English & EAL

What is Metalanguage?

Lisa Tran

September 26, 2011

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Although it appears on criteria sheets, many students never really understand the term metalanguage. Strangely, it is something that is rarely addressed in classrooms. While the word may be foreign to you, rest assured that metalanguage is not an entirely new concept you have to learn. How come? – because you have been unknowingly using metalanguage since the very beginning of high school.

Metalanguage is language that describes language. The simplest way to explain this is to focus on part 3 of the English exam – Language Analysis. In Language Analysis, we look at the author’s writing and label particular phrases with persuasive techniques such as: symbolism, imagery or personification. Through our description of the way an author writes (via the words ‘symbolism’, ‘imagery’ or ‘personification’), we have effectively used language that describes language.

Now, if we look at the bigger picture, our analysis of an author’s language can be applied to Text Response, and even Reading and Comparing. To learn more about why metalanguage is important in Text Response, check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response. Otherwise, for those interested in Comparative, head over to our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response.

Some popular uses of metalanguage are shown below:


- Tone

- Narrator

- Grammar and punctuation

- Characterisation

For example: Achilles is characterised as a foetus, for his position is ‘chin down, shoulders hunched’ as though he is inside a womb. (Ransom, David Malouf)


- Mise-en-scene

- Camera angles

- Music

- Lighting

For example: When Terry leaves Friendly’s bar, the thick fog symbolises his clouded moral judgement as he decides whether he should remain ‘D and D’, or become a ‘rat’. (On TheWaterfront, Elia Kazan)


- Stage direction

- Soliloquy

- Monologue

- Prop

For example: The miniature set Zac creates is designed with a white backdrop, demonstrating his desire to wipe away reality since he ‘can’t stand real things.’ (Cosi, Louis Nowra)

As indicated earlier, you should be familiar with many, if not all the terms mentioned above. Take note that some metalanguage terms are specific to a writing form, such as camera angle for films. As you discuss themes or characters, you should try and weave metalanguage throughout your body paragraphs. The purpose of this criteria is to demonstrate your ability to understand how the author uses language to communicate his or her meaning. The key is to remember that the author’s words or phrases are always chosen with a particular intention – it is your job to investigate why the author has written a text in a particular way.

How can you go about developing the right terminology for your essays? Try some of the following and good luck!

- Read study guides

- Listen and contribute to class discussions

- Read introductions or prefaces to texts

- Read articles on your text

- Use metalanguage lists – see metalanguage for books and metalanguage for films

Get our FREE VCE English Text Response mini-guide

Now quite sure how to nail your text response essays? Then download our free mini-guide, where we break down the art of writing the perfect text-response essay into three comprehensive steps.

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Did you know how to identify metalanguage-based essay topics?

If you want to know:

- how to incorporate metalanguage into your essay

- what metalanguage you can use in your essay

Then you're not alone! Learn to confidently identify metalanguage and use it in your next essay with this free, quick introduction to How To Write A Killer Essay.

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