Common Mistakes (4): Literature



These are some of the very basic mistakes that I sometimes encounter in students' work. For further help, please see Writing Literature Essays.

1. Misuses of Technical Terms

'Drama', 'Play' and 'Act'

Drama is a genre (like 'poetry' [see below]). It is sometimes also used for an example of the genre, especially when we talk about 'a television drama'. In general, though, the word used for an example of the genre of drama is play. Shakespeare wrote plays. An act is a part of a play (Shakespeare's plays usually have five acts). The verb to act describes what actors do.


Let's go back to the basic meaning of this word. Essentially it is very similar in meaning to the word 'picture'. A poetic image is very similar; it creates a picture in the mind. We think of a picture as something we can see, but an image can include other senses - touch, smell, taste, hearing.
               Students often use the word 'image' in a way that has very little relation to this meaning of a picture. They say that a poem has 'a dark image', or 'a happy image' or (most meaningless of all) 'an impressive image'. Words like 'dark' and 'happy' may refer to the tone, or the mood, or the atmosphere of the poem, but when you talk about 'images' or 'imagery' you should, in general, explain exactly what 'picture' (or other sensual impression) the poem evokes. For example, you could talk of the 'image' of a lady removing her gloves, or the 'nature imagery' ('midnight sky', 'rose's dye', 'budding flower') in the Keats's poem discussed on the Poetry web page.


        The novel is a form of writing which developed in the 18th century, and reached its height in the works of writers like Charles Dickens. Basically, it is a story told in prose. The central figure is usually the 'hero' or 'heroine', but may also be an 'antihero'. Earlier prose works are sometimes also referred to as novels; John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (1678-84) is one of the earliest. Students who talk about 'Chaucer's novels', or 'the novels of Shakespeare' - please note!

'Poem', 'Poet' and 'Poetry'

        Students sometimes talk about 'a poetry', or say, 'Wordsworth is a great poem'. Let's get this straight! A poem is a piece of text; Shakespeare's sonnets are poems. A poet is a person who writes poems. Poetry describes the genre; it is the general word for poems (just as 'cinema' is a general word for movies or films); grammatically it is an uncountable (or non-count) noun.


      Students sometimes seem to think that words which end with the same letter rhyme. Not so! Rhyme is a matter of sound, not of spelling, and it is the last syllable (or, sometimes, the last two or even three syllables) which determine rhyme, not the last letter.
      For example, 'though' rhymes with 'go', but it does not rhyme with 'enough'.
      There are a few words which do not actually rhyme, but which are accepted as 'courtesy rhymes' (for example, 'come' and 'home'), and there are half rhymes, such as 'were' and 'fair', where the sounds are similar but not exactly the same. We should also note that pronunciation in the past was not quite the same as it is today, so that 'lie', for example, might rhyme with 'eternity' in a poem of the 16th or 17th century.

2. Comments which should be avoided

i) Comments which are too general

A lot of students make comments which are too general. Students who write things like 'This poem has some rhymes', or 'These words are very impressive' are really not saying anything. As a basic rule, if what you are saying could be true of many texts, it is probably not worth mentioning. Many poems have rhymes, and many texts contain words which could be called 'impressive', so comments like this do not have much value, and are really just a waste of space.
    Instead, make comments which are specific to the text you are commenting on. For example: 'The regular abab... rhyme scheme of this poem gives a sense of steady progress towards a goal, and the feminine (two-syllabled) rhyme at the end, which in other circumstances might have a comic effect, serves here to create an effect of triumphant arrival at the goal.'  Or: 'The effect of this passage derives partly from the use of repetition, but also from the fact that it is a moment of philosophical reflection snatched at a time when the speaker is in great danger.'
    Comments like this are much more closely related to one specific text. They would be improved even more if they were illustrated by short quotations (just two or three words is often enough).

ii) Comments which have nothing to do with the text

    'This is a poem about love. I remember the first time I fell in love. I was sixteen years old. In this poem the lover admires a woman without speaking to her, but in my case it was different. I often talked to her, but never dared to tell her my true feelings...'
    This is one of the ways in which some students avoid writing about the text. Another is something like this: 'This poem is about war. War is a terrible thing. Japan was attacked with atom bombs in the last war...'
    In both cases, the student has lost sight of the text. This kind of writing may be OK as a dokushoukansoubun, but it is not acceptable practical criticism. Comment on the text! Tell the story of your love life, or your philosophy of life, etc., in the right place; it doesn't belong in a practical criticism!

iii) Comments which belittle the author

    'What Shakespeare is trying to say here is...'; 'What Keats means is...' 'What Pinter wants to say is...' Can you see that comments like this sound rather rude? Would you say that Nomo Hideo was trying to play baseball? No, he doesn't try to play; he does play - he's an expert! Unless we think that the author has written badly, and want to criticise his/her poor writing, we should avoid expressions like these.
    Shakespeare, like Nomo Hideo, is an expert. He doesn't try to say things; he says them - and we try to understand him! The same is true of Keats, or Pinter. Do we think they are so poor at communicating that they cannot say what they mean, and needs us to explain? No, instead we can say, 'Shakespeare implies here that...' or, 'Keats expresses...' or, 'Pinter demonstrates...' or some other phrase of this kind.
    Of course, if you think the writer is a poor writer, and cannot express what he or she means, then it is fine to use expressions like these.

iv) Telling the story

Students often devote a large part of their essay to retelling the story of the original text. Such a retelling is called a summary. If your teacher wants a summary, then of course you should write one. When I ask for a literature essay, though, I do not want a summary. If I want to know the story I will go to the original text; what I want to know is your response to the story (or poem, etc.).

For further help, see Writing Literature Essays.

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