“The most excellent ornament exornations , lights, flowers, and forms of speech, commonly called the figures of rhetoric. By which the singular parts of man’s mind, are most aptly expressed, and the sundry affections of his heart most effectually uttered.”  (Henry Peacham, The Garden of Eloquence, 1593)

A figure of speech is the use of a word or a phrase, which diverges from its literal interpretation. It can also be 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 idiom, metaphor, simile, hyperbole, personification, or synecdoche.

Figures of speech often provide emphasis, the freshness of expression, or clarity. However, clarity may also suffer from their use, as any figure of speech introduces an ambiguity between literal and figurative interpretation. A figure of speech is sometimes called a rhetorical figure or a locution.

ALLITERATION, in prosody, the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of words or stressed syllables. Sometimes the repetition of initial vowel sounds (head rhyme) is also referred to as alliteration. As a poetic device, it is often discussed with assonance and consonance. In languages (such as Chinese) that emphasize tonality, the use of alliteration is rare or absent.

William Shakespeare’s line:  ”When I do count the clock that tells the time.”

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s line: “The City’s voice itself is soft like Solitude’s.”

ALLUSION in literature, an implied or indirect reference to a person, event, or thing or to a part of another text. An allusion is distinguished from such devices as direct quote and imitation or parody. Most allusions are based on the assumption that there is a body of knowledge that is shared by the author and the reader and that therefore the reader will understand the author’s referent.

Allusions to biblical figures and figures from classical mythology are common in Western literature for this reason. The word is from the late Latin allusio meaning “a play on words” or “game” and is a derivative of the Latin word alludere, meaning “to play around” or “to refer to mockingly.”

“I was surprised his nose was not growing like Pinocchio’s.”

“He was a Good Samaritan yesterday when he helped the lady start her car.”

ANTITHESIS, (from Greek: antitheton, “opposition”) a figure of speech in which irreconcilable opposites or strongly contrasting ideas are placed in sharp juxtaposition and sustained tension, as in the saying “Art is long, and Time is fleeting.”

The opposing clauses, phrases, or sentences are roughly equal in length and balanced in contiguous grammatical structures.

In poetry, the effect of antithesis is often one of tragic irony or reversal.

Saddled and bridled 

And booted rode he;

A plume in his helmet,

A sword at his knee;

But toom [empty] cam’ his saddle

A’ bloody to see,

O ham cam’ his gude horse

But never cam’ he! —“Bonnie George Campbell,” anonymous

ANTICLIMAX refers to a figure of speech in which statements gradually descend in order of importance. Unlike climax, anticlimax is the arrangement of a series of words, phrases, or clauses in order of decreasing importance.

Eg. She is a great writer, a mother and a good humorist.

He lost his family, his car and his cell phone.

CLIMAX, (Greek: “ladder”), in dramatic and nondramatic fiction, the point at which the highest level of interest and emotional response is achieved.

In rhetoric, the climax is achieved by the arrangement of units of meaning (words, phrases, clauses, or sentences) in ascending order of importance. The following passage from Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) is an example:

All that most maddens and torments; all that

stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice

in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the

brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and          

thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly

personified and made practically assailable in

Moby Dick.

EPIGRAM, originally an inscription suitable for carving on a monument, but since the time of the Greek Anthology applied to any brief and pithy verse, particularly if astringent and purporting to point a moral. By extension, the term is also applied to any striking sentence in a novel, play, poem, or conversation that appears to express a succinct truth, usually in the form of a generalization. Catullus (c. 84–c. 54 bc) originated the Latin epigram, and it was given final form by Martial (ad 40–103) in some 1,500 pungent and often indecent verses that served as models for French and English epigrammatists of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Robert Herrick, writer of such graceful examples as the following:

I saw a Fly within a Bead

Of Amber cleanly buried:

The Urn was little, but the room

More  rich than Cleopatra’s Tomb.

HYPERBOLE a figure of speech that is an intentional exaggeration for emphasis or comic effect. Hyperbole is common in love poetry, in which it is used to convey the lover’s intense admiration for his beloved. An example is the following passage describing Portia:

 Why, if two gods should play some heavenly match

And on the wager lay two earthly women,

And Portia one, there must be something else

Pawned with the other, for the poor rude world

Hath not her fellow. —Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

IRONY language device, either in spoken or written form in which the real meaning is concealed or contradicted by the literal meanings of the words (verbal irony) or in a situation in which there is an incongruity between what is expected and what occurs (dramatic irony).

The verbal irony arises from a sophisticated or resigned awareness of the contrast between what is and what ought to be and expresses a controlled pathos without sentimentality. It is a form of indirection that avoids overt praise or censure, as in the casual irony of the statement

“That was a smart thing to do!” (meaning “very foolish”).

METAPHOR, the figure of speech that implies a comparison between two unlike entities, as distinguished from simile, an explicit comparison signaled by the words “like” or “as.”

The distinction is not simple. The metaphor makes a qualitative leap from a reasonable, perhaps prosaic comparison, to an identification or fusion of two objects, to make one new entity partaking of the characteristics of both. Many critics regard the making of metaphors as a system of thought antedating or bypassing logic.

A mixed metaphor may also be used with great effectiveness, however, as in Hamlet’s

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles . . .

in which “sea” should be replaced by “host” for the strictly correct completion of the metaphor.

METONYMY, (from Greek metōnymia, “change of name,” or “misnomer”), a figure of speech in which the name of an object or concept is replaced with a word closely related to or suggested by the original, as “crown” to mean “king” (“The power of the crown was mortally weakened”) or an author for his works (“I’m studying Shakespeare”). A familiar Shakespearean example is Mark Antony’s speech in Julius Caesar in which he asks of his audience: “Lend me your ears”.

ONOMATOPOEIA, the naming of a thing or action by a vocal imitation of the sound associated with it (such as buzz or hiss). Onomatopoeia may also refer to the use of words whose sound suggests the sense. This occurs frequently in poetry, where a line of verse can express a characteristic of the thing being portrayed.

The following lines from “The Brook” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson are another example:

 I chatter over stony ways,

In little sharps and trebles,

I bubble into eddying bays,

I babble on the pebbles

PERSONIFICATION, a figure of speech in which human characteristics are attributed to an abstract quality, animal, or inanimate object. An example is “The Moon doth with delight / Look round her when the heavens are bare” (William Wordsworth, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” 1807). Another is “Death lays his icy hand on kings” (James Shirley, “The Glories of Our Blood and State,” 1659).

Personification has been used in European poetry since Homer and is particularly common in allegory; for example, the medieval morality play Everyman (c. 1500) and the Christian prose allegory Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) by John Bunyan contain characters such as Death, Fellowship, Knowledge, Giant Despair, Sloth, Hypocrisy, and Piety. Personification became almost an automatic mannerism in 18th-century Neoclassical poetry, as exemplified by these lines from Thomas Gray’s “An Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard”:

Here rests his head upon the lap of earth

A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown:

Fair science frowned not on his humble birth,

And Melancholy marked him for her own.

SIMILE figure of speech involving a comparison between two, unlike entities. In the simile, unlike the metaphor, the resemblance is explicitly indicated by the words “like” or “as.” The common heritage of similes in everyday speech usually reflects simple comparisons based on the natural world or familiar domestic objects, as in “He eats like a bird,” “He is as smart as a whip,” or “He is as slow as molasses.” In some cases, the original aptness of the comparison is lost, as in the expression “dead as a doornail.”

A simile in literature may be specific and direct or more lengthy and complex, as in the following lines of Othello:

Never, Iago. Like to the Pontic Sea,

Whose icy current and compulsive course

Ne’er feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on

To the Propontic and the Hellespont;

Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace,

Shall ne’er look back… —(Shakespeare, Othello)

author avatar
William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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