How to Use Words: 8 Literary Devices


In one of my other incarnations, I teach writing at a local university, where we learn more formally. Here’s a formal breakdown of the ways to use words. See also How to Arrange Words.


A trope is any literary way of using words in something other than the literal sense. The most common–in fact, it’s the only ones we often talk about–are metaphor or simile. But here’s a list of useful tropes.

As Clive says in the comments below, I don’t consciously think about these as I write. But when I revise, I keep these in mind as possibilities. They are also a good exercise to work through.

  1. Metaphor/Simile: Two unlike things are said to be alike. The comparison is implied for a metaphor, but explicit for a simile.

    Ex. Eating, he was a pig.

    He ate like a pig.

  2. Synecdoche: Part stand for the whole.

    Ex. He’s in trouble with the law. (Law stands for police or legal system.) Use the photo as reference and try to come up with other synecdoche’s for police, e.g. The Badge.

  3. Syllepsis: Use of one verb that is understood differently in relation to two or more objects.

    Ex. His boat and his dreams sank.

  4. Anthimeria: One part of speech is exchanged for another.

    Ex. They enrolled in parenting class. (Parent is a noun used as an adjective.)

  5. Periphrasis: Substitution of one or more descriptive words for a proper name.

    Ex. Blue-Eyes can croon a great tune.

  6. Personification: Attribution of human qualities to inanimate objects or abstractions.

    Ex. No one, not even rain, has such small hands. (e.e. cummings)

  7. Litotes: Use of understatement to intensify an idea. It usually involves denying the contrary.

    Ex. It isn’t very serious. I have this tiny little tumor on the brain. —J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

  8. Oxymoron: Juxtaposition of two contradictory words.

    Ex. To win is to lose.

Of course, even if we don’t know the names of these tropes, we often use them. Today try to intentionally use one.

Besides tropes, there are schemes, which are unusual patterns of words. More on schemes tomorrow!

  • Clive
    August 7, 2007

    I think the use of tropes work better when you don’t think about them so much. I admit that I never consciously try to plug in a trope. They are present in my writing, but they just happen. It’s worth noting that with the trope comes the risk of awkward phrasing or even the dreaded cliche.

  • darcy
    August 7, 2007

    Yes! You must avoid the awkward phrasing and cliches! But I think it has helped me to be aware of possibilities. I’ve actually practiced writing each of these–just to make it stick in my mind.

    Possibilities–that’s what I like about them.