GCSE 2021: 5 complex terms every student should know

...and five reasons you’re wrong if you don’t think they should use complex terminology

Mark Roberts


What am I?

I’m mostly Mediterranean, from either side of the Ionian Sea. Some English teachers don’t like me. Exam boards don’t either.

Examiners – particularly those who don’t like interrupting their marking to consult a dictionary – can’t stand me.

I’m unpronounceable, ostentatious, arcane. Only fit for older children, I’m not to be trusted with little ones.

I’m complex terminology. And some think it’s time I was banished from your classroom.

The case against complex terminology at GCSE

These are some common complaints about complex terminology, and why I think they’re wrong:

1. “It encourages feature spotting and forgetting to analyse the effect”

Picking out terms without explaining why the writer has used them is useless, and pupils deserve to lose marks for such sloppiness.

But blaming sophisticated terminology for feature spotting is very odd.

After all, pupils routinely fail to explain the safe, straightforward terminology that we teach from an early age. Take alluring alliteration, for example. I wish I had a polished pound for every time a student failed to explain the impact of this device.

Feature spotting is a sign of sloppy teaching, rather than an indicator of an unnecessary term. Pupils can spot and analyse the effect, if given sufficient models, practice and feedback.

2. “Difficult-to-spell Greek terms complicate things unnecessarily”

Clear and simple prose is a beautiful thing. Why use "dysphemism" (the opposite of euphemism), when "unpleasant imagery" will do?

You should use it because teaching terms like this gives students a better chance of appreciating the specific nature and context of language.

Look at Mercutio’s death lament: “They have made worms’ meat of me.”

Yes, students could do decent analysis treating this as a metaphor, but they’d probably omit how Shakespeare uses the harshness of dysphemism to force the two families to consider their role in Mercutio’s demise.  

3. “We should save these obscure terms for A level”

If a teacher feels that KS3 pupils are clever enough to grasp these terms, why wait? Especially given that these pupils will have encountered the subjunctive mood at KS2.

I’ve seen Year 8 pupils thrive when introduced to the idea of liminality. In my experience, you can’t spot a feature that you don’t know exists. Teach these terms consistently well and you’ll open up new avenues of understanding.

4. “The exam board should provide us with a list of appropriate GCSE terms”

The idea that exam boards could dictate which terms are appropriate for use at GCSE seems appealing, but it’s actually misguided and reductionist.

Consider two Greek terms – metaphor and metonymy. The first is bog standard, entry level stuff; the second is seen as A-level fodder.

Yet, if we accept Roman Jakobson’s argument that metaphor is the basis of poetry and metonymy is the basis of prose, discarding the latter might rob younger students of a deeper textual knowledge.

Deciding that anaphora is fine but epiphora isn’t is…bizarre. English teachers should know best which techniques are appropriate for their classes.

5. “Nobody uses these convoluted terms in real life. They’re only used to show off to examiners”

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that sophisticated terms are superfluous in pupils’ essays. But what about creative writing?

My students display rhetorical flourishes in their own writing precisely because they’ve learned complex terms when analysing texts. They might use chremamorphism (turning a person into an object) like this:

Buckling under the burden of excessive homework, James is a revision machine. Any more chemistry tests this week and he’s likely to malfunction.

If this is “showing off to the examiners”, you can count me in.

Things we should all know

Here are five more of my favourite “fancy pants” techniques:

1. Anagnorisis (a character’s significant moment of realisation or discovery)

A term that encourages students to consider the structural significance of a character’s ground-shaking recognition of events. A classic example of "if you label it, they will look for it in future".

2. Synecdoche (part of something representing the whole)  

Students familiar with synecdoche will recognise the misogyny in a female character being called a "piece of ass", given how the use of the device specifically isolates a physical part to crudely objectify her.

3. Paronomasia (a play on words)

What’s wrong with pun? Well, it’s associated with (lame) humour, which can detract away from profound examples of usage.

In Jekyll & Hyde, Stevenson uses recursive paranomasia (the second part depends on the meaning of the first) in Utterson’s “if he be Mr Hyde, I shall be Mr Seek”.

It seems jovial but the recursive element illustrates Utterson’s recognition of their entwined destiny.

4. Anadiplosis (repetition where the end of one line, clause or sentence becomes the start of the next)

A favourite of Shakespeare. And Yoda. As such, anadiplosis can be expertly combined with cultural allusions:

Smoking leads to a nasty cough. A Nasty cough leads to a chest problem. A chest problem leads to a visit to the doctor. The doctor leads you to a quiet room and delivers life-changing news.

5. Zeugma (where a word applies to two others in different senses e.g. ‘After the party, I’d lost my socks and lost my dignity.’)

This technique can have a powerful impact. Look again at how I’ve used zeugma at the end of the anadiplosis example above.


So, to summarise my argument using zeugma: complex terminology is bothering people but worth bothering with.

Mark Roberts is an assistant headteacher in the South West of England

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