What is Literature? Literary Devices in English and Literature or Literature-in English

What is Literature?

Literature is from the Latin word “literatura,” which simply means written. Thus, literature can be exactly interpreted as having the same meaning as writing or a write up. However, Literature is beyond this definition. This definition can best be suited for the basic definition of literature.

Literature-in-English or English Literature recognized as an art form is defined another way. Literature as an art form is a written work of art that is creatively created out of human imagination and presented in the best of language. Thus, Literature-in-English is distinguished from other forms of writing due to its creativity, level of imagination and the high level of language. Literature is not just any piece of writing.

Historical Development of Literature

To understand the history of literature is going back to early human civilizations. In the time of gods and goddesses and where the people believed so much in the old gods. In Greek culture, for instance, there was a god called Dionysus. Dionysus was the god of fertility. It was he who the people prayed to for bumper harvest, and the people had a ceremony to celebrate him once in the year–during harvesting period. However, the real Greek goddesses of art and literature are called The Muses.

Since Dionysus was the god of fertility, the people believed in him so much as well as depended on him. To celebrate him, these people gathered and offered sacrifices and acted plays in merriment. Sometimes, these plays were either tragedy or comedy. They believed all they did was to appease the god of fertility and make him give them bountiful harvest.

Coming on to Africa, Literature-in-English was mostly unwritten. Africans had their literary creativity in songs, folktales, proverbs and so on. Just like the Greeks, to honor the gods and pray for a better year or harvest, the people created events, stories and songs praising the gods. Stories and songs considered as Epic were created to remember the history of the different African gods as well as celebrate them.

Most native African literature were written, the stories of many native gods were also unwritten. However, you must note that Africans equally began to develop interest in Literature to please the gods and also make their lives make more meaning. These forms of literature were also created to solve mysterious questions, entertain the people, safeguard the culture of the people as well as improve the standard of the living of the people.

Types of Literature

  1. Written Literature: This is the type that is written. It is usually in book forms like poetry collections, novels, plays and critical essays, Africans and other people started writing their literature after writing and publishing was discovered.
  2. Unwritten Literature: This type is not written; it was the literature type of the ancient people. It is in form of songs, folktales, proverbs, tongue-twisters, epic, masquerade performance, pantomime and others.

Genres of Literature

These are parts or divisions of Literature, mostly that of Written Literature.

  1. Drama: This genre has to do with action and dialogue between two or more characters. It is acted on stage or with camera and comes out as films. It is also written and released as plays. This appears in scenes and acts.
  2. Poetry: This is written in lines and stanza. It is a literary work of art that is written in elevated beautiful language, contains rhythm and other attributes of sound. It’s like Music.
  3. Prose: This is written in paragraphs and chapters. It is a literary work of art in simple language, mostly involving a story. It is the narration of a story involving characters.

Characteristics and Importance of Literature-in-English or English Literature

  1. Good literature text is written in beautiful language with good use of figurative expressions, and superb creativity and imagination.
  2. Good literature text has universal theme (message). It passes a message that you can easily connect to.
  3. Good literature touches your emotion–it is purgative or touches the heart.
  4. It is the reflection of human existence. Thus, it is something you can identify easily.
  5. It improves the language use of the reader or the viewer.
  6. Literature preserves the culture and history of a place.
  7. This field serves as form of entertainment and enlightenment for the people.
  8. It broadens people’s minds about life.

Literary Devices

What are Literary Devices?

Literary Devices are terminologies used in Literature-in-English and English Literature. These terminologies are used to identify figurative languages, figures of sound, elements of literature and other aspect of Literature. They can be found in Prose, Poetry and Drama as well as General Literature.


Types of Poetry

  1. Epic: It is a long narrative poem telling the great deeds of great people. It is usually found in Unwritten Literature. It is more of a heroic story.
  2. Ode: This is a praise and address of a person, animal, place or thing. It is addressed to these for a specific purpose. For instance “Ode to Nightngale” and “Ode to Africa.”
  3. Elegy: This is a poem that expresses grief and sorrow caused by the death of someone. This type is written.
  4. Dirge: This is like elegy. This poem expresses grief caused by the death of someone. It is not written, it is song.
  5. Ballad: This is traditional poem, often a common narrative in a town, that is sung.
  6. Sonnet: This is a poetry of fourteen lines popularized by William Shakespeare.
  7. Lyric: This poem is a deep one that is full of emotion and strong feeling.
  8. Pastoral: This poem explores communal life, the life of villagers and focuses on sheep, herd, trees and the country life.
  9. Romantic: This type of poem was popular in the past and praises nature.
  10. Limerick: This is a shorty witty and humorous poem of five lines.

Meanwhile, a poem of two lines is Couplet. A poem of three lines is Triplet. Four is Quatrain. Five is Quintet.. Seven is Septet. Eight is Octave.

Elements of Poetry

  1. Diction: This is the level and choice of language used by the poet in writing the poem.
  2. Theme: This is the central idea or messages found in the poem or passed across by the poet through the beautiful arrangement and words of the poem. This is also used in Prose, Drama, Unwritten Literature and in other forms of Literature.
  3. Tone: This is how the poet expresses his feelings or thoughts in the poem.
  4. Mood: This is the state of mind of the poet or that which is represented in the poem.
  5. Rhythm: This is an important element in poetry. It is the arrangement of movement of sound, beat or tempo in the poem.
  6. Rhyme: This is the repetition of similar sound in the lines of the poem. Example of rhyme is: The car hit the boy/playing with his toy/when he was being coy.
  7. Poet: This is the person who writes a poem.

Figures of Speech

What are Figures of Speech?

Figures of speech are elements of a language that add more meaning to a language or beautify the process and the use of the language.

  1. Simile: This figure of speech involves indirect comparison of two things with use “like” or “as.” Example is Peter is tall like an electric pole.
  2. Metaphor: This is the direct comparison between two things without the use of “like” or “as.” Example is Peter is an electric pole.
  3. Hyperbole: This is exaggerating or hyping things more than they are or appear. Example Peter ate the whole village.
  4. Personification: This is giving a human attribute to a thing or animal. Example is The goat sings or The sun is smiling at us.
  5. Euphemism: It is the expression of a very bad thing or situation in a light or mild way. Example is The man kicked the bucket (instead of) The man died.
  6. Paradox: This a strange saying but contains elements of truth. Example: Tomorrrow is pregnant and The child is the father of the man.
  7. Synecdoche: This is where you use to a part to represent whole. Example: Nigeria won Cameroon in a football match. (Only 11 players played this match on behalf of Nigeria).
  8. Oxymoron: This is placing two contradictory words together in a sentence. Example is His addiction to meth is an open secret.
  9. Antithesis: This figure of speech is placing two contradictory clauses together in a sentence. Example is The man is quiet but he is a murderer.
  10. Metonymy: This is the representation of something with an object associated or related with. Example is The white wig is here. The white wig here means the lawyer.
  11. Epigram: This is a short clever and witty saying that is meant to be philosophical.
  12. Pun: This is word similar to another in sound but different in meaning. It is often used to lampoon or ridicule. Example: The man is the sole of his family.
  13. Rhetorical Question: This is often used in poetry. They are questions that do not need answer and are often used for emphasis of points.
  14. Litotes: This is a statement in the negative to express a concept or idea and meant to reduce the ridicule of a situation. Example is They are a family that do not have much (Poor).
  15. Apostrophe: This is the act of speaking to an object or person as if it is present you with you there. Example: This stone! I told you to stand!
  16. Allusion: This is making reference to an actual event, person, history, society in a literary work of art.
  17. Symbolism: This is concept, thing or image stands for something else in meaning. It is just there as symbol representing something else. Example “caged bird” in Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird” or Albatross in “The Rhyme of Ancient Mariner.”
  18. Irony: This is the use of words that are indirect meaning. That is the use of words when you mean the direct opposite. Example The girl is fine (She is ugly).
  19. Sarcasm: This is the use of irony in such a way that you ridicule the person you are directing your speech to.

Figures of Sound

What are Figures of Sound

These are mostly used in poetry and are used to improve the use of sound, rhyme and rhythm in poetry.

  1. Assonance: This is the repetition of vowel sounds in the lines of poem.
  2. Alliteration: It is the repetition of consonant sounds in the lines of poetry.
  3. Onomatopoeia: This is the use of words associated with sound and their meaning. Example: The bee buzzes and The cow moos.
  4. Consonance: This is the repetition of consonant sounds in the middle of words in the same line of poetry. Example Little pestle smashed the kettle.
  5. Repetition: This is the repetition of some words in a poem to being out its beauty and for more emphasis.


There are two main types of prose, and they are:

  1. Fictional Prose: This is prose or story that is not real. It is a made up story.
  2. Non-Fictional Prose: This is a story that happened. It is often called a real life story.

There are three levels of length of prose, and they are:

  1. Short Story: It is the shortest prose and the plot is usually very simple with few characters. It is also a one day event at most times. It is usually between 3 – 12 pages.
  2. Novella: This is longer than a short story but shorter than a novel. It contains a moderate number of characters. It is usually between 40 – 100 pages.
  3. Novel: This is the longest form of prose and contains many characters and multiple plots. It can also involve different settings. It is between 150 – 1000+ pages.

Elements of Prose

  1. Autobiography: This is a true life story of a person written by that person.
  2. Biography: It is a true life story of a person written by another person.
  3. Setting: This is the particular place, time, cultural and political background and environment the story takes place. This is also used in Drama. A good writer must describe his setting well enough to make the readers visualize it and believe it.
  4. Plot: This is the sequential arrangement of events in a story or play. Events are arranged in such a way that A precedes B and B precedes C. The events should be built sequentially that it leads to climax and anti-climax. There is episodic (there is no strong connection between the events) and organic (there is strong connection between the events) types of plot.
  5. Climax: This is the height of the events in play and story. This is the height of the seriousness and gravity of the actions in these literary works of art.
  6. Anti-Climax: This is the descent of seriousness of the actions in a literary work of art.
  7. Characters: These are people, animals or even things that take or perform actions in a literary work of art. They also play huge roles in these literary works of art.

There are different kinds/types of characters:

  1. Flat/Simple Character: These characters aren’t fully developed in a literary work of art. They always act the same way with the same goal throughout the plot of the work.
  2. Round/Complex Character: This character is fully developed and has different characteristics, goals and actions. He can change throughout the plot of the work.
  3. Stock Character: This is the character whose features and actions are easily noticed in a literary text. They do not change and perform the same actions repeatedly.
  • Characterization: This is how these characters are developed in these works. How they are developed includes how they speak, how they act, their behaviour, goals and mannerisms.
  • Protagonist: This is the main character in a play or story. It has to do with the person, animal or thing that the events of the plot revolves around.
  • Antagonist: This is the character opposing the success and growth of the protagonist.
  • Point of View/Narrative Techniques: This is the angle by which the story is presented by the narrator. There are different points of view used in narrating a story, and they are:
  • First Person Point of View: This is where the narrator uses the first person pronoun (I, we, us, me) to present the plot and actions of the story.
  • Second Person Point of View: This is where the narrator uses the second person pronoun (you) to present the plot and actions of the story.
  • Third Person Point of View: The narrator here uses the third person pronoun (he, she, they, them) to present the plot and actions of the story.
  1. Didactic: If a literary work of art is didactic that means it teaches moral.
  2. Language/Diction: This is the choice of words and use of language of the narrator.
  3. Style: This contains the use of language, the choice of words, the structure of the plot and the work, the characterization and the narration/narrative technique.
  4. Author: This is the person who writes a story.


Types of Drama

  1. Tragedy: This where the events in the drama are sorrowful and arouse sad emotions in the audience or readers. It is also when it ends in a sad and sorrowful way and manner.
  2. Comedy: This is where the events of the drama make the readers/audience happy or when the events are amusing. It is also when the drama ends in happy note.

Elements of Drama

  1. Playwright: This is the person who writes a play for the stage. Meanwhile, a Scriptwriter is the person who writes scripts used in the directing and production of films.
  2. Cast: This includes the actors, actresses, director, writer, cameraman and every one involved in the production process of a play or film.
  3. Villain: This is a character who is known for making very evil plans.
  4. Dialogue: This is the interaction between two or more characters in a play/script.
  5. Soliloquy: This is where a character speaks loud to himself on stage without the other characters noticing.
  6. Aside: This is where a character speaks to himself on stage and the audience with the characters present.
  7. Hero/ Heroine: This is the main character in a play or story.
  8. Suspense: This is the heightened expectations of the audience about the proceeding or upcoming events of a play, film or story.
  9. Theatre: This is where a play is acted.
  10. Catharsis: This is the purgation of emotion/the feeling and emotion that connects a viewer and the audience to the play in performance.
  11. Melodrama: This type of drama is filled with already known actions or actions that are exaggerated and out of proportion.
  12. Costume: These are the clothes and props worn in the process of acting a play/film.
  13. Tragic Flaw: This is the weakness(es) causes the downfall of the main character. When the tragic flaw has to do with pride or incessant weakness, then it is Hubris.
  14. Mime: This is a kind of drama that uses only gestures, body movement and facial expressions. There is no use of words.
  15. Pantomime: This is the kind of drama involving the use of dance and music for acting.
  16. Flashback: This is a situation where past events are recalled or remembered.
  17. Prologue is the introductory part of a play. Epilogue is the concluding part.
  18. Interlude: This is the break between the transition from one scene/event of a drama to another scene/event.
  19. Play: This is a written drama that is not acted. Drama is when it is acted or in the process of being acted.
  20. Closet Drama: This is a play that is meant to be read on stage
  21. Humour: This is when actors make the audience laugh through their actions and words.

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