Epigram, Epigraph, and Epitaph

Commonly Confused Words

Epitaph written on headstone

Jim Dyson/Getty Images

Each of these words beginning with epi- (from the Greek word for "upon") has multiple definitions, but here are the most common meanings.


  • An epigram is a brief, witty statement in prose or verse--similar to an aphorism.
  • An epigraph is a brief quotation set at the beginning of a text (a book, a chapter of a book, an essay, a poem) to suggest its theme.
  • An epitaph is a brief inscription in prose or verse on a tombstone or monument.

None of these words, by the way, should be confused with epithet--an adjective expressing some quality or attribute that is characteristic of a person or thing.


  • "He spoke in epigrams about events in the morning paper, prefacing his lectures each day with a few minutes of commentary, invariably sardonic, about a political event that had caught his eye."
    (Harrison E. Salisbury, A Journey for Our Times. Harper & Row, 1983)
  • "I believe, as the epigraph to my book states, that 'the deepest human life is everywhere.'"
    (Scott Samuelson, The Deepest Human Life: An Introduction to Philosophy for Everyone. University of Chicago Press, 2014)
  • The cerulean-eyed Paul Newman once wryly predicted his epitaph: "Here lies Paul Newman, who died a failure because his eyes turned brown."


  1. "My father had a favorite _____ that he repeated probably 20 times for me as I grew up: When preparedness meets opportunity, that's luck."
    (Joe Flynn, "Taylor to TQM," 1998)
  2. "I am curious, about all of it, all the time,” Studs Terkel once said. "'Curiosity never killed this cat' --that's what I'd like as my _____."
  3. The _____ to Jay McInerney's novel Bright Lights, Big City is a quotation from Hemingway's novel The Sun Also Rises.

Answers to Practice Exercises

  1. "My father had a favorite epigram that he repeated probably 20 times for me as I grew up: When preparedness meets opportunity, that's luck." (Joe Flynn, "Taylor to TQM," 1998)
  2. "'Curiosity never killed this cat' -- that's what I'd like as my epitaph."
  3. The epigraph to Jay McInerney's novel Bright Lights, Big City is a quotation from Hemingway's novel The Sun Also Rises.
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Epigram, Epigraph, and Epitaph." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/epigram-epigraph-and-epitaph-1689557. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Epigram, Epigraph, and Epitaph. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/epigram-epigraph-and-epitaph-1689557 Nordquist, Richard. "Epigram, Epigraph, and Epitaph." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/epigram-epigraph-and-epitaph-1689557 (accessed June 7, 2023).