AP English Language and Composition Exam: 101 Key Terms

Glossary of Important Grammatical, Literary, and Rhetorical Terms

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On this page, you'll find brief definitions of grammatical, literary, and rhetorical terms that have appeared on the multiple-choice and essay portions of the AP* English Language and Composition exam. For examples and more detailed explanations of the terms, follow the links to the expanded entries in our Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms.

*AP is a registered trademark of the College Board, which neither sponsors nor endorses this glossary.

  • Ad HominemAn argument based on the failings of an adversary rather than on the merits of the case; a logical fallacy that involves a personal attack.
  • AdjectiveThe part of speech (or word class) that modifies a noun or a pronoun.
  • AdverbThe part of speech (or word class) that modifies a verb, adjective, or other adverb.
  • AllegoryExtending a metaphor so that objects, persons, and actions in a text are equated with meanings that lie outside the text.
  • AlliterationThe repetition of an initial consonant sound.
  • AllusionA brief, usually indirect reference to a person, place, or event--real or fictional.
  • AmbiguityThe presence of two or more possible meanings in any passage.
  • AnalogyReasoning or arguing from parallel cases.
  • AnaphoraThe repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses or verses.
  • AntecedentThe noun or noun phrase referred to by a pronoun.
  • AntithesisThe juxtaposition of contrasting ideas in balanced phrases.
  • Aphorism(1) A tersely phrased statement of a truth or opinion. (2) A brief statement of a principle.
  • ApostropheA rhetorical term for breaking off discourse to address some absent person or thing.
  • Appeal to AuthorityA fallacy in which a speaker or writer seeks to persuade not by giving evidence but by appealing to the respect people have for a famous person or institution.
  • Appeal to IgnoranceA fallacy that uses an opponent's inability to disprove a conclusion as proof of the conclusion's correctness.
  • ArgumentA course of reasoning aimed at demonstrating truth or falsehood.
  • AssonanceThe identity or similarity in sound between internal vowels in neighboring words.
  • AsyndetonThe omission of conjunctions between words, phrases, or clauses (opposite of polysyndeton).
  • CharacterAn individual (usually a person) in a narrative (usually a work of fiction or creative nonfiction).
  • ChiasmusA verbal pattern in which the second half of an expression is balanced against the first but with the parts reversed.
  • Circular ArgumentAn argument that commits the logical fallacy of assuming what it is attempting to prove.
  • ClaimAn arguable statement, which may be a claim of fact, value, or policy.
  • ClauseA group of words that contains a subject and a predicate.
  • ClimaxMounting by degrees through words or sentences of increasing weight and in parallel construction with an emphasis on the high point or culmination of a series of events.
  • ColloquialCharacteristic of writing that seeks the effect of informal spoken language as distinct from formal or literary English.
  • ComparisonA rhetorical strategy in which a writer examines similarities and/or differences between two people, places, ideas, or objects.
  • ComplementA word or word group that completes the predicate in a sentence.
  • ConcessionAn argumentative strategy by which a speaker or writer acknowledges the validity of an opponent's point.
  • ConfirmationThe main part of a text in which logical arguments in support of a position are elaborated.
  • ConjunctionThe part of speech (or word class) that serves to connect words, phrases, clauses, or sentences.
  • ConnotationThe emotional implications and associations that a word may carry.
  • CoordinationThe grammatical connection of two or more ideas to give them equal emphasis and importance. Contrast with subordination.
  • DeductionA method of reasoning in which a conclusion follows necessarily from the stated premises.
  • DenotationThe direct or dictionary meaning of a word, in contrast to its figurative or associated meanings.
  • DialectA regional or social variety of a language distinguished by pronunciation, grammar, and/or vocabulary.
  • Diction(1) The choice and use of words in speech or writing. (2) A way of speaking usually assessed in terms of prevailing standards of pronunciation and elocution.
  • DidacticIntended or inclined to teach or instruct, often excessively.
  • EncomiumA tribute or eulogy in prose or verse glorifying people, objects, ideas, or events.
  • EpiphoraThe repetition of a word or phrase at the end of several clauses. (Also known as epistrophe.)
  • Epitaph(1) A short inscription in prose or verse on a tombstone or monument. (2) A statement or speech commemorating someone who has died: a funeral oration.
  • EthosA persuasive appeal based on the projected character of the speaker or narrator.
  • EulogyA formal expression of praise for someone who has recently died.
  • EuphemismThe substitution of an inoffensive term for one considered offensively explicit.
  • ExpositionA statement or type of composition intended to give information about (or an explanation of) an issue, subject, method, or idea.
  • Extended MetaphorA comparison between two unlike things that continues throughout a series of sentences in a paragraph or lines in a poem.
  • FallacyAn error in reasoning that renders an argument invalid.
  • False DilemmaA fallacy of oversimplification that offers a limited number of options (usually two) when in fact more options are available.
  • Figurative LanguageLanguage in which figures of speech (such as metaphors, similes, and hyperbole) freely occur.
  • Figures of SpeechThe various uses of language that depart from customary construction, order, or significance.
  • FlashbackA shift in a narrative to an earlier event that interrupts the normal chronological development of a story.
  • GenreA category of artistic composition, as in film or literature, marked by a distinctive style, form, or content.
  • Hasty GeneralizationA fallacy in which a conclusion is not logically justified by sufficient or unbiased evidence.
  • HyperboleA figure of speech in which exaggeration is used for emphasis or effect; an extravagant statement.
  • ImageryVivid descriptive language that appeals to one or more of the senses.
  • InductionA method of reasoning by which a rhetor collects a number of instances and forms a generalization that is meant to apply to all instances.
  • InvectiveDenunciatory or abusive language; discourse that casts blame on somebody or something.
  • IronyThe use of words to convey the opposite of their literal meaning. A statement or situation where the meaning is directly contradicted by the appearance or presentation of the idea.
  • IsocolonA succession of phrases of approximately equal length and corresponding structure.
  • JargonThe specialized language of a professional, occupational, or other group, often meaningless to outsiders.
  • LitotesA figure of speech consisting of an understatement in which an affirmative is expressed by negating its opposite.
  • Loose SentenceA sentence structure in which a main clause is followed by subordinate phrases and clauses. Contrast with periodic sentence.
  • MetaphorA figure of speech in which an implied comparison is made between two unlike things that actually have something important in common.
  • MetonymyA figure of speech in which one word or phrase is substituted for another with which it is closely associated (such as "crown" for "royalty").
  • Mode of DiscourseThe way in which information is presented in a text. The four traditional modes are narration, description, exposition, and argument.
  • Mood(1) The quality of a verb that conveys the writer's attitude toward a subject. (2) The emotion evoked by a text.
  • NarrativeA rhetorical strategy that recounts a sequence of events, usually in chronological order.
  • NounThe part of speech (or word class) that is used to name a person, place, thing, quality, or action.
  • OnomatopoeiaThe formation or use of words that imitate the sounds associated with the objects or actions they refer to.
  • OxymoronA figure of speech in which incongruous or contradictory terms appear side by side.
  • ParadoxA statement that appears to contradict itself.
  • ParallelismThe similarity of structure in a pair or series of related words, phrases, or clauses.
  • ParodyA literary or artistic work that imitates the characteristic style of an author or a work for comic effect or ridicule.
  • PathosThe means of persuasion that appeals to the audience's emotions.
  • Periodic SentenceA long and frequently involved sentence, marked by suspended syntax, in which the sense is not completed until the final word--usually with an emphatic climax.
  • PersonificationA figure of speech in which an inanimate object or abstraction is endowed with human qualities or abilities.
  • Point of ViewThe perspective from which a speaker or writer tells a story or presents information.
  • PredicateOne of the two main parts of a sentence or clause, modifying the subject and including the verb, objects, or phrases governed by the verb.
  • PronounA word (a part of speech or word class) that takes the place of a noun.
  • ProseOrdinary writing (both fiction and nonfiction) as distinguished from verse.
  • RefutationThe part of an argument wherein a speaker or writer anticipates and counters opposing points of view.
  • RepetitionAn instance of using a word, phrase, or clause more than once in a short passage--dwelling on a point.
  • RhetoricThe study and practice of effective communication.
  • Rhetorical QuestionA question asked merely for effect with no answer expected.
  • Running StyleSentence style that appears to follow the mind as it worries a problem through, mimicking the "rambling, associative syntax of conversation"--the opposite of periodic sentence style.
  • SarcasmA mocking, often ironic or satirical remark.
  • SatireA text or performance that uses irony, derision, or wit to expose or attack human vice, foolishness, or stupidity.
  • SimileA figure of speech in which two fundamentally unlike things are explicitly compared, usually in a phrase introduced by "like" or "as"
  • StyleNarrowly interpreted as those figures that ornament speech or writing; broadly, as representing a manifestation of the person speaking or writing.
  • SubjectThe part of a sentence or clause that indicates what it is about.
  • SyllogismA form of deductive reasoning consisting of a major premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion.
  • SubordinationWords, phrases, and clauses that make one element of a sentence dependent on (or subordinate to) another. Contrast with coordination.
  • SymbolA person, place, action, or thing that (by association, resemblance, or convention) represents something other than itself.
  • SynecdocheA figure of speech in which a part is used to represent the whole or the whole for a part.
  • Syntax(1) The study of the rules that govern the way words combine to form phrases, clauses, and sentences. (2) The arrangement of words in a sentence.
  • ThesisThe main idea of an essay or report, often written as a single declarative sentence.
  • ToneA writer's attitude toward the subject and audience. Tone is primarily conveyed through diction, point of view, syntax, and level of formality.
  • TransitionThe connection between two parts of a piece of writing, contributing to coherence.
  • UnderstatementA figure of speech in which a writer deliberately makes a situation seem less important or serious than it is.
  • VerbThe part of speech (or word class) that describes an action or occurrence or indicates a state of being.
  • Voice(1) The quality of a verb that indicates whether its subject acts (active voice) or is acted upon (passive voice). (2) The distinctive style or manner of expression of an author or narrator.
  • ZeugmaThe use of a word to modify or govern two or more words although its use may be grammatically or logically correct with only one.