Figures of Speech

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Varieties of Figures of Speech and Examples

Figure of Speech refers to the use of a word or phrase diverging from its literal meaning. It is the typical attempt by the speaker’s conscious effort to deviate from the strict literal sense of a word thereby creating room for ambiguityOpens in new window in interpretation.

Figure of speech may consist in a special repetition, arrangement or omission of words with literal meaning, or a phrase with a specialized meaning not based on the literal meaning of the words in it, as in idiomOpens in new window, metaphorOpens in new window, simileOpens in new window, hyperboleOpens in new window or personificationOpens in new window.

Classification of Figures of Speech

There are several figures of speech, all of which may be classified into: scheme and trope.

Schemes are figures of speech that deals with word order and syntax. Generally, it deals with assortment and arrangement of words in an orderly manner.

Tropes are figures of speech that deals with an unexpected twist in the meaning of words. Quintilian defines trope (tropus) as:

The artistic alteration of a word or phrase from its proper meaning to another.”

Tropes render effectiveness only on single words.

Figures of speech are no doubt robust and interesting subject, however, a brief summary of the most widely used figures of speech is provided below:

1.     Alliteration

AlliterationOpens in new window is a stylistic device in prosodyOpens in new window, which creates a repetition of initial stressed consonant sound in a series of multiple words within a phraseOpens in new window or poetic verseOpens in new window or line. Below are examples:

  1. “Come…dragging the lazy languid line along”.

    James ThomsonOpens in new window

  2. Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers”.
  3. Don't delay dawns disarming display. Dusk demands daylight.

    Paul Mccan

  4. Sara's seven sisters slept soundly in sand.

2.     Anastrophe

AnastropheOpens in new window is a deviation from the correct syntactic order of words, by which the normal English order of the subjectOpens in new window, verbOpens in new window, and objectOpens in new window are put into inverse order of object-subject-verb. For example:

the sentence “mango is a lovely fruit” might be constructed instead as, “lovely fruit is a mango”.

3.     Anaphora

AnaphoraOpens in new window is the repetition of adjacent words at the beginning of the next clauses in a sentence.

Observe the repetition in this piece:

  1. Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.

    — Elie Wiesel, Night

4.     Antithesis

AntithesisOpens in new window is a kind of parallelismOpens in new window or a parallel structure where two contrasting ideas are presented in opposition to one another, in words, sentences, or parts of a sentence, which makes the principal idea more striking. Consider the example below:

“He is gone from painful labour to quiet rest; from sorrow to joy; from transitory time to immortality.”

5.     Antonomasia

AntonomasiaOpens in new window is the substitution of any epithetOpens in new window or phraseOpens in new window with a proper name and vice versaOpens in new window, which then becomes a way of recognition for the person in question. Following are examples:

  1. “The Great Emancipator” for Abraham LincolnOpens in new window
  2. “The Thunderer” for “ZeusOpens in new window
  3. “The little corporal” for NapoleonOpens in new window
  4. “The Great Emancipator” for Abraham LincolnOpens in new window

6.     Catachresis

CatachresisOpens in new window refers to the use of a borrowed term for something that does not have a name of its own (i.e., as we thus speak of, “legs” of a table or the “foot” of a bed).

7.     Euphemism

EuphemismOpens in new window exclusively consists in the use of a mild, comforting, or evasive expression that takes the place of one considered to be taboo, negative, offensive, or too blunt. For example, substituting terminate, for “kill”. Consider also the following examples.

Spiteful Terms Euphemistic Substitution
  • Enhanced interrogation
  • Wrong side of the track
  • Expecting, with a child, Eating for two, Bun in the oven

8.     Hyperbole

HyperboleOpens in new window is an excessive exaggerationOpens in new window, an expression that exaggerates, or describes something as greatly magnified or diminished beyond the strict line of truthOpens in new window.

Hyperbole is categorized into two divisions:

  1. That which magnifies beyond the truth; where such expressions, “whiter than snow,” “blacker than charcoal,” “higher than a mountain,” “swifter than the wind,” etc., can be seen with; and
  2. That which diminishes the significance of something below the truth. In this category, such expressions as: “slower than a snail,” “as deaf as a rock,” “as blind as a mole,” etc., are expressed. Hypebole of this nature flourishes in the Scripture.

9.     Irony

IronyOpens in new window is a rhetorical technique by which the surface meaning of what is said is different from the underlying meaning of what is intended.

Irony may be divided into three categories, namely: verbal irony, dramatic irony, and situational irony.

  1. Verbal irony involves using masked words to express something in contrary to the intended meaning. For instance, one might say “oh what a happy day” when actually it’s been raining all day.
  2. Dramatic irony usually occur in movies and literary works —a situation where the audience knows something that a particular character in the movie doesn’t know. For example, in the Lion KingOpens in new window, It was all revealed, that Scar killed Mufasa, ironically Simba doesn’t know this fact, and it created tension because Simba was in danger and worse still trusting Scar and doesn’t know Scar was behind all his misfortunes.
  1. Situational irony is when there are contradictions and contrasts from expectation in the way things would naturally unfold, as for instance: where a fire station is caught up with fire, or when a police station got ransacked by burglars.

10.     Litotes

LitotesOpens in new window is a figure of speech that uses understatementOpens in new window to emphasize a point, of which an affirmationOpens in new window is expressed by the negative of the opposite, thereby amounting to a double negativeOpens in new window.

Litotes usually occurs when a speaker attempts to avoid making an affirmative claim directly, but instead denies its opposite. observe the following:

Litotes UnderstatementActual Expression
You are no ordinary girl.You are ordinary girl.
You’re not wrong, that’s not a good idea.You are wrong, that’s a bad idea.
She is not as young as she was.She is old.

11.     Metaphor

MetaphorOpens in new window is a figure of speech which consists in the resemblanceOpens in new window of two objects by applying either the name, or some attributeOpens in new window, adjunctOpens in new window, or actionOpens in new window, of the one, directly to the other. Generally, metaphors take two different objects, and equates them as the same, by stating that the first object is the second object. For example:

  1. Words are daggers when spoken in anger.
  2. His words are pearls of wisdom.

12.     Metonymy

MetonymyOpens in new window is a change of names between things closely related or a referenceOpens in new window to a thing or person by naming one of its attributesOpens in new window. Consider the following sentences:

  1. This book is almost too heavy to lift
  2. I don’t understand this book at all

In the first example, the speaker is clearly referring to the physical object; in the second example, he referred to the information contained in the physical object.

13.     Oxymoron

OxymoronOpens in new window is a collocation of two or more logically contradictory terms in a sentence, that literally correspond with one another in sense, such as:

  1. “A coward dies often, a brave man but once”
  2. “He is a living death”

    (said of a man in a consumption, or of a malefactor under condemnation.)

14.     Paradox

ParadoxOpens in new window is a seemingly self-contradictory statement, but nevertheless appears to be true. A paradox usually has two parallelOpens in new window elements that appear to be logically inconsistent and yet contain a truth. For example, the Socratic paradox:

“No one does wrong willingly, but is unwillingly that all who do wrong do wrong”

Paradox can also teach us how to conduct ourselves:

  1. “Bend and you will be whole.”
  2. “Curl and you will be straight.”
  3. “Keep empty and you will be filled.”
  4. “Grow old and you will be renewed”

15.     Onomatopoeia

OnomatopoeiaOpens in new window is a tuneful technique which involves the use of a word, or phraseOpens in new window, the sound of which resembles or naturally imitates the sound of the thing signified. For example: the name of the bird “cuckoo” reproduces the resounding effect of its song; the word “bang” reproduces resounding effect of an explosive sound. See more examples of onomatopoeia hereOpens in new window

16.     Personification

PersonificationOpens in new window is a figure of speech by which, in imagination, we attribute human characteristics or intelligence and personalityOpens in new window to inanimate objects or abstract concepts. For example, when we speak as saying:

  1. The stream water quenched the thirst of a nomadic man.
  2. Where we personify or attribute human qualities to inanimate objects; trees are called majestic, rivers or breezes are said to be gentle, the spring is said to smile, and winter is termed frowning

17.     Paronomasia

ParonomasiaOpens in new window is a kind of punOpens in new window or wordplay that may be described as the deliberate choice of two (or more) words which resemble one another in their roots or consonantal soundsOpens in new window but differ in meaning.

Paronomasia typically consists in Wordplay featuring homophonesOpens in new window — words with same sound but divergent in spelling and meaning e.g. bare and bear, meat and meet.

18.     Polyptoton

PolyptotonOpens in new window is a stylistic device for the repetition of words with same etymonOpens in new window in a sentence, each time with a different inflectionalOpens in new window ending, so as to add to the sentence a rhetorical effect.

In polyptoton, the collocationOpens in new window of the same etymons, often signifies a close conceptual relationship between two referents. For example:

  1. Judge not, that ye be not judged

    — (Mathew 7:1)

  2. Let the people think they govern, and they will be governed

    — (Penn, Some Fruits of Solitude)

    Learn more hereOpens in new window!

19.     Simile

SimileOpens in new window is a figure of speech which consists in comparing or likening one thing to another, either implicitly or explicitly; and is generally introduced using words such as “like”, “as”, “so”, “than”, or a verb such as “resemble”.

Simile consists in the following expressions:

  1. “Such a passion is like falling in love with a sparrow flying over your head; you have but one glimpse of her, and she is out of sight,”
  2. “Therefore they shall be as the morning cloud, and as the early dew that passeth away; as the chaff that is driven with the whirlwind out of the floor, and as the smoke out of the chimney,”
  3. As the stars, so shall thy seed be.”

20.     Zeugma

ZeugmaOpens in new window is a figure concerned with syntactical construction by which a word stands in the same relation to two other words, but with a different meaning. Observe the example below:

  1. “The farmers grew broccoli and bored”

    (In this construction, ‘grew’ is the zeugma as it yokes or governs together ‘broccoli’ and ‘bored’.)

    See several other examples of Zeugma hereOpens in new window!

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