The Advanced Placement English literature exam is an assessment of a student's mastery of analysis and writing skills. Throughout the exam, students identify literary techniques and craft essays that explicate and dissect poetry and prose passages. Knowing the key vocabulary of AP English literature can help students recognize these techniques and ace the challenging test.

Figurative Language

In figurative language devices, the literal meaning of a word or phrase is abandoned to create a descriptive effect. One example is simile, a comparison between two different things using the words "like" or "as," such as "Her lips were like roses." A metaphor makes a comparison without these words, as in the phrase "The lake was a glassy mirror." Personification gives human characteristics to object, animals or ideas. For example, "The snowflakes danced in the wind" describes the snowfall by attributing human characteristics of movement.

Diction, Tone and Mood

Diction is a writer's deliberate choice of words to create a specific effect. A writer uses diction to create tone, the speaker's emotional attitude toward his subject. For example, in "Spoon River Anthology," Edgar Lee Masters uses words such as "loathed," "despised" and "ashamed" to demonstrate Archibald Higbie's bitter attitude toward his hometown. By contrast, mood is the atmospheric effect created through language. The phrase "At night, the wind howled through the creaking branches" could create a scary, foreboding mood in a horror story. Word choice is a vital element to creating both attitudes and atmospheres in writing.

Connotation and Denotation

Diction can also be affected by the actual meanings of words and personal attitudes people have toward them. While denotation is the actual dictionary definition of a word, connotation is the personal and cultural associations the word carries. For example, a feminist by definition is a person who believes men and women are equal, but the word also can carry the negative connotation of militancy and hatred toward men. Awareness of the associations words carry can affect how readers interpret works of literature.

Alliteration, Assonance and Consonance

Assonance is the use of repeated vowel sounds in words that are in close proximity, as in Edgar Allan Poe's line "The molten, golden notes." Consonance, by contrast, is the repeated use of consonant sounds within words, such is in the phrase "I had to think about the blank form at the bank," which emphasizes the "nk" sounds at the end of words. Consonance is not to be confused with alliteration, where repeated consonant sounds are used at the beginning of words, as in "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers."


An allusion is an indirect reference to something from history, pop culture, literature or other sources for the purpose of lending additional meaning to a work. For example, the title of John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" comes from a line in the Robert Burns poem "To a Mouse," where Burns writes, "The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry." The novel depicts two migrant workers with dreams of raising rabbits on their own land, but tragedy dashes their hopes by the story's conclusion. The allusion to Burns thus establishes an important theme in the story.

Protagonist and Antagonist

In fiction, the protagonist is the central character who drives the action forward and ultimately changes as a result. The protagonist often possesses a major flaw or weakness that leads to his downfall. The antagonist is the character who opposes the protagonist, attempting to keep him from reaching his objective. This opposition results in conflict. In the Harry Potter series, Harry is the protagonist bent on the evil Voldemort's destruction, while Voldemort serves as antagonist because prophecy has revealed that Harry is destined to kill him.

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