How to Master 4 Literary Devices for the ACT

Before sitting for the ACT, it is important to gain an understanding of common literary devices. The ability to identify, analyze and employ literary devices can help test-takers score their best on sections like ACT English, reading and writing.

There are four literary devices that students should study before their ACT test date.

— Juxtaposition

— Irony

— Hyperbole

— Allusion


Juxtaposition occurs when two ideas are placed beside one another for the purposes of comparison and contrast. The effect of juxtaposition is that the differences between the two items are emphasized.

[Read: Avoid 3 Mistakes to Excel on ACT English Section.]

Describing the weather in Greenland as “burning cold” is one example of juxtaposition, as “burning” and “cold” embody opposite temperature points. Juxtaposition can often make a reader think twice, as this example shows.

A famous instance of juxtaposition is found in “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” The proximity of opposing words like “best” and “worst” as well as “wisdom” and “foolishness” make this line an emblematic usage of juxtaposition.

Juxtaposition can be a helpful tool on the ACT writing section, particularly if you wish to draw attention to one of the author’s persuasive tactics.


One of the most common literary devices is irony. Students who wish to be successful, whether in English class or on the ACT, must be comfortable with this concept.

Irony occurs when apparent nature and true nature contrast. Students taking the ACT should be familiar with the three basic types of irony: dramatic, situational and verbal.

Dramatic irony is when the characters of a work do not know something that the reader does. An example is when King Duncan from William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” states how he has “absolute trust” in Macbeth. Meanwhile, the reader is aware of Macbeth’s plan to murder the king.

[Read: How to Prepare for ACT English Topic Development Questions]

Situational irony is when what happens is the opposite of what the reader expects. In Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” Elizabeth Proctor is reputed for her honest nature. However, she ends up condemning her husband to death the one time she lies.

Verbal irony is when a character’s words intentionally or unintentionally contradict reality. An example from Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” is Mr. Darcy’s comment that Elizabeth is “tolerable but not handsome enough to tempt” him to dance. Later in the novel, Mr. Darcy falls in love with Elizabeth and wishes to marry her.

If there seems to be a disconnect with reality or a twist of fate in the text you are reading, you may be dealing with some form of irony. It is wise to read closely for irony when working on ACT reading questions.


Hyperbole is simply an exaggeration, and we use it frequently in everyday life. For instance, maybe you have heard people say, “I called you a thousand times” or “I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse.” Both are examples of hyperbole.

Hyperbole abounds in literature, too, with authors using the device for its dramatic effect. Consider this example from the book “Living to Tell the Tale” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: “At that time, Bogota was a remote, lugubrious city where an insomniac rain had been falling since the beginning of the 16th century.” This counts as hyperbole because we know rain cannot last for hundreds of years.

Mark Twain also uses hyperbole in “Old Times on the Mississippi,” writing: “I was quaking from head to foot and could have hung my hat on my eyes, they stuck out so far.” If you come across a statement like this on the ACT, which you know is illogical or defies common sense, then you are probably dealing with hyperbole.


An allusion is a reference to an outside work or idea, which can be another piece of literature, a play, a movie, a well-known character and so on.

[READ: Add These Books to Your ACT, SAT Summer Reading List.]

Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451,” used a subtle allusion when he wrote that Montag “saw their Cheshire cat smiles burning through the walls of the house.” Though not directly stated, “Cheshire cat smiles” is an allusion to the Cheshire cat in “Alice in Wonderland.”

Allusions are also used in everyday speech. For instance, the expressions “a good Samaritan” and “turn the other cheek” are allusions that stem from the Bible.

Allusions can be obvious or subtle. In fact, sometimes they are so familiar to us that we may not even think of them as literary devices. For this reason, allusions require careful contemplation.

Knowing these four literary devices can be helpful when taking the ACT. If you still have questions about them, speak with your English teacher or do some independent research. Most importantly, remember that there are many other literary devices you should also master before taking the ACT.

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