SAT Literature Subject Test

Part II

Cracking the SAT Literature Subject Test

Chapter 6

Terms—The Only Stuff You Need to Know

This chapter covers everything you need to know for the test. Yup, that’s it. Some of the terms will be familiar to you, others may be new, but you can make use of them all in English class. Practice drills are included to test your knowledge, and a list of what ETS says it’s testing you on—which bears little or no resemblance to the actual test—wraps it all up!


The SAT Literature Subject Test doesn’t review your knowledge of literature in general, but there are some terms that are helpful to know. To begin, let’s define the following categories:


Passages on the SAT 
Literature Subject Test will 
be poetry, prose, or drama.

POETRY: A poem is a rhythmic expression of feelings and ideas, kind of like the lyrics to a song. It may or may not rhyme.

PROSE: This one’s easy—if it’s not poetry, it’s prose. Prose is generally broken down into two categories: fiction and nonfiction.

DRAMA: A play; something that is intended to be acted out. Plays can be written in verse or in a more conversational style.


Here’s a list of the basics. Each is followed by a discussion of the term, and often by examples. If you’re familiar with a given term, move on to the next term. Concentrate on any that are unfamiliar to you or on which you feel you could use some work. Make flash cards to help you memorize these terms.

Learn This

Become familiar with 
the basic literary terms 
listed here.

ALLEGORY: A story with underlying symbols that really represent something else. A character can be allegorical.

Example: The nursery rhyme “Humpty Dumpty” was really a political allegory in which the characters represented people in government who were falling from power.

ALLITERATION: The use of a repeated consonant sound, usually at the beginning of a series of words.

Examples: Silently stalking her sister on the stairs … Falling, falling, fearfully falling…

ALLUSION: An indirect reference to something or someone, usually literary.

Example: …but once put out thy light,
Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume…

ANACHRONISM: Placing a person or object in an inappropriate historical situation. It can be deliberate or unintentional.

Example: George Washington drove his limousine downtown for the inauguration.

ANALOGY: A comparison used to explain something else.

Example: He Who Cannot Be Named?

ANECDOTE: A short narrative, story, or tale.

ANTAGONIST: The major character opposing the protagonist. Usually the villain.

Example: Nelson Muntz, Bart Simpson’s enemy, is my favorite antagonist.

ANTHROPOMORPHISM: Assigning human attributes, such as emotions or physical characteristics, to nonhuman things. Often used for attributing human characteristics to animals. Anthropomorphism is similar to personification (found later in this list), but usually anthropomorphism is applied to animals, while personification is applied to all types of things (objects, buildings, abstract concepts).

Example: My cat, Fluffy, is always so happy to see me.
The mother rhinoceros was depressed for weeks over the loss of her offspring to the cruel hunter.

DICTION: Diction is the author’s choice of word and sentence structure, 
taking into account correctness, clearness, and effectiveness. Typically, there are four levels of diction recognized: formal, informal, colloquial, and slang. (In general, formal vs. informal.)

ELEGY: A mournful and melancholy poem or song, usually to pay tribute to a deceased person.

EMPHASIS: Special forcefulness of expression that gives importance to something singled out.

FABLE: A story that has a moral, usually involving animals as the main 

Example: Aesop’s fable about the grasshopper and the ant is a great illustration of why you should work hard and prepare for bad times.

FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE: Language characterized by figures of speech such as metaphors and similes as well as elaborate expression through imagery.

HYPERBOLE: A deliberate exaggeration.

Example: That test was the worst thing in the world.
There were a billion people at the concert.
I’m going to be grounded for ten years when my parents find out where I was last night.

IMAGERY: Imagery is an author’s use of descriptive and figurative language used to create a picture in the reader’s mind’s eye.

INDIRECT DIALOGUE: Language that communicates what was expressed in the dialogue, without using a direct quotation.

Example: During breakfast, Janet’s father told her that she couldn’t 
borrow the car anymore.

IRONY: An expression of meaning that is the opposite of the literal meaning.

Example: The music is so loud that I can hardly hear it.

Stories can be ironic as well when they end in a way that is the opposite of what you would have expected. A story about an obsessively clean man who is killed by a garbage truck is ironic. O. Henry’s classic story “The Gift of the Magi” is a classic example of dramatic irony. The husband sells his watch to buy his wife an ornate hair comb for Christmas, only to find out that she has sold her hair to buy him a watch chain.

MEANING: Something that one wishes to convey, especially by language.

METAPHOR: A metaphor is a comparison like a simile, but it doesn’t use the words “like” or “as.” It’s a little subtler. It’s important to note, however, that in literary criticism, the word “metaphor” is frequently used when, strictly speaking, the term “simile” applies. Don’t be confused if you are asked if the writer is using metaphor and you see the words “like” or “as.”

Example: She was a breath of fresh air in the classroom.
The new principal was stricter than a prison warden.
Johnny is a tiger when it comes to football.

METER: The rhythm of a poem. The most common meter is iambic (like a horse galloping: “I wish I were an Oscar Meyer wiener”—duh DUH duh DUH duh DUH duh DUH duh DUH duh).

NARRATIVE: A literary representation of an event or a story—the text itself.

ONOMATOPOEIA: A word intended to simulate the actual sound of the thing or action it describes.

Example: A buzzing bee.
Bam!” The superhero hit the criminal.
The snake hissed at its predator.

OXYMORON: A phrase in which the words are contradictory.

Example: He was happy in his pessimism.
They were intelligently ignorant.

Sometimes an oxymoron is used for comic effect; sometimes it is used to illustrate a paradox.

PAEAN: An expression of joyful praise.

PARABLE: A story that has a moral. The story of the Good Samaritan is a famous parable from the Bible.

PARADOX: This is a phrase that appears to be contradictory but that actually contains some basic truth that resolves the apparent contradiction.

Example: Although he was sentenced to ten years of hard labor, the guilt-ridden criminal looked as though a weight had been lifted from his shoulders.

PARALLELISM: The repetition of sounds, meanings, or structures to create a certain style.

Example: I don’t want your pity. I don’t want your money. I don’t want your car. I only want your love.

PARODY: A literary work in which the style of an author is imitated for comic effect or ridicule.

PASTORAL: A work that deals with the lives of people, especially shepherds, in the country or in nature (as opposed to people in the city).

PATHOS: Something that evokes a feeling of pity or sympathy. Think of the 
word “pathetic.” A pathetic person adds an element of pathos to a story.

Example: And so, the little orphan girl curled up on the cold steps of the church and tried to sleep.

PERSONIFICATION: Assigning human attributes to something nonhuman.

Examples:     I hope that fortune will smile on me when I take my exam. My car always seems so miserable when I let someone else drive.

PERSPECTIVE: The viewpoint from which the narrator or character sees things.

Example: From my perspective, what you did was horrible, although others might not think so.

POINT OF VIEW: The vantage point from which a story is presented to a reader. The most common points of view are first person and third person (more on this in Chapter 7).

PROTAGONIST: The main character, usually the hero.

Example: Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë’s most famous protagonist, is my favorite heroine in English literature.

RHYME SCHEME: The way that a poem’s rhymes are arranged. This is indicated by marking each line with a letter of the alphabet. For example:

This sonnet by Shakespeare (77, for those of you counting at home) is structured ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.


SATIRE: Ridicule of a subject. The Colbert Report often makes use of satire. When Colbert pokes fun at the president, he is satirizing the politics of the country. Satire is humorous and often intended to point out something about a serious subject.

SIMILE: A simile is a comparison of two things using the words “like” or “as.”

Example: I’m as quick as a cricket.
He’s as sly as a fox.
He was greeted like a rooster in a hen house.

Similes are frequently used in poetry to evoke an idea through an image.

STANZA: The divisions in a poem, like a paragraph in prose.

STRUCTURE: The framework of a work of literature; the organization or overall design; often provides clues to character and action.

STYLE: The author’s unique manner of expression; the author’s voice.

Example: I’m not a fan of that author; his style is too long-winded and flowery.

SYNTAX: The ordering of words into meaningful patterns such as phrases, 
clauses, and sentences; poets often manipulate syntax, changing traditional word order in an attempt to draw attention to particular words or phrases.

THEME: The central meaning or dominant idea in a literary work; theme provides a unifying point around which the plot, characters, setting, point of view, symbols, and other elements of a work are organized.

TONE: Style or manner of expression.

Example: Funeral eulogies have a somber tone.

Parts of Speech

Although you don’t need to be able to diagram sentences, sometimes questions ask you about how words function within a text. For example, you might see the question, “What’s the main verb of this sentence?” This may already be old-hat for you. If so, smile smugly as you review parts of speech:


a person, place, thing, or idea; usually the subject of the sentence


action word or a word that expresses a state of being


modifies (describes, refers to) a verb, an adjective, or another adverb


description word that modifies a noun


word that takes the place of a noun

In the sentence, “The quick, brown fox jumped gracefully over the lazy dog,”

•   quickbrown, and lazy are adjectives (they modify fox and dog)

•   fox is a noun and the subject of the sentence; dog is also a noun

•   jumped is a verb

•   gracefully is an adverb (it modifies the verb jumped)

Drill #1

The sentences below contain examples of simile, metaphor, and personification/anthropomorphism. Identify the literary device used in each sentence, and place the sentence number in the appropriate column in the chart.

1.   She moved through the room like a cool summer breeze.

2.   The house shivered in the cold winter wind.

3.   Marie was as sad as a basset hound when she heard the news.

4.   The news that she had won the sweepstakes was a dream come true to Mary Anne.

5.   Bunnies often feel dejected when kept in their hutches for too long.

6.   The wind sang a song of melancholy as it whistled through the field.

7.   Taking standardized tests is torture unless you’re prepared.

8.   Like a soldier marching into battle, the student body president went to meet with the new principal.

9.   That test was no day at the beach.

10.   My puppy is too proud to wear a silly collar like that one!

Answers can be found on this page.

Drill #2

The sentences below contain examples of onomatopoeia, alliteration, oxymoron, and pathos. Identify the literary device used in each sentence and place the sentence number in the appropriate column in the chart.

1.   Yet again they made fun of the poor handicapped boy because he was too short to reach the sink.

2.   The announcer’s booming voice caught the attention of the excited “American Idol” hopefuls.

3.   He was conspicuous by his absence at the new student meeting.

4.   Sailing swiftly through the water, they won the race.

5.   Napoleon was a giant in his smallness.

6.   After waiting all through the night, Joan and David were told that no more petitions would be accepted, and their request for medicine for their sick child would go unheard.

7.   “Knock, knock, knock” was tapped out to signal that a club member was at the door.

8.   The new attorney on the case was practically pompous.

9.   An odd atmosphere descended on the room, perfectly described by Shakespeare’s “heavy lightness.”

Answers can be found on this page.

Drill #3

Read the following poem carefully before you choose your answers.

  1. The main verb in the second stanza is

(A)   rising (line 14)

(B)   pushing (line 18)

(C)   fall (line 20)

(D)   shall content (line 21)

(E)   will be heard (line 24)

  2. The “voice” of the deceased is compared to all of the following EXCEPT

(A)   the sound of an underground stream

(B)   the wind

(C)   the blossom of a flower

(D)   the music of a bird

(E)   the pattering of feet

  3. The phrase “cherished by the faithful sun” (line 28) is an example of

(A)   irony

(B)   paradox

(C)   personification

(D)   oxymoron

(E)   poetic license

  4. The poem is written in

(A)   a regular meter

(B)   the elegiac tradition

(C)   a consistent rhyme scheme

(D)   an extended allegory

(E)   pathetic empathy

Answers can be found on this page.

Drill #4

Test yourself: See if you can define the following terms. Check your answers in the glossary of terms on this page.









ETS lists six categories on its website from which test writers draw their questions. Although it’s not important for you to memorize these, a short discussion of their meanings should help clarify what will be on the test.

1. Meaning

Of course, the biggest thing that ETS will test you on is the meaning of the passage, especially if it’s completely obscure. Many questions will be devoted to seeing if you understand the plot and motivation of the characters. If the passage is persuasive, the test writers will want to see if you understand the argument. Also, the test will ask you for the meanings of words in context. You can expect that a secondary or tertiary (third) definition of the word will apply. The word’s meaning depends upon the words that surround it. Make sure you look for its meaning in the passage. Never assume a definition without considering its context.

2. Form

Although you won’t have to tell a sonnet from a sestina, you might have to judge whether the passage is a fable, allegory, etc. Also, the test will ask you about the structure of the passage. Is it chronological? Does it follow the development of an argument? How does the author manage the transitions from one paragraph or stanza to the next? Organization is also an important topic—you might be called upon to explain how the passage is arranged.

3. Tone

Tone is a blanket term for how the passage sounds. Diction questions will test you on the author’s choice of words. Is it high-falutin’ or fairly lowbrow? Does it sound like how people talk today, or does it sound more like a historical movie? A question about syntax will ask how the words fit together or whether the sentences are long-winded or short and abrupt. Finally, emphasis questions will test you on what is and is not important in the passage.

4. Figurative Language

Questions that ask about figurative language will test you on your ability to perceive similes, metaphors, expression, and descriptive language.

5. Narrative Voice

Similar to tone, narrative voice is how the narrator sounds in the passage. Who is doing the talking? How does he/she talk? Does he/she use slang or proper English? Don’t forget that the author, narrator, and characters are sometimes three different entities. Unless the passage is an autobiography, assume that the opinions expressed are those of a narrator that the author has created, not the author’s own opinions.

6. Characterization

This is a less frequently explored topic on the SAT Literature Subject Test. Characterization refers to how the author represents his or her character(s) in the piece. Sometimes authors describe their characters. Sometimes they let the characters speak for themselves. Sometimes authors let us hear about a character from other characters in the text. Characterization questions ask about the ways in which you learn about how a character thinks and acts.

Again, you don’t have to memorize these six areas. They are just supplied so that you can keep them in mind as you read the passage, to have an idea of what ETS wants to test you on.


Did you get all that?

Before moving on, you should be comfortable identifying

•   prose

•   poetry

•   drama

•   the literary terms on this page

•   parts of speech