A Quick List of ACT Literary Devices

Posted by Colleen on 4/11/18 5:54 PM


Welcome back to my SAT/ACT reading section blog. The topic for today: literary devices. These terms come up infrequently but often enough that it’s worth giving them a look over before the test to be sure that you have them down. If they come up, you can get another question right, and if they don’t, you can save what you learned for a future SAT subject test or AP test.

Ready? Let’s get started.

What are the Terms that I Need to Know?

Luckily, there are only a few terms that you absolutely need to know, and you have probably already come across them. By need to know, I mean that the right answer usually comes from this group of key words.

Alliteration  --

when a series of neighboring or linked words begins with the same letter or sound

            Remember Fox in Socks? It has a great example of alliteration:

            Ben bends Bim's broom.

Bim bends Ben's broom.

Bim's bends.

Ben's bends.

Ben's bent broom breaks.

Bim's bent broom breaks.

On the test, alliteration is usually easy to spot, although it’s rarely as obvious and Ben and Bim:

            Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary

            Note the repetition of the same sound (once, while, weak, weary), even though spellings differ. Also, the words do not have to be directly next to each other for it to count as alliteration.

Hyperbole --

an exaggeration or other grandiose claim not meant to be taken literally

            I’ve told you a hundred times.

            I had to wait in the house for ten days – an eternity.

            Ten days might be a long time, but it isn’t an eternity.

Personification --

when an object or animal is described with qualities or traits usually reserved for humans.

Earth felt the wound; and Nature from her seat, Sighing, through all her works, gave signs of woe.

The Earth cannot feel; nature does not sit or sigh or worry. The author is imagining that the Earth and nature can respond with human reactions. 

Simile and Metaphor --

similes and metaphors both draw comparisons. Similes use “like” or “as,” while metaphors do not.

A hot wind was blowing around my head, the strands of my hair lifting and swirling in it, like ink spilled in water

The hair was not actually ink in water, but the wind caused it to fly around as if it were.

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more

Life is not an actor, but Shakespeare is saying that life is like an actor.

What Other Terms are Good to Know?

Some terms appear less frequently but are still useful to have ready by test day.

Allusion -- 

a brief and indirect reference to literature, history, or cultural figures that the reader would be familiar with

In 2014, Starbucks served up the Franken Frappuccino and in 2015 and 2016, Frappula Frappuccino, allusions to Frankenstein and Dracula, respectively.

Neither Frappuccino mentions Frankenstein or Dracula directly, but indirectly, we know that both drinks are making references to famous fictional characters.

Anthropomorphism --

anthropomorphism is similar to personification, but whereas personification gives human attributes to an object or animal for purposes of imagery, anthropomorphism is when animals or inanimate objects act like humans.

Personification: Earth felt the wound.

Here, the author claims the Earth could feel, although we as the reader know the Earth can’t feel.

Anthropomorphism: In Animal Farm, the animals start a revolution against their human farmer.

Here, the characters, which are animals, actually do human actions, like starting a revolution.

Cliché -- 

overused or trite expression, often about a common idea or experience

            Only time will tell.

            All’s fair in love and war.

            It was a dark and stormy night.

We’ve all heard these phrases a lot, so often in fact, that they might not even much anymore, since they are so overused. 

Irony --

Irony is a complicated term, especially since it is often confused with similar terms like coincidence and sarcasm. You don’t have to master all of the complexities of irony for the exam. Just remember that words are ironic if they convey an idea that is the opposite of their literal meaning.

I looked out the window and saw that it was raining. “What perfect weather for our picnic!”

The speaker says that the weather is perfect, but the speaker really means that the weather is undesirable. 

Irony can also stem from situations or events. For instance, if a firehouse burns down, the event is ironic, since a firehouse would be the last place one would expect to have a fire.

A final example of irony is when the reader understands the full implications of a character’s words or actions, when the character does not. In Romeo and Juliet, the audience knows that Juliet is alive when Romeo mourns that she is dead.

Paradox --

a statement that is self-contradictory but that also points at a deeper truth 

What a pity that youth must be wasted on the young.

At first it seems contradictory: only the young have youth, so how could youth be bestowed on any other age group? At the same time, this phrase also gets at a deeper truth: that people only appreciate youth once they are no longer young.

What’s Next? 

Get to practicing! Take a practice ACT or SAT test, and work on familiarizing yourself with these new words within the context of the exam. As always, feel free to get in touch with Cambridge Coaching for additional lessons.


Tags: ACT