  • Language and style
  • Point of View


Language and style

This has been variously defined as “the manner of linguistic expression” (M.H. Abrams), “the patterning of language” (Richard Taylor), “way of writing” (A.F. Scott), “that which intervenes between the artist and his material” (Victor Jones), “the expertise which goes into your creation”

(Chukwuemeka Ike) etc. While some authorities seem to anchor style on language, some consider it to be constituted by the overall presentation and achievement of effect in a work. But it has a lot to do with the manner of writing with which a creative writer is associated. Hence, there is a popular adage which says that the style is the man himself. “Style is the final result of what the author does with the materials he employs—his characters, the environment of the story, the narrative perspective (is it in the first person or in the omniscient voice, etc.), the organization of the events and actions, and the implementation of linguistic devices. The writer’s style includes a creative writer’s mannerism and rhetoric; his effective use of language for the decoration of ideas and for painting features in bold relief; presenting facts with charity and brevity; the utilization of wits, ironies, and jests; and the arousal of emotions in others, for, as F.L. Lucas says in his style, “without emotion, no art of literature, nor any other art.”

Style possesses two principal ingredients: the content, as shown in the expression of ideas and the way this is done; and the consistent and unique manner in which an author deploys various devices and strategies so as to make his work memorable. Examining a writer’s style demands a consideration of all that he does in a piece of creative writing with a peculiarity associated with him. In addition to the characteristic portrayal of characters, setting, narrative points of view, events and actions that we pointed out in the preceding paragraph, there are also the author’s use of dialogue, his humour, powers of observation, the length and variety of his sentence structure, his fidelity or otherwise to linguistic conventions, the words and word-types he employs, the paragraphing and figurative use of language.

Discussions on style often tend to centre on the author’s levels of language deployment: the high (or grand), the middle (or mean), and the low (or base, or plain) styles. A writer may employ the three levels in the same novel or play, depending on his characters and the cumulative effect he has in mind. It is the duty of an author to ensure that the level of style in a literary work is appropriate to the speaker, the occasion, and the dignity of the literary genre in question. The high or grand style is associated with formality in language, consisting of elaborate sentence patterns and figurative ornamentation; tight, united statements; balanced constructions; and consciously designed statements. The middle level is akin to informality in language use, which would include the language of domestic conversation and the classroom; ordinary speech rhythms; loose constructions; short, simple, and compound sentences; phrases and clauses which often stand on their own; declamatory statements; the admittance of interjections; and asides which interfere with the movement of the basic sentence construction. The low level is the illiterate/vulgate speech exemplified by regional dialects, slang, and artisan vocabulary.

We may also classify styles according to literary epoch-Augustan style, metaphysical style, etc.  It may be derived from the source of its influence – the Biblical style; or from a type of usage, say the journalistic or the scientific style; or it could be traced to the influence of a specific author – Shakespearean, Miltonic, Achebean, Soyinkan, etc. styles. It is after the consideration of all these stylistic facets that an author’s style may be described in a number of ways. These include its classification as possessing the “ornate,” “episodic, ‘poetic’, ‘elaborate’, ‘forceful’, ‘florid’, ‘gay’, ‘sober’, ‘dull’, ‘pace/racy’ etc. style.

Point of View

The point of view in a story is the author’s expressive devices, his models of narration. It is associated with the theme, but more precisely, it is the outcome of the subject-theme relationship. An author’s chosen theme or themes has a direct impact on his viewpoint because, just as a point of view is the angle from which a story is narrated, an author’s theme is informed by his chosen perspective. In drama and poetry, the point of view is often easy to identify; in fiction, this is not always possible. The fact is that narrations have narrators who may act as filters, standing between the author and the story events, on one hand, and the characters and the author, on the other. These narrators may be self-effacing, intrusive, or omniscient. In the self-effacing mode, which is akin to the limited third person point of view, the author uses an unnamed narrator who gives only what he sees and hears without giving vent to his personal observations and feelings on the subject matter, while in the intrusive mode, the narrator does not shy away from giving his opinion on what he is narrating. An omniscient narrator, on the other hand, knows about all that transpires in the story and often provides information about characters’ inner thoughts and feelings, as well as what will happen in the future.


The basic tenses in English are the present, past, and future. English also has what is called the perfect tense, which combines aspects of the present and past, and the progressive tense, which combines aspects of the present and future. The simple tenses are those in which there is no combination of time, while the compound tenses are those formed by the combination of time. There are also the perfect and progressive compound tenses. The simple present tense is used to denote habitual actions, permanent situations, general truths, instructions, etc., while the simple past tense is used to denote completed past actions. The future tense is used to denote future time. The perfect tenses are used to denote actions that have been completed in the past.

Every story then could be told in a number of ways or a combination of some of them. The three common approaches are: the use of one of the characters in the story; the use of a third person, an outsider who is not a participant in the story events; and lastly, the story could ‘tell’ itself without the intervention of anybody whatsoever. The use of one of the characters is also referred to as the personalized point of view; the third-person narrator (persona) is the omniscient view in which the third-person pronouns (he, she, they, or it) are used in reference to characters in a story; and there is also the non-intervening narration, also referred to as the objective point of view, in which the narrator merely introduces the characters to the reader without any effort to describe them or to reveal their inner thoughts and motivations.


(i) The Participant’s/Personalized Point of View

This is equally referred to as the first-person point of view. In this narrative technique, the writer appoints one of the characters to be both a participant and a narrator. Such a character is usually the story’s protagonist. He uses ‘ I ‘or’ We ‘in places. The voice is his own, not necessarily the author’s. He is not necessarily the author’s favourite, and what he says, the follies he commits, or the fortunes he makes, may not necessarily enjoy the author’s support. In addition, the first-person narrator in any work of literature must not necessarily be a major character. That is, a minor character can enjoy the right to be the narrator in a piece of literature.


(ii) The Non-Participant Narrator/Third Person/Omniscient Point of View

The narrator here is omniscient; he is everywhere. He is not a character in the novel. The story told in the omniscient viewpoint uses the third person (he, she, it, or they) in describing the characters and their actions except when they are conversing. The omniscient narrator is an outsider who enjoys the characteristics of God’s omniscience. He sees and knows everything, and can and does enter the minds of the story’s characters to reveal their fears and hopes. He knows the past, the present, and the future of the characters.

The non-participant narrator or the third-person point of view is sub-divided into three: the editorial omniscient narrator, the neutral omniscient narrator, and selective omniscience (stream of consciousness). In editorial omniscience, the author, in addition to having a full knowledge of his characters, intervenes from time to time to say one or two things about them. In neutral omniscience, the narrator makes no comments on his feelings about anything; instead he makes available the much he knows about each character without passing value judgement on them or on their actions. In the third type of omniscience, the narrator has access to very few of the characters, sometimes to one of them. This is called selective omniscience or stream of consciousness technique because of the narrator’s restriction to one or two characters whose formed and unformed thoughts, emotions, and dreams he is able to make available to the reader by occasionally penetrating their consciousness.


(iii) The Objective/Camera Point of View

Like in the omniscient narrator model, the objective/camera/disappearing author point of view uses third person pronouns but has no omniscient narrator. The author does not intervene in the course of the story. It is described as “camera” because the author does no more than present the characters as they act and converse with one another. The author makes no attempt to describe them, to penetrate the recesses of their consciousness, or to judge their actions and reasons for doing what they do. It is the reader who makes all the deductions based on what he hears the characters say or do, and what the characters say about one another or what they do to one another. There are neither authorial intrusions nor the summarization of events in parts. One incident gives rise to another without any intervention from any quarters whatsoever. The result is that there are usually a lot of conversations, almost resembling what happens in a drama.


(iv) Multiple Points of View

This is the use of more than one point of view in the same story. It can lead to the complexity of a work. A story written in the first person could also have a substantial number of passages in which the stream of consciousness is employed by the narrator to dissect his own thoughts. It is also possible that an author whose point of view is omniscient could have a passage of stream of consciousness, some letters, or even diaries.


1. Discuss the aspects of style in literature.

2. Discuss the types of the author’s point of view.

3. Evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of multiple points of view in a work of fiction.

4. What do you understand by an “omniscient narrator”? Explain with examples.

5. How does the camera/objective point of view differ from the other points of view?

6. What are the techniques of stream of consciousness? Explain with examples.

7. What are the characteristics of an editorial omniscient narrator? Explain with examples.

8. Write short notes on: (any four)

(a) Selective Omniscience

(b) Neutral Omniscience


Apart from inventing new pictures or images reflecting one or more of the sense impressions, poets quite often arrange their diction with the purpose of achieving a special kind of beat, pulse, movement or rhythm. This is especially true of English poetry before the 20th century. This is not to say that rhythm is not important in 20th century poetry, for there is a sense in which every good poem has an inherent rhythm, even if it is irregular. J.P. Clark’s “Ibadan” may possess an irregular rhythm, but it does suggest that the arrangement of buildings and structures in the city is irregular and confused:


A running splash of rust

and gold-flung and scattered

among seven hills

like broken china in the sun.

(J.P. Clark)

The poem has what is generally referred to as’ free verse, ‘which means that the poet writes without being bound by the restrictions of any particular metrical pattern. However, there are certain types of poems in which strict attention is paid to metre and rhythm.

There are two broad classifications of metre/rhythm:

Rhythm in words or drumming in wave motion or in landscape refers to the repetition of a pattern, particularly when it is done with some amount of variation and movement. Rhythm is a natural process, such as we experience in our breathing, speaking, walking, pounding, etc.; in the existence of day and night; in the appearance and disappearance of the moon or the seasons, etc. In English speech, the voice falls more heavily on some sounds than on others. English poetry has always made use of these rhythmic patterns. Therefore, whenever we read a poem, we should try to notice the words that are emphasized or repeated and the general pacing of the poem. Essentially, that is what rhythm in poetry is about. Rhythm in poetry expresses emotion and suggests or aids in the determination of a poem’s theme.

In English poetry, the regular beats are referred to as the foot or metre. Until very recently, English poems were written with an eye on certain rules of rhythm known as metrical laws. Metre refers to the pattern of accented and unaccented syllables in a line. This is possible because English as a language is syllable-timed. In other words, every English word is composed of phonemes which are either stressed or unstressed (account and unaccented). For example, con/duct (noun) and con/duct (verb). When we read a poetic line aloud, our voice is never at the same level throughout; we vary and modulate it. The pitches fall on particular syllables according to the nature of their phonemic weight.

Sometimes a whole word is taken to be a syllable, as in come, put, quick, John, eat, hell, etc. At other times, the word is regarded as possessing two syllables and so is divided in such a manner that the accent falls on the first or second syllable. For example, quickly, report, rapport, etc. Thus, in a poetic line, one would expect to find a number of accented and unaccented syllables arranged in an identifiable order or pattern, known as the metre. It is the arrangement of the feet in a line of the stressed and unstressed syllables that determines what the metre of the whole poem is.

(i)        The Iambus/Iambic Foot (0-) consists of one unaccented (unstressed) syllable followed by one accented (stressed) syllable.

(a) That time of year thou mayst in me behold

When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang.

(b) The curfew tolls the knell of parting day.

(ii)       The Trochee/Trochaic Foot (-0) consists of one accented syllable followed by one unaccented syllable.

(a) There they are, my fifty men and women.

in a cavern, in a canyon.

Anapest/Anapestic(iii)      The Anapest /Anapestic Foot (0-0-): two unaccented syllables followed by one accented syllable. It is also called “running rhythm” because of its prevalence in swift movements.

(a) The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold,

And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold.

(iv) The Dactyl/Dactylic Foot (-0 0) consists of one accented syllable followed by two unaccented syllables.

(a) Half a league, half a league,

From half a league onwards

(v) The Spondee/Spondaic Foot (—): One stressed syllable followed by another stressed syllable.

(a) All whom war, death, age, ague, tyrannies,

Despair, law, chance hath slaine.

(vi) The Pyrrhic/Pyrrhic Foot (o o): two successive unstressed syllables as found in the second and fourth feet of the first line below:

(a) My way is to begin with the beginning.

(b) Oh weep for Adonais, the quick dreams.

Scanning is the marking of strong and weak stresses where they fall in the various syllables. To scan a passage of poetry is to plod through it line by line, noting its component feet while indicating where the strong and weak pauses fall within the poetic line. It is the measuring and marking of lines by taking them foot by foot for the purpose of establishing their metrical pattern.


This is the repetition of the same sound, usually but not always, at the end of two or more lines. Rhymed words must have the same vowel sounds or similar consonantal sounds preceding the vowels, or they must enjoy parity of accent. This would ensure a perfect rhyme.

(a) There is sweet music here that falls softer.

     Than petals from blown roses on the grass,

Or night dews on still water between walls

Of shadowy granite, in a gleaming pass;

Music that gentler on the spirit lies

Than tired eyelids upon eyes.

                                               (Tennyson, “The Lotos Eaters”)

The rhyme scheme in the above passage is ababcc. There are a variety of rhyme schemes including abab, aabb, abba, acbc etc. The portion of the poem cited below has the rhyme scheme of aabbcc.

(b)       Two neighbor, who were rather dense,

           Considered that their mutual fence

           Were more symbolic of their peace

           (Which they maintained should never cease)

           If each about his home and garden

           Set up a more substantial warden.

                                               (William Soutar, “Parable”)

A verse/poem without any rhyme is referred to as blank verse while the free verse is a poem which disregards the traditional notions of rhyme and metre, and rather relies on the nature of the content to achieve its poetic form.



1.                 What is scansion?

2.                 Discuss three feet with examples in literature.

3. What is rhyme scheme? Give at least five examples of common rhyme schemes in literature.

4. Differentiate between blank verse and free verse with examples from literature.

5. Scan the first two lines of “The Lady of Shalott” by Tennyson and show their metrical pattern.

6. What is the rhyme scheme of the poem “The Lady of Shalott” by Tennyson?

7. Create your own example of a dactylic metre with a minimum of seven syllables in each line.

8. Create your own example of a free verse poem with at least pattern.

6. What is the rhyme scheme of the poem “The Lady of Shalott” by Tennyson?

7. Create your own example of a dactylic metre with a minimum of seven syllables in each line.

8. Create your own example of a free verse poem with at least five lines.

9. What is the metre of the first two lines of “The Lady of Shalott” by Tennyson?

10. Is “The Lady of Shalott” by Tennyson an example of blank verse or free verse? Justify your answer with examples from the poem.



1.  We describe as ‘tragic flaw’ the ____ (a) slip made by a character which results in his fall (b) unsuccessful play written by an otherwise wonderful dramatist   (c) typographical error which recurs in a work of drama   (d) element of plot whose prominence makes an artistic work faulty

2.  To be total or complete a play needs to have a ____ (a) soliloquy (b) conflict (c) prologue     (d) epilogue

3.  The plot of a novel is best described as ____ (a) the outline of the story in a logical order   (b) the story with its beginning, middle and end   (c) the distinct summary of the story    (d) the story in all its detail

4.  The writer of play is known as a ____ (a) playwriter (b) playwrite     (c) playwrighter       (d) playwright

5.  A narrative poem ____ (a) preaches a sermon   (b) tells a tale or story   (c) propounds a philosophy     (d) argues in a narrative manner

6. A ____ is a poem which has fourteen lines (a) sonnet (b) ghazal (c) villanelle (d) sestina

7. In a Shakespearean tragedy, the main conflict is between the ____ and the protagonist (a) chorus and deuteragonist (b) protagonist and antagonist (c) secondary characters and the protagonist (d) tertiary characters and the protagonist

8. The literary critic Northrop Frye has divided all plots into ____ categories (a) six (b) seven (c) eight (d) five

9. The Greek philosopher Aristotle said that a play should have ____ (a) a beginning, middle and an end (b) a beginning, middle and two endings (c) three parts – protasis, epitasis and catastasis (d) none of the above

10. In literature, ____ is used to create suspense or maintain secrecy (a) catharsis (b) anagnorisis (c) peripeteia (d) anadiplosis

11. The ____ of a play is the lowest point in the protagonist’s fortunes (a) climax (b) anti-climax (c) crisis (d) catastrophe

12. In a tragedy, the ____ is the character who brings about the downfall of the protagonist (a) chorus (b) deuteragonist (c) protagonist (d) antagonist

13. In literature, ____ is defined as ‘the sudden reversal of fortune or change in circumstance, often from bad to good’ (a) anagnorisis (b) peripeteia (c) anadiplosis (d) catharsis

14. ____ is a figure of speech which is used for the purpose of emphasis or clarification (a) Metaphor (b) Simile (c) Oxymoron (d) Paralipsis

15. A ____ poem is one which has eighteen lines (a) sonnet (b) ghazal (c) villanelle (d) sestina



1.                 Scan the poem, “The Ambassadors of Poverty” by Umeh P. O. C.

2.                 Discuss the style of the poem, “The Ambassadors of poverty” by Umeh P.O.C.


1.                 Visit Wikipedia on literary terms and definitions.

2. Choose any five literary terms and give their definitions.

3. Visit the website of the Academy of American Poets.

4. Read a poem from the site and discuss its form, content, tone and style.

5. Find out about three different poetic forms and write an example of each form.

6. Read “The Lady of Shalott” by Tennyson. Identify the stanzas in the poem and discuss their rhyme schemes.

7. Is “The Lady of Shalott” by Tennyson an example of blank verse or free verse? Justify your answer with examples from the poem

8.                 Visit Encarta on literary terms and definitions, and Scansion.

9. Find out about scansion and scan “The Lady of Shalott” by Tennyson.

10. Is “The Lady of Shalott” by Tennyson an example of blank verse or free verse? Justify your answer with examples from the poem.

11. What is the difference between a ballad and a lyric? Give examples of each.

12. Read “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Coleridge. What is the difference between the ballad stanza and the lyric stanza used in this poem? Justify your answer with examples from the poem.

13. What is an ode? Give examples of three different kinds of odes.

14. Read “Ode to a Nightingale” by Keats. Identify the stanza form used in the poem and discuss its rhyme scheme.

15. Is “Ode to a Nightingale” by Keats an example of a Pindaric ode, Horatian ode or an irregular ode? Justify your answer with examples from the poem.

16. What is an elegy? Give examples of three different kinds of elegies.

17. Read “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas