Figures of Speech

Figures of speech are literary devices which are used to convey ideas that go beyond their literal meaning.

Functions of Figures of Speech

  • Figures of speech add beauty to the language by enhancing the verses’ visual, aural and sensory appeal.
  • The reader is made to use his imagination to build brilliant mental pictures.
  • They give freshness of expression and clarity of meaning.
  • They can be used in both poetic and common language.
  • Language of speeches and debates can also be optimised with figures of speech.
  • In short, figures of speech make the language more colourful, descriptive and exciting.
Types of Figures of Speech

Types of Figures of Speech

In English, there are more than 200 different types of figures of speech. Some of them will be covered in this post.

  1. Simile
  2. Metaphor
  3. Personalisation
  4. Synecdoche
  5. Transferred Epithet
  6. Metonymy
  7. Pun
  8. Euphemism
  9. Tautology
  10. Inversion
  11. Antithesis
  12. Irony
  13. Oxymoron
  14. Paradox
  15. Repetition
  16. Alliteration
  17. Onomatopoeia
  18. Apostrophe
  19. Hyperbole
  20. Understatement
  21. Climax
  22. Anticlimax

Figures of Speech #1 Simile

Definition of Simile

A simile is a figure of speech that directly compares two things with similar qualities. It employs words such as ‘like‘ or ‘as‘.

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  • The prisoners languished like caged animals. (The prisoners are likened to caged animals.)
  • Manish is as thin as a reed. (Manish is compared to a reed.)

Popular Examples of Simile

“She entered with an ungainly struggle like some huge awkward chicken, torn, squawking, out of its coop.”
—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Three Gables

“In the eastern sky, there was a yellow patch like a rug laid for the feet of the coming sun…”
—Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage

“O my Luve’s like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve’s like the melodie
That’s sweetly played in tune.”
— Robert Burns, Red Red Rose

“The air smelled sharp as new-cut wood, slicing low and sly around the angles of buildings.”
—Joanne Harris, Chocolat

Figures of Speech #2 Metaphor

Definition of Metaphor

A metaphor is a figure of speech that directly compares two things with similar qualities. Metaphors, unlike similes, do not contain words like “as” or “like.”

  • My old employer was the devil incarnate. (The old employer is equated with the devil.)
  • The pen is the tongue of the mind. (The pen is equated with the tongue.)

Popular Examples of Metaphors

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players”
— Shakespeare, As You Like It

“I fall upon the thorns of life.”
— P. B. Shelly, Ode to the West Wind

“Entangled in the cobweb of the schools.”
— William Cowper, The Task

Frequently used Metaphors

Various metaphors are also used frequently in our everyday language.

Flogging a dead horse – It is a metaphor for a pointless argument which refuses to die. Why does the boss have to flog the dead horse? I assumed the issue had already been resolved.

Elephant in the room – It is a metaphor for a disturbing or unpleasant fact that everyone is aware of but refuses to acknowledge out of awkwardness or embarrassment.

Mitesh‘s rejection from his job is the veritable elephant in the room tonight.

A gift that keeps on giving – It is a metaphor for something that will remain valuable for a longer period of time than it is intended to be.

A good friend is like a gift that keeps on giving.

Figures of Speech #3 Personification

Definition of Personification

Personification is a figure of speech where human qualities or activities are associated with animals, non-living things or abstract ideas. Writers and poets can give the reader a unique perspective by using personification. Readers relate to soulless objects the same way they would relate to humans.

  • The skies wept. (The skies are given the human ability to weep).
  • Your arrogance betrayed you today. (Arrogance is said to have the ability to betray).

Popular Examples of Personification

“When well-apparelled April on the heel
Of limping winter treads.”
— Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

“Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the big shoulders
— Carl Sandberg, Chicago


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“Ah, William, we‘re weary of weather,
said the sunflowers, shining with dew.”
—William Blake, Two Sunflowers Move in The Yellow Room

“O Rose thou are sick
—William Blake, The Sick Rose

Figures of Speech #4 Synecdoche

Definition of Synecdoche

Synecdoche is a figure of speech in which a portion is used to represent the whole.

  • The family has many mouths to feed. (The word ‘mouth‘ represents members of the family.)
  • Two heads are better than one. (The word ‘heads‘ represents people.)

Popular Examples of Synecdoche

“Blind mouths! that scarce themselves know how to hold”
—John Milton, Lycidas

“You run about, my little Maid,
Your limbs they are alive”
—William Wordsworth, We are Seven

“The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.”
— P. B. Shelly, Ozymandias

“The western wave was all a-flame.”
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

“I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”
—T. S. Elliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Figures of Speech #5 Transferred Epithet

Definition of Transferred Epithet

The transferred epithet is a figure of speech in which the quality of one noun is assigned to another. This results in the adjective being attached to a noun that it does not belong.

  • Phillip‘s happy days are here again. (Phillip is the one who is happy, but the noun ‘days‘ is assigned to the quality of happiness.)
  • Priti has committed too many careless mistakes. (Here, Priti is the one who is careless. But the quality is ascribed to the noun ‘mistakes‘.)

Popular Examples of Transferred Epithet

“The new man wrote a question at which I stared in wide-eyed amazement
— Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man

“Lord Ullin reach’d that fatal shore
—Thomas Campbell, Lord Ullin’s Daughter

“… may be completely destroyed in that second’s instant of a careless match,”
—William Faulkner, Golden Land

“…until it shines, like her own honest forehead, with perpetual friction.”
—Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

Figures of Speech #6 Metonymy

Definition of Metonymy

A metonymy is a figure of speech in which two things are referred to by the same name because they are closely related or occur frequently together. Because the word being used to describe another is not a part of it, it should not be mistaken with a synecdoche.

  • Europe has opened its doors to immigrants. (‘Europe‘ is the metonymy for the European government or the people of Europe.)
  • The court has issued a summon. (‘The court‘ is the metonymy for the judge.)

Popular Examples of Metonymy

The pen is mightier than the sword,”
— Edward Bulwer Lytton, Richelieu
(The ‘pen‘ stands for the intelligent and educated, while the sword stands for the brawny.)

“as doublet and hose ought to show itself courageous to petticoat
—Shakespeare, As You Like It
(The words ‘doublet and hose‘ represent masculinity and ‘petticoat‘ represents ‘femininity‘.)

“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears
—Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
(The word ‘ears‘ represents ‘attention‘.)

“As he swung toward them holding up the hand
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling.”
—Robert Frost, Out, Out
(The word ‘life‘ represents blood.)

Figures of Speech #7 Pun

Definition of Pun

A pun is a figure of speech where different meanings of the same word are exploited for poetic or comic effect. In a clever way, it gives the word a “double meaning.” It exploits both the literal and the figurative meaning of the word.

  • A pessimist‘s blood type is always B-negative. (It is a play on the word negative because pessimists always have a negative outlook on life.)
  • An elephant‘s opinion carries a lot of weight. (The word ‘weight‘ stands for the elephant‘s weight in the literal sense and for its figurative sense.)

Popular Examples of Pun

“winter of our discontent…made glorious summer by this Son of York.”
—Shakespeare, Richard III
(The word ‘Son‘ also puns on its homophone ‘Sun‘ since summer and winter are referenced in the sentence.)

“I always told you, Gwendolen, my name was Ernest, didn‘t I? Well, it is Ernest after all. I mean it naturally is Ernest.”
(The speaker puns on the word ‘Earnest‘. Along with stating his name, he also wants to emphasise his earnestness.)
Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

‘You see the earth takes twenty-four hours to turn round on its axis–’
‘Talking of axes,‘ said the Duchess, ‘chop off her head!‘
—Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

“Not I, believe me. You have dancing shoes with nimble soles; I have a soul of lead”
(The words ‘sole‘ and ‘soul‘ are homophones.)
—Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

Figures of Speech #8 Euphemism

Definition of Euphemism

Euphemism is a figure of speech where an offensive or harsh word is replaced with a softer and less offending expression. The writer or the poet makes the unpleasant sound poetic and polite, by using a euphemism.

  • The Sharma‘s dog was put to sleep because it was in a lot of pain. (The term ‘put to sleep‘ is a less offensive term used instead of ‘killed‘ or ‘euthanised‘.)
  • Let us offer a prayer in the memory of those departed. (The term ‘the departed‘ is a milder expression used instead of ‘the dead‘.)

Popular Examples of Euphemism

“For the time being,” he explains, “it had been found necessary to make a readjustment of rations.”
(The term ‘a readjustment of rations‘ is a milder term for a reduction in the food supply.)
—George Orwell, Animal Farm

“But he could do little for them; and now he is gone
(The phrase ‘he is gone‘ stands for death.)
—Thomas Hardy, Afterward

“And will any say when my bell of quittance is heard in the gloom”
(The phrase ‘my bell of quittance‘ stands for the death knell or a bell which is rung at the event of a person‘s death.)
—Thomas Hardy, Afterward

“The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States…but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.”
(The term ‘Persons‘ is a milder term used for slaves.)
— Constitution of the United States, Article 1, Section 9

Figures of Speech #9 Tautology

Definition of Tautology

Tautology is a figure of speech where the same ideas are repeated using various words. Tautology is often referred to as redundancy. It helps in strengthening the idea in the reader’s mind. In modern writing, Tautology is considered faulty.

  • Will you please repeat the last sentence again? (Repeating is an action which happens again. Hence, the term ‘again‘ is unnecessary when the word ‘repeat‘ is used.)
  • I was astonished, amazed and surprised. (The words ‘astonished‘, ‘amazed‘ and ‘surprised‘ are synonyms.)

Popular Examples of Tautology

“Polonious: What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet: Words, words, words.”
—Shakespeare, Hamlet

“The stars, O astral bodies!”

“With malice toward none, with charity for all.”
—Abraham Lincoln

Figures of Speech #10 Inversion

Definition of Inversion

Inversion is a figure of speech where the order of the words in the sentence is jumbled for poetic effect. Through inversion, the writer uses poetic liberty to make the sentence sound more pleasing. The author may occasionally use inversion to make a line rhyme with the previous one.

The sun shines and the birds’ tweet,
Sing the womenfolk their songs sweet.

  • Powerful you have become; the dark side I sense in you. (The order of the sentence has been changed. The correct order is ‘You have become powerful; I sense the dark side in you.’)
  • Through vales and dales, blows gently the wind. (The correct order of the sentence is ‘Through vales and dales, the wind blows gently.’)

Popular Examples of Inversion

“There was a ship,” quoth he.
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

“This is the forest primaeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks”
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Evangeline

“How many pictures of one Nymph we view, All how unlike each other, all how true!”
—Alexander Pope, Epistle to a Lady

Figures of Speech #11 Antithesis

Definition of Antithesis

Antithesis is a figure of speech where opposite ideas are brought together in a sentence for poetic effect.

  • He toiled all day and he slept all night. (Contrasting words ‘day‘ and ‘night‘ are brought together.)
  • Madhu is disciplined in her professional life but disorganised in her personal life. (Contrasting words ‘disciplined‘ and ‘disorganised‘ are brought together.)

Popular Examples of Antithesis

Love is an ideal thing; marriage is a real thing.”

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
—Neil Armstrong

“We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”
—Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice.”
—Shakespeare, Hamlet

Figures of Speech #12 Irony

Definition of Irony

Verbal irony is a figure of speech where the speaker says the exact opposite of what he or she intends. Some writers use verbal irony to indirectly criticise or mock.

Dramatic irony is a figure of speech where the audience or the reader knows more about the outcome of the story than the character in a film, novel or play.

Situational irony is where there is deviance from what is often expected from the situation.

  • Suresh is the busiest man I know. Between gambling and sleeping, he barely finds time for work. (By saying he barely finds time to work, the writer intends to criticise Suresh who is whiling away his time sleeping and gambling.)
  • The most discreet person in the office is Shalini who cannot help discussing sordid details of her private life with anyone who comes her way. (By calling her ‘The most discreet person,’ the speaker goes on to narrate Shalini‘s indiscretion.)

Popular Examples of Irony

“Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.”
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
In Sophocles‘ ‘Oedipus Rex‘, the King ventures out to find the murderer of King Laius without realising he himself is the murderer.

Figures of Speech #13 Oxymoron

Definition of Oxymoron

An oxymoron is a figure of speech where two opposing words are conjoined. This conjoining of opposing words may seem ridiculous if literally interpreted, but it may be meaningful if it is figuratively understood.

  • Seriously joking – The words ‘joking‘ and ‘serious‘ are contrasting, but they are brought together to mean that someone was actually joking.
  • Bittersweet – The word is made of contrasting adjectives ‘bitter‘ and ‘sweet‘. Both are conjoined to refer to a taste which is both bitter and sweet.

Popular Examples of Oxymorons

O heavy lightness! Serious vanity!
Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health
—Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

“I am a deeply superficial person.”
—Andy Warhol

“Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate
—Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

“And lined the train with faces grimly gay
—Wilfred Owen, The Send-Off

“And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true.”
—Alfred Tennyson

“conventionally unconventional, suggesting a tortuous* spontaneity
—Henry James, The Lesson of the Master
*tortuous – full of twists and turns

Figures of Speech #14 Paradox

Definition of Paradox

A paradox is a statement or a general fact which may sound ridiculous or illogical, but on deeper analysis, it may make perfect sense. Due to the way that both paradox and oxymoron combine opposing ideas, they are comparable. But the former stands for a rule or a truth which is rooted in reality.

  • When it comes to speaking, less is more. (The statement ‘less is more‘ sounds absurd. If one were to analyse it, it means brevity of speech can accomplish more than verbosity.)
  • The child is the father of the man. (The statement sounds illogical if one were to interpret it literally. Figuratively, it means that childhood is an important stage where man imbibes qualities which will become synonymous with his personality in adulthood.)

Popular Examples of Paradox

“All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others”
—George Orwell, Animal Farm

“I can resist anything but temptation.”
—Oscar Wilde

“To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up.”
—Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

“The swiftest traveller is he that goes afoot.”
—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

“War is peace.”
“Freedom is slavery.”
“Ignorance is strength.”
—George Orwell,1984

Figures of Speech #15 Repetition

Definition of Repetition

Repetition is a figure of speech where a word or phrase within a sentence is repeated. It is done for emphasis or for poetic effect. It is a very frequently used figure of speech.

  • I searched and searched and searched. (The act of searching is highlighted and emphasised.)
  • He came, He saw, He conquered. (The pronoun ‘He‘ is repeated thrice for emphasis.)

Popular Examples of Repetition

“I‘m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody too?”
—Emily Dickinson, I’m Nobody! Who are You?

“If you think you can win, you can win.”
—William Hazlitt

“Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn…”
—T. S. Elliot, Ash-Wednesday

“To the swinging and the ringing
of the bells, bells, bells Of the bells, bells, bells, bells
Bells, bells, bells”
—Edgar Allan Poe, The Bells

“And my father sold me, while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry “‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!”
—William Blake, The Chimney Sweeper

Figures of Speech #16 Alliteration

Definition of Alliteration

Alliteration is the repetition of sounds of words which are in a sequence or which are close to each other. It is the repetition of the sound of the consonants in the words. It makes the lines sound lyrical and rhythmic. Alliteration also renders a pleasing flow to the verses.

  • Susie suddenly sounds serious on the phone. (The consonant sound ‘s‘ is repeated for a pleasing effect.)
  • Pitter patter of petite feet (The consonant sound ‘p‘ is repeated for a pleasing effect.)

Popular Examples of Alliteration

“When to the sessions of sweet silent thought”
—Shakespeare, Sonnet 30

“Once upon a midnight dreary while I pondered weak and weary”
—Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven

When loosed and missioned, making wings of winds”
—P. B. Shelly, The Witch of Atlas

“The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,
The furrow followed free;
We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea.”
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

“And while the world laughed outside.
Cloony the Clown sat down and cried.”
— Shel Silverstein, Clooney the Clown

Figures of Speech #17 Onomatopoeia

Definition of Onomatopoeia

Onomatopoeia is a figure of speech in which words are used that closely resemble their sound. Onomatopoeia is the use of sounds produced by people, animals, objects, and natural occurrences. Onomatopoeia, like alliteration, gives the words or verses a lyrical feel.

  • The audible purr of the kitten (The word ‘purr‘ is an onomatopoeic sound because it resembles the actual purring sound made by kittens.)
  • The battleground resonated with the clanking of the swords. (The word ‘clanking‘ resembles the sound of metal instruments clashing.)

Popular Examples of Onomatopoeia

“Yet the ear it fully knows,
By the twanging
And the clanging”
—Edgar Allan Poe, The Bells

“And murmuring of innumerable bees…”
—Alfred Lord Tennyson, Come Down, O Maid

“But just the clatter of their bones, / Rolling, rattling carefree circus”
—Ogden Nash, Fossils

Figures of Speech #18 Apostrophe

Definition of Apostrophe

An apostrophe is a direct address to an absent person or a non-living thing. The character isolates himself or herself from reality and evokes the thing or the person.

  • Hello, darkness my old friend. (Here the word ‘darkness‘ is addressed as if it were a real person.)
  • Dear God. Are you listening? (The person is addressing God directly.)

Popular Examples of Apostrophe

“Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand?
Come, let me clutch thee!
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.”
—Shakespeare, Macbeth

“Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so”
—John Donne, Death Be Not Proud

“O holy virgin! clad in purest white,
Unlock heav‘n‘s golden gates, and issue forth”
—William Blake, To Morning

“Oh! Stars and clouds and winds, ye are all about to mock me”
—Mary Shelly, Frankenstein

“O wind, rend open the heat,
cut apart the heat,
rend it to tatters.”
—Hilda Doolittle, Heat

Figures of Speech #19 Hyperbole

Definition of Hyperbole

Hyperbole is a figure of speech where a statement is overstated for a dramatic effect. Hyperbole is sometimes referred to as overstatement.

  • She has been warned thousands of times before. (A dramatic is added to the sentence by exaggerating the number of times she has been warned.)
  • Her awful singing voice made my ears bleed. (By saying ‘my ears bleed‘, the speaker aims to dramatically highlight the fact that the person concerned had an awful voice.)

Popular Examples of Hyperbole

“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.”
—W.H. Auden, As I Walked Out One Evening

“So first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
—Franklin Roosevelt

“At that time Bogota was a remote, lugubrious city where an insomniac rain had been falling since the beginning of the 16th century.”
—Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Living to Tell the Tale

“Here once the embattled farmers stood / And fired the shot heard round the world.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Figures of Speech #20 Understatement

Definition of Understatement

Understatement is the opposite of hyperbole. It is a figure of speech used to minimise or diminish something’s importance. In other words, something is purposefully projected as being less significant. The author emphasises the idea he wants to convey to the reader by doing this. Through understatement, other figures of speech like irony and sarcasm are highlighted.

  • The terrorist attacks in the city spoiled the weekend plans of many a citizen. (The terrorist attacks are projected as a minor impediment which only ruined the weekend plans of the citizens. By doing so, the writer intends to highlight the irony.)
  • Weighing around a quintal, he is not exactly the thinnest person in the world. (A person who weighs a quintal will be a morbidly obese person let alone the thinnest person in the world. The writer wishes to capture the attention of the reader by understating the person‘s obesity.)

Popular Examples of Understatement

“I have to have this operation. It isn‘t very serious. I have this tiny little tumour on the brain.”
—J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

“I‘ve got a nice place here,” he said, his eyes flashing about restlessly. Turning me around by one arm, he
moved a broad flat hand along the front vista, including in its sweep a sunken Italian garden, a half acre of
deep, pungent roses, and a snub-nosed motor-boat that bumped the tide offshore”
—F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Figures of Speech #21 Climax

Definition of Climax

A climax is a figure of speech where the actions start moving in the ascending order of importance.

  • He came, he saw, he conquered. (The actions of the person become more intense.)
  • The cat crouched on all fours, locked its target, pounced high and struck its target down in a swift move. (The actions of the cat are arranged in the ascending order of importance.)

Popular Examples of Climax

“…Lost, vaded, broken, dead within an hour.”
—Shakespeare, The Passionate Pilgrim

“Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird… it’s a plane… it’s Superman!”
—The Adventures of Superman

“Let a man acknowledge his obligations to himself, his family, his country, and his God.”
George Washington

“My brother, my captain, my king.”
—J. R. R. Tolkien

Figures of Speech #22 Anticlimax

Definition of Anticlimax

Anticlimax is a figure of speech where the events or ideas in the sentence are arranged in descending order of importance. The purpose of anticlimax is to first arouse the interest of the reader and then to create a trivial or unimpressive conclusion.

  • I thought the chest contained gold coins, trinkets or jewels, but to our dismay, it was filled with rocks. (The writer enumerates valuables as the possible contents of the chest but ultimately reveals that it was filled with rocks. There is an initial build-up of excitement after which there comes a fall.)
  • The much-hyped event which everyone was waiting for turned out to be a boring affair with the turnout as less as 50 people. (Here, the writer starts by describing the event as ‘much-hyped‘ and later calls it a ‘boring affair‘ in an anti-climatic manner.)

Popular Examples of Anticlimax

“Here thou, great Anna, whom three realms obey,
Dost sometimes counsel take, and sometimes tea.”
—Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock

“And as I’m sinkin’ The last thing that I think is, did I pay my rent?”
—Jim O’Rourke, Ghost Ship in a Storm

“In moments of crisis, I size up the situation in a flash, set my teeth, contract my muscles, take a firm grip on myself and without a tremor, always do the wrong thing.”
—George Bernard Shaw

Uses of Figures of Speech

  • Figures of speech give literature new life by departing from the usage of plain words.
  • They encourage the reader to use their imagination.
  • They appeal to the reader’s aesthetic sensibility.
  • Figures of speech help writers express themselves in a variety of ways.
  • Works of literature such as poems, drama, novels and speeches may sound boring and dull without the use of figures of speech.

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