In the previous blog in this series, we looked at some popular literary devices that can make your writing stand out. This week, we’ll be taking a deep dive into some literary devices that you’ve probably never heard of — but which can add incredible power to your writing.
When I first started studying for my degree in English Language and Creative Writing, I had no idea there were so many different literary devices. Sure, I knew about metaphors and similes, alliteration and assonance, but when I first came across terms like Epizeuxis, Polysyndeton,and Litotes, I was completely lost. I mean, seriously, those words look like someone dipped their hand into a bag of Scrabble tiles, pulled out random letters, and strung them together.
While these literary devices are much less well known — probably because most people can’t spell them — I discovered that they’re actually pretty cool. They made my writing stronger, more impactful, and allowed me to develop my own unique writing style. I use them in my fiction, of course, but I also find myself using them in my ‘day job’ as a copywriter, too.
In this article, I’m going to be exploring my top five unusual literary devices and how you can use them to make your prose more powerful. Ready? Let’s dive in!
I find the figure of speech type literary devices like metonymy really useful when I’m writing — especially when I’m working to tight word limits. Metonymy is a device that you probably already use — but just don’t know you’re using it!
Metonymy is a device that originates in the Greek word metōnymía, which, literally translated, means “change of name”. It is, essentially, when you call an object or concept by the name of something with which it’s associated or of which it’s an attribute.
You’ll be familiar with the phrase, “the pen is mightier than the sword”. Well, this is metonymy in action. “Pen” is used to represent the written word, and “sword” represents military power. By using metonymy, you shorten a sentence, “the written word is mightier than military power”, to something that reads better and flows much easier off the tongue.
Let’s look at some other examples of metonymy:
Using metonymy in your writing can have several benefits. In many cases, it makes your sentences shorter. You can also use it to avoid frequently repeating the same phrase. Additionally, it makes your writing more interesting — especially if you’re able to come up with your own metonyms (making sure that your audience will understand the meaning).
I love discovering the etymology of words. Polysyndeton is a word that comes from the root syndetic, which means connected. Syndetic comes from the Greek word “syndein”, meaning “to bind together”. Poly, of course, is a prefix meaning “many”, so essentially polysyndetonmeans “multiple connections”. If you’ve been following this brief etymology lesson, you can probably guess what polysyndeton means as a literary device.
Polysyndeton is when you use lots of conjunctions (connections) in a phrase or a paragraph — instead, for example, of using commas. It creates a kind of rhythm to your writing that makes passages more memorable and interesting. The unconventional use of conjunctions (such as and) stands out to your readers and grabs their attention.
Let’s look at some examples:
There’s the inverse version of polysyndeton — asyndeton — which is where you don’t use conjunctions, and, instead, use commas. Not surprisingly, asyndeton comes from the Greek, meaning “not connected”. Polysyndeton and asyndeton can both be used to vary your stylistic effect in your writing.
Litotes is another figure of speech device. This one has been used (at least) since the time of Greek tragedies and comes from a word that means “simple” in Greek. I’m pretty sure that you’ll already be using this literary device, but it can be useful to know the names of the devices you’re using — and all the ways that you can potentially use them.
In 2015, The Guardian newspaper declared litotes to be “the most common rhetorical device you’ve never heard of” — and, therefore, it’s not surprising to find that politicians love to use litotes in their speeches.
Have you ever responded to the question, “how are you?’ with a casual “oh, not bad”? If so, you’re an official user of litotes (like the majority of the population!). The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines litotes as: an understatement in which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of the contrary (as in "not a bad singer" or "not unhappy").
In other words, if you use double negatives (e.g. “not bad” instead of “good”), you’re using litotes. You’re affirming something as being positive without outright saying something positive. There’s more to litotes than double negatives, however. Let’s take a look at some examples:
Like metonymy, synecdoche is a figure of speech type literary device that can make your writing more interesting. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as:
“a figure of speech by which a part is put for the whole, the whole for a part, the species for the genus, the genus for the species, or the name of the material for the thing made.”
Okay, so that definition doesn’t really make it clear what happens when you use synecdoche, does it? To help you get to grips with it, let’s check out some examples:
Synecdoche is often confused with metonymy since they are very similar. However, with metonymy, you can use terms that are related to something, they don’t have to be a part of it.
Considering that this word is so hard to spell and pronounce, you’d expect it to be some highly technical literary device, right? Actually, it’s not — but epizeuxis is still a great tool to have in your writer’s toolbox.
So, what is epizeuxis? Essentially, it just means repeating a word to give something a lot of emphasis or emotion. It’s great for grabbing your readers’ attention and communicating that what you’re saying is really important. You’ll find epizeuxis used a lot in political speeches (perhaps that’s why the word’s so complicated when the device itself isn’t?!). For example:
“Never give in — never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”
Epizeuxis has been around for a long time, with writers using it in the Old Testament of the Bible:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory”
You can, however, use epizeuxis in any kind of writing to add emphasis and emotion. Let’s look at some more everyday examples:
Like all literary devices, epizeuxis can be overused, and then it loses some of its impact. Try to get the balance right when you’re using this kind of literary device in your writing.
I’ve only given you a taste of the literary devices that are out there ready for you to harness as powerful writing tools. While these are my top five, there’s plenty more, such as hypophora, anastrophe, chiasmus, isocolon, polyptoton, anadiplosis, anaphora,and epistrophe.
If you want to add more style to your writing and keep your readers gripped, you should be using literary devices — and using them properly, too. Of course, it’s also important not to overuse them — but the more tools you have in your writer’s toolbox, the less likely you are to depend too heavily on one particular tool.