Understanding Literary Devices: Allegory, Alliteration, Allusion

by Sara Vazquez Shaw

Authors use a variety of literary devices to make the complexities of plot, narrative, and character development memorable in their writing. Although the techniques can seem somewhat complicated at times, they are frequently used as a shortcut to create a picture or explain a concept clearly.

Three of the most commonly used literary devices are allegory, alliteration, and allusion. The definition of each, along with helpful hints on how to recognise them, follow.


When an author uses an allegory, an idea is explained through well-known figures or occurrences. The point an author makes sometimes takes on larger-than-life features. Although the meaning conveyed is not literal, it is easy for readers to relate to.

Typically an allegory both explains a concept and makes a judgment. A true allegory does not simply identify a concept vis-à-vis a symbol (for example, patriotism through a flag). Instead, an allegory tells a story, illuminating universal truths and forming a clear picture in the reader's mind.

One well-known allegory is Aesop's fable about the boy who cried wolf. Bored and hungry for attention, a young shepherd shouts that a wolf is attacking his flock. Neighbours are fooled and run to assist, only to realise the boy is lying. This happens a few times. However, the last time the boy calls, the neighbours do not come. The last time, there really is a wolf that kills the sheep. The boy learns the lesson that lying taints one's credibility.


Meaning "letters of the alphabet," alliteration is a device to add interest and memorability to writing. With alliteration, a series of words either in a row or very close to one another all begin with the same sound. The sound, not the letter, is the key. Thus, the phrase "some sandwiches celebrate celery" is alliterative, even though not all words begin with s.

Alliteration tends to grab a reader's attention, so it has become a widely used technique in advertising and poetry. Prose also benefits from the use of alliteration.


An allusion is used to enhance information the reader possesses about a person, place, or thing by comparing it to a different person, place, or thing. For example, a flowering backyard garden might be called an "oasis." A poet or playwright can paint clear pictures with allusions. Another example is Shakespeare's description of a drowning victim in The Tempest: "Those were pearls that were his eyes."

Allusions can be very personal and known to just a small circle. For example, imagine a child who is fondly called "Grandpa Joe" because he resembles a beloved relative. This allusion would be comprehensible to the child's immediate family but a puzzle to the rest of the world.