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The Big Four Language Features

Photo by Lisette Verwoerd

The Big Four language features are the most common features used in all sorts of writing. They are also the most common features that examiners want you to notice when answering reading comprehension questions. Section A of both of the AQA GCSE English Language exams, for example, will require you to identify and analyse language features.

Clearly, there are many other language features and every text is different. However, all texts contain most of the Big Four language features. So learn to expect them and learn how to identify them with confidence and see the marks flood in!

1. Imagery

Imagery is a language feature whereby writers use descriptive words to create a visual image of something in our heads. In fact, writers use imagery to appeal to all of our senses: sight, smell, taste, hearing, touch.

Imagery is absolutely everywhere. It is almost impossible to write a successful piece of creative writing without including imagery in some way. So, imagery is your friend. If you are struggling to find other language features, check for imagery. It will be there.

First, let’s start with a bad example. The following would not be considered imagery by most examiners: “I picked up the bag.” Yes, we can picture a bag in our minds, but it’s not rich with description.

This example, on the other hand, is rich with description:

“I picked up the heavy bag, filled to overflowing with dripping packets of frozen economy peas, clinking bottles of luxurious drinks, five different types of pasta shapes and, for some reason, a ticking alarm clock.”

As always, identifying a language feature is only part of the job you need to do to answer a reading comprehension question. Once you have found the feature you will need to choose a short section of it to use as a quotation. Then you will need to use that quotation in a fully functioning PEA.

An example PEA using the above imagery would look like this:

The writer uses imagery to describe the contents of bag: “dripping packets of frozen economy peas, clinking bottles of luxurious drinks.” This suggests how unusual the shopping is as the items don’t appear to go together. The reader is as mystified as the character, as we wonder what these items have been bought for.

There will be much more information on how to construct fully functioning PEAs on my forthcoming PEA page.

So, to summarise, imagery is everywhere. Expect to find it and then use it to help you answer any reading comprehension question.

2. Simile

Similes are language features whereby a writer compares one thing with another thing of a different kind, using the preposition ‘like’ or ‘as’.

Warning: don’t assume when you see ‘like’ or ‘as’ that you have a simile. Those words can be used for other purposes. Check that you are have found a comparison and then you know you are looking at a simile.

Here are some examples:

  • His smile faded like the petals of a dying rose.
  • The footballer leapt for the ball like silver salmon up a waterfall.
  • The car sped off like lightning.
  • Their triumph was as high as the heavens and as unexpected as summer snow.

As with imagery, identifying a language feature is only part of the job you need to do to answer a reading comprehension question. Once you have found the feature you will need to choose a short section of it to use as a quotation. Then you will need to use that quotation in a fully functioning PEA.

An example PEA using the one of the example similes above would look like this:

The writer uses a simile to describe the man’s smile which “faded like the petals of a dying rose.” This suggests that his happiness is fragile and short-lived and, like flower petals, will fall and die. We feel that perhaps a deeper sorrow has re-emerged to drown out this moment of happiness and we feel sorry for him.

There will be much more information on how to construct fully functioning PEAs on my forthcoming PEA page.

In conclusion, simile is a very common language feature. Make sure you spell it correctly and, once identified, use it to help you answer any reading comprehension question.

3. Metaphor

Metaphor is when a writer calls one thing another thing that it is not. Or, another way to think about it: a metaphor is a transformation of one thing into another thing. Ask yourself: is this literally, physically true? If not, then you are probably looking at a metaphor.

Here are some examples:

  • She gazed down at the city and saw a tangled concrete jungle of fear, anger and opportunity.
  • The moon sailed through the endless night, a tall ship, battling the winds of misfortune, setting a course for home.
  • The building was a grotesque monster, ready to pounce on unsuspecting travellers.
  • The smog rubbed its back against the window-pane and licked its tongue against the glass.

As with simile, identifying a language feature is only part of the job you need to do to answer a reading comprehension question. Once you have found the feature you will need to choose a short section of it to use as a quotation. Then you will need to use that quotation in a fully functioning PEA.

An example PEA using the one of the example metaphors above would look like this:

The writer uses a metaphor to describe the city as “a tangled concrete jungle of fear, anger and opportunity.” This suggests that the city is something to be feared, something disorientating yet also a place of excitement and potential. We and the character are simultaneously attracted and repelled by the city.

There will be much more information on how to construct fully functioning PEAs on my forthcoming PEA page.

In conclusion, metaphor is a very common language feature. Make sure you don’t confuse it with simile and, once identified, use it to help you answer any reading comprehension question.

4. Personification

Personification is when a writer gives human characteristics and/or emotions to something non-human. It is arguably a sub-set of metaphor as, like metaphor, personification creates something that is not literally true. However, aim to correctly identify it as personification rather than calling it metaphor.

Here are some examples:

  • The cyclist pedalled hard. The bike was eating up the miles, chewing tarmac for breakfast, laughing in the face of mud and flint, face set on the horizon, and on victory.
  • The ancient tree coughed and groaned. Its ancient limbs were weary and longed for rest.
  • Anger set up home in her heart. Love packed its bags and was never seen again.

An example PEA using the one of the examples of personification above would look like this:

The writer uses personification to describe the bike as “eating up the miles, chewing tarmac for breakfast.” This suggests that the bike is so perfectly engineered that it has almost taken on life, absorbing the rider’s obsession with victory and is now pushing to win with single-minded determination. We feel as if nothing will stop this cyclist now.

There will be much more information on how to construct fully functioning PEAs on my forthcoming PEA page.

In conclusion, personification is a very common language feature. Make sure you don’t confuse it with metaphor and, once identified, use it to help you answer any reading comprehension question.

5. In conclusion

The Big Four Language Features are everywhere. You should expect to find them whenever you have to do any reading comprehension for GCSE English Language and when you need to write GCSE English Literature essays.

There are many other language features, some of which will be covered in a future post on this site. However, the other language features are much rarer than the Big Four. So, invest time in learning and understanding the Big Four first, before investigating other language features.

Finally, remember that the best PEAs require imaginative, sensitive analysis of the writer’s suggestions and the effects on the reader. Identifying a language feature is not an end in itself. So practise PEAs until you understand the PEA pattern perfectly.

And watch the marks roll in!

Published by Edward Mooney

I am a highly qualified and experienced English tutor based in the UK. I founded this site in 2019 to help students of GCSE English learn how to reach their full potential.