Epigraph vs. Epigram: What Is the Difference?

Here’s the difference between an epigraph and an epigram:

An epigraph is typically a short quote, line, or paragraph from an existing literary work.

An epigram is a witty, catchy, pointed statement made to leave a lasting impression on the reader or audience.

If you’re confused about these two literary devices, then you’ve come to the right place.

Read on to learn more!

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Epigraph vs. Epigram: What Is the Difference? (+ Examples)

What Is the Difference Between an Epigraph and an Epigram?

Young woman thinking.
EpigraphEpigram
UsageLiteratureCommon speech & literature
PurposeTo offer a clue or suggest the theme of a literary workTo leave a lasting positive mark to readers or audience to cause them to think
FormA saying, a line, or a paragraph found at the beginning of a bookA brief remark or statement, often interesting and memorable

An epigram is a witty statement or poem, typically being a bit catchy and with a pointed purpose. An epigraph is an epigram that’s been written in a place of significance, such as in the opening pages of a book or on a coin.

The easiest way to remember this difference is that epigraph, containing a graph, has to do with writing, just like you would do with a graphite pencil.

Chapter one typewritten on yellow paper.

Additionally, be careful not to confuse either one with epithet or epitaph. Yes, there really are too many similar words that start with epi- in the English language.

Due to how vague the definition for epigram really is, two people may not agree on what constitutes an epigram if one person doesn’t find the poem or saying to be especially clever.

Epigrams are often sarcastic, cynical, or downright sassy.

What Are the Beginnings of Epigrams?

The opening lines of The Iliad written in the ancient Greek language illumined by oil lamp.

As with many writing techniques, epigrams seem to have gotten their start with the Greeks, though they were not as strongly associated with humor in ancient Greek culture.

Whereas today’s epigrams tend to veer toward sarcasm, irony, or even dark humor in some cases, the Greeks were more focused on showcasing the wit and wisdom of the speaker.

Early epigrams were also significantly longer than the one-liners that are more popular today.

What Are the Purposes of Epigrams and Epigraphs?

Beautiful girl in vintage clothes with book on gray background.

An epigram is mainly used to get the reader or listener to pause and pay attention.

By using clever wordplay, the speaker or writer intends to leave an impression so that the important point they’re trying to make might stick.

Epigrams are traditionally used to offer commentary, such as on political or social issues, but they may also be clean humor for the sake of humor.

Old politicians at a round table having a meeting.

Epigraphs, when written on a building or at the front of a book, may be attempting to set a particular atmosphere for the person entering the building or book.

By sharing a general idea that is accepted by the tenants of a building or the readers of a book, the writer essentially sends a subconscious message: “People who agree with this statement belong here.”

What Are Famous Epigrams?

Young girl activist delivering an emotional and powerful speech at a press conference.

I can resist everything but temptation.

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde is famous for his many epigrams, with the above being one of the most quoted. This epigram is an excellent example of the use of irony to create humor. From the moment you finish

the sentence, there’s a momentary shock as you realize that if the speaker can’t resist temptation he therefore can’t resist anything.

A right delayed is a right denied.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

It should come as no surprise that a man famous for his public speaking skills was the progenitor of a fair few epigrams in his time.

The above statement is perhaps one of his most concise and most powerful expressions, emphasizing that if human rights are being put off until it’s convenient then they are, by definition, not being offered.

There is good in everything, if only we look for it.

Laura Ingalls Wilder

The above epigram speaks volumes about the power of hope and its influence on our perceptions.

A man standing and giving presentation in the auditorium.

You can choose to see the world as dark and foreboding, but here Laura Wilder insists that you give it a chance to be bigger and brighter than the sum of its parts.

Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.

Mark Twain

Like Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain is a writer who was well known for his many, many epigrams. A good number of them were mostly said in jest, but this one, in particular, is strikingly powerful.

While you could spend your whole life seeking perfection, you could start making progress on more realistic projects in the here and now, if you so choose to.

Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.

John F. Kennedy

Many US presidents have used epigrams to try to leave their own mark on history, but few of these countless phrases have stuck quite like this one.

Kennedy’s willingness to speak out against war and his poetic delivery have left this phrase engraved in American history, likely for many more decades to come.

How to Create an Epigram?

Words Have Power phrase written on white platform.

You may be tempted to share a few epigrams of your own after seeing how well they stick to the mind. Before you start coming up with a list of punchlines, let’s discuss what makes an epigram work.

First, what’s the point you want to make? Epigrams, by design, always have a point. What cause are you arguing for or against? What moral dilemma do you want to address?

Second, who is your target audience? Most successful epigrams are designed to appeal to the people who already agree with them and to be so simple that the people who don’t agree with them can’t find any ammunition to work with.

Third, what could you contrast or compare to make the point you want to make? If you look back at the famous examples, you’ll notice that they mostly use compared or contrasted elements to make a point as quickly as possible.

Martin Luther King Jr. compared delay to denial, asserting that there’s no difference between the two when it comes to human rights.

Mark Twain contrasted “continuous improvement” with “delayed perfection” to emphasize the values associated with the terms.

Woman points hands to balance speech balloons with blue background.

Let’s say you want to make a point that animal abuse is serious. What’s another serious issue with parallels that you can make a comparison to? One obvious example is domestic abuse.

A man who beats his dog will gladly beat his children.

The above example uses comparison to semantically equate animal abuse to domestic abuse, implying that if you think one is wrong, then you should think both are wrong. Another strategy, as mentioned above, would be to use contrast instead.

Killing your pets won’t kill your problems.

This one’s a bit heavy-handed, but it’s intended to show that there’s no benefit to harming a domesticated animal. Whatever afflictions, mental or otherwise, that the person was facing aren’t going to go away just because they’re venting their frustrations.

By using the basic principles of compare and contrast, you can easily create epigrams about basically any topic.

Maybe you’ll even use one as an epigraph in your own book someday. While these naturally aren’t the only ways to be witty, they are a fun shortcut that you can use to put yourself in the right mindset for epigrams.