A figure of speech is a word or phrase that possesses a separate meaning from its literal definition. It can be a metaphor or simile, designed to make a comparison. It can be the repetition of alliteration or the exaggeration of hyperbole to provide a dramatic effect.
In truth, there are a wealth of these literary tools in the English language. But, let’s start out by exploring some of the most common figure of speech examples.
A figure of speech is a rhetorical device that achieves a special effect by using words in a distinctive way. Though there are hundreds of figures of speech, here we’ll focus on 20 top examples.
You’ll probably remember many of these terms from your English classes. Figurative language is often associated with literature and with poetry in particular. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, we use figures of speech every day in our own writing and conversations.
For example, common expressions such as “falling in love,” “racking our brains,” and “climbing the ladder of success” are all metaphors—the most pervasive figure of all. Likewise, we rely on similes when making explicit comparisons (“light as a feather“) and hyperbole to emphasize a point (“I’m starving!“).
Top Figures of Speech
Using original figures of speech in our writing is a way to convey meanings in fresh, unexpected ways. They can help our readers understand and stay interested in what we have to say.
1. Alliteration: The repetition of an initial consonant sound. Example: She sells seashells by the seashore.
2. Anaphora: The repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses or verses. Example: Unfortunately, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time on the wrong day.
3. Antithesis: The juxtaposition of contrasting ideas in balanced phrases. Example: As Abraham Lincoln said, “Folks who have no vices have very few virtues.”
4. Apostrophe: Directly addressing a nonexistent person or an inanimate object as though it were a living being. Example: “Oh, you stupid car, you never work when I need you to,” Bert sighed.
5. Assonance: Identity or similarity in sound between internal vowels in neighboring words. Example: How now, brown cow?
6. Chiasmus: A verbal pattern in which the second half of an expression is balanced against the first but with the parts reversed. Example: The famous chef said people should live to eat, not eat to live.
7. Euphemism: The substitution of an inoffensive term for one considered offensively explicit. Example: “We’re teaching our toddler how to go potty,” Bob said.
8. Hyperbole: An extravagant statement; the use of exaggerated terms for the purpose of emphasis or heightened effect. Example: I have a ton of things to do when I get home.
9. Irony: The use of words to convey the opposite of their literal meaning. Also, a statement or situation where the meaning is contradicted by the appearance or presentation of the idea. Example: “Oh, I love spending big bucks,” said my dad, a notorious penny pincher.
10. Litotes: A figure of speech consisting of an understatement in which an affirmative is expressed by negating its opposite. Example: A million dollars is no small chunk of change.
11. Metaphor: An implied comparison between two dissimilar things that have something in common. Example: “All the world’s a stage.”
12. Metonymy: A figure of speech in which a word or phrase is substituted for another with which it is closely associated; also, the rhetorical strategy of describing something indirectly by referring to things around it. Example: “That stuffed suit with the briefcase is a poor excuse for a salesman,” the manager said angrily.
13. Onomatopoeia: The use of words that imitate the sounds associated with the objects or actions they refer to. Example: The clap of thunder went bang and scared my poor dog.
14. Oxymoron: A figure of speech in which incongruous or contradictory terms appear side by side. Example: “He popped the jumbo shrimp in his mouth.”
15. Paradox: A statement that appears to contradict itself. Example: “This is the beginning of the end,” said Eeyore, always the pessimist.
16. Personification: A figure of speech in which an inanimate object or abstraction is endowed with human qualities or abilities. Example: That kitchen knife will take a bite out of your hand if you don’t handle it safely.
17. Pun: A play on words, sometimes on different senses of the same word and sometimes on the similar sense or sound of different words. Example: Jessie looked up from her breakfast and said, “A boiled egg every morning is hard to beat.”
18. Simile: A stated comparison (usually formed with “like” or “as”) between two fundamentally dissimilar things that have certain qualities in common. Example: Roberto was white as a sheet after he walked out of the horror movie.
19. Synecdoche: A figure of speech in which a part is used to represent the whole. Example: Tina is learning her ABC’s in preschool.
20. Understatement: A figure of speech in which a writer or speaker deliberately makes a situation seem less important or serious than it is. Example: “You could say Babe Ruth was a decent ballplayer,” the reporter said with a wink.
Figures of Speech
Figures of speech lend themselves particularly well to literature and poetry. They also pack a punch in speeches and movie lines. Indeed, these tools abound in nearly every corner of life. Let’s start with one of the more lyrical devices, alliteration.
Alliteration is the repetition of the beginning sounds of neighboring words.
- She sells seashells.
- Walter wondered where Winnie was.
- Blue baby bonnets bobbed through the bayou.
- Nick needed new notebooks.
- Fred fried frogs’ legs on Friday.
Anaphora is a technique where several phrases or verses begin with the same word or words.
- I came, I saw, I conquered. – Julius Caesar
- Mad world! Mad kings! Mad composition! – King John II, William Shakespeare
- It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. – A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
- With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right. – Abraham Lincoln
- We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end… we shall never surrender. – Winston Churchill
Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds (not just letters) in words that are close together. The sounds don’t have to be at the beginning of the word.
- A – For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels named Lenore. (Poe)
- E – Therefore, all seasons shall be sweet to thee. (Coleridge)
- I – From what I’ve tasted of desire, I hold with those who favor fire. (Frost)
- O – Oh hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn. (Wordsworth)
- U – Uncertain rustling of each purple curtain (Poe)
Euphemism is a mild, indirect, or vague term that often substitutes a harsh, blunt, or offensive term.
- ‘A little thin on top’ instead of ‘going bald.’
- ‘Fell of the back of a truck’ instead of ‘stolen.’
- ‘Letting you go’ instead of ‘firing you.’
- ‘Passed away’ instead of ‘died.’
- ‘Economical with the truth’ instead of ‘liar.’
Hyperbole uses exaggeration for emphasis or effect.
- I’ve told you to stop a thousand times.
- That must have cost a billion dollars.
- I could do this forever.
- She’s older than dirt.
- Everybody knows that.
Irony occurs when there’s a marked contrast between what is said and what is meant, or between appearance and reality.
- “How nice!” she said, when I told her I had to work all weekend. (Verbal irony)
- A traffic cop gets suspended for not paying his parking tickets. (Situational irony)
- The Titanic was said to be unsinkable but sank on its first voyage. (Situational irony)
- Naming a tiny Chihuahua Brutus. (Verbal irony)
- When the audience knows the killer is hiding in a closet in a scary movie, but the actors do not. (Dramatic irony)
A metaphor makes a comparison between two unlike things or ideas.
- Heart of stone
- Time is money
- The world is a stage
- She’s a night owl
- He’s an ogre
Onomatopoeia is the term for a word that sounds like what it is describing.
An oxymoron is two contradictory terms used together.
- Peace force
- Kosher ham
- Jumbo shrimp
- Sweet sorrow
- Free market
Personification gives human qualities to non-living things or ideas.
- The flowers nodded.
- The snowflakes danced.
- The thunder grumbled.
- The fog crept in.
- The wind howled.
A simile is a comparison between two unlike things using the words “like” or “as.”
- As slippery as an eel
- Like peas in a pod
- As blind as a bat
- Eats like a pig
- As wise as an owl
Synecdoche occurs when a part is represented by the whole or, conversely, the whole is represented by the part.
- Wheels – a car
- The police – one policeman
- Plastic – credit cards
- Coke – any cola drink
- Hired hands – workers
An understatement occurs when something is said to make something appear less important or less serious.
- It’s just a scratch – referring to a large dent.
- It’s a litttle dry and sandy – referring to the driest desert in the world.
- The weather is cooler today – referring to sub-zero temperatures.
- It was interesting – referring to a bad or difficult experience.
- It stings a bit – referring to a serious wound or injury.
Definition of Figure of Speech
A figure of speech is a phrase or word having different meanings than its literal meanings. It conveys meaning by identifying or comparing one thing to another, which has connotation or meaning familiar to the audience. That is why it is helpful in creating vivid rhetorical effect.
Types of figures of Speech
There are many types of figures of speech. Here are a few of them with detailed descriptions:
It occurs when a writer gives human traits to non-human or inanimate objects. It is similar to metaphors and similes that also use comparison between two objects. For instance,
“Hadn’t she felt it in every touch of the sunshine, as its golden finger-tips pressed her lids open and wound their way through her hair?”
(“The Mother’s Recompense” by Edith Wharton)
In the above lines, the speaker is personifying sunshine as it has finger tips that wound their way into her hair. This is trait of using finger-tips in hair is a human one.
Understatement and Hyperbole
These two figures of speech are opposite to each other. Hyperbole uses extreme exaggeration. It exaggerates to lay emphasis on a certain quality or feature. It stirs up emotions among the readers, these emotions could be about happiness, romance, inspiration, laughter or sadness.
I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street.”
(“As I Walked Out One Evening” by W.H. Auden)
In this poem, Auden has used hyperbole to stress on how long his love his beloved would last. Just imagine when China and Africa would meet and can river jump up over the mountains? How salmon can be intelligent enough so that it could sing and evolve enough and walk the streets?
Whereas understatement uses less than whatever is intended, such as,
“You killed my family. And I don’t like that kind of thing.”
(“The Chosen One” by Boon Collins and Rob Schneider)
In this line, the speaker is using an understatement because someone has killed his family and he is just taking it very normal like nothing serious has happened.
It is a type of comparison between things or objects by using “as” or “like.” See the following example:
My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
My heart is like a rainbow shell…
(“A Birthday” by Christina Rossetti)
Rossetti has used simile thrice in this part of the poem, comparing her heart to a “singing bird”, “an apple-tree”, and a rainbow shell.” The poet makes comparison of heart to a happy bird in a nest, an apple tree full with fruits and a beautiful shell in the sea, full of peace and joy.
Metaphor is comparing two unlike objects or things, which may have some common qualities.
Presentiment – is that long shadow – on the lawn –
Indicative that Suns go down –
The notice to the startled Grass
That Darkness – is about to pass –
(“Presentiment is that long shadow on the lawn” by Emily Dickinson)
In this example, Dickinson presents presentiment as a shadow. Presentiment actually means anxiety or foreboding, which she calls a shadow. In fact, she makes compares it with shadow to provide a better description of anxiety that could creep up in a person’s life and cause fear.
Pun is the manipulation of words that have more than one meanings. It brings humor in an expression.
Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will,
And Will to boot, and Will in overplus;
(“Sonnet 135” by William Shakespeare)
See the use of odd grammar rule, which is the capitalization of word “Will.” Usually in the middle of a line or sentence, writers capitalize a name. Here it is the first name of Shakespeare. It means he has created pun of his own name.
Function of Figure of Speech
Figure of speech is not only used to embellish the language, but also cause a moment of excitement when reading. It is used equally in writing as well as in speech. It, in fact, provides emphasis, clarity or freshness to expression. Clarity, however, may sometimes suffer because a figure of speech introduces double meanings such as connotative and denotative meanings. It also strengthens the creative expression and description along with making the language more graphic, pointed and vivid.
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