Figure of Speech
Figures of Speech
Meaning | Definition
A figure of speech is a phrase or word used in a non-literal sense for rhetorical or rich effect. It is an expression that is different from its literal meaning.
A figure of speech is a way of describing something or someone interestingly and vividly. The words or phrases may not mean exactly what they suggest, but they paint a clear picture in the mind of the reader or listener. A figure of speech can be in the form of a phrase or a single word. The figures of speech are also knowns as rhetorical figures.
Figure of speech is easier to understand than an idiom as you do not have to be familiar with the language to decipher it. Every language has its figures of speech and idioms that are own to that language. They are used to make writing more interesting.
There are many types of figures of speech in the English language, but we are going to learn the most common types.
All Types of Figure of Speech List
- Rhetorical Questions
- Three Part List (Rule of three)
- Circumlocution (or Periphrasis)
- Irony – (Sarcasm)
- Transferred Epithets
Alliteration is a figure of speech in which two usually consecutive words begin with the same consonant sound but not always the same latter.
The word doesn’t always have to be right next to each other, but when you say or read them, the sound is repeated.
For example, four fabulous fish and go and gather the flowers on the grass.
Alliteration helps us to make what we say or write more interesting to listen to or read. Writers and poets use alliteration to make their writing memorable and fun to read. Read the list of alliterative phrases below.
- cold coffee
- happy Harry
- Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers
- She sells sea shells on the sea shore
- Becky’s beagle barked and bayed, which bothered Billy
- Donald Duck
- Jackrabbits jump and jiggle jauntily
There are many, many more you will see – and many new ones you can make up – as you do the practice.
We use metaphors all the time. Suppose when your Mummy says, “This house is a zoo!” she doesn’t mean that it is the place where animal lives. She just means that everyone in the house is as noisy as a bunch of animals would be.
She’s using the zoo as a metaphor for the house, she’s describing the house as if were a zoo, to make the comparison clear.
It’s great fun to use metaphors because they make what we say more colourful and people can understand what we are trying to tell them better.
Look at this list of metaphors and what they mean. It will get you started.
- dirty pig – very filthy
- having two left feet – very bad dancer
- to get cold feet – to become nervous
- to be an early bird – to reach first or earliest
- pearls of wisdom – wise words
Personification is giving human qualities to something that may not be human, or even alive.
For example, when you say: “The flowers nodded their head cheerfully.”
What you mean here is that the flowers moved about in the wind looking as if they were cheerful and happy. You’re imagining that the flowers have human emotions.
- laughing flowers
- howling wind
- smiling sun
- opportunity knocking at the door
- shoe bite
This is a big word that just means words that imitate sounds. Pitter-patter is an example of onomatopoeia. It mimics the sound of rain or maybe little feet.
The word tinkle is also onomatopoeia. It mimics the sound of a bell or falling water.
We use onomatopoeia all the time in our everyday speech. Poets and writers use this figure of speech to make their writing more expressive too.
A simile is a figure of speech in which two things are directly compared. We use the word like or as to make the comparison.
The four phrases above are all similes. The beauty of a simile is that it helps us imagine clearly what the writer is trying to say. Poets and writers use similes to make their writing come alive.
- as blind as a bat
- as bold as brass
- as bright as a button
- as black as coal
- as clear as crystal
- as cold as ice
- as cool as a cucumber
An oxymoron brings two conflicting ideas together. We use them to draw attention from the reader/listener. Two words with apparently contradictory meanings are combined to form a new word that is more in conjunction.
- alone together
- deafening silence
- living dead
Hyperbole means using exaggerated statements for effect. The media and politicians often use hyperbole to make their articles or speeches more attention grabbing or seem more important bigger, better and more interesting.
- I have told you a million times not to get your shoes dirty.
- Jake’s mum always cooks enough food to feed an army.
- What have you got in this suitcase; it weighs a ton?
- I am so hungry I could eat a horse.
This is when a phrase is overused and loses impact and lacks original thought. Using a cliche can be seen as old fashioned or even a sign of poor writing as they are expressions that have been used too often and are no longer relevant or interesting.
- A women’s place is in the kitchen.
- And they all lived happily ever after.
- All that glitters is not gold.
- All is fair in love and war.
Repetition is when a word or phrase is repeated for effect or emphasis. Teachers often teach things like times tables by repetition and musicians repeat choruses in songs. A good example is Martin Luther King’s – ‘I have a dream’ speech.
- I’m telling you I won’t do it; I simply won’t do it.
- Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.
- He told me about it, years and years and years ago.
- Home sweet home.
This type of question doesn’t require an answer as it has been phrased in a way that assumes the reader or listener knows the answer. Public speakers and politicians use rhetorical questions for dramatic effect or to get a point across and not because they expect an answer. The answer is usually obvious, or they think it is.
Rhetorical Question Examples
- Can pigs fly?
- Is the Pope a Catholic?
- Is this supposed to be some kind of joke?
- We don’t need any more failure, do we?
Three Part List (Rule of three)
These are commonly used in advertising and speeches to grab attention and give emphasis. Three parts seems more comprehensive and knowledgeable than two it seems.
Three Part List Examples
- Snap, crackle and pop.
- I came, I saw, I conquered. (Veni, vidi, vici – Julius Caesar)
- I put my blood, sweat and tears into that project.
- Hear all, see all, say nowt (nothing).
This is when words have a similar ending sound. It is usually seen most often in poetry and song lyrics but is also in advertising and public speeches. The rhyming words stand out.
- Try before you buy.
- Birds of a feather, stick together.
- Kids and grown-ups love it so, the happy world of Haribo.
A euphemism is an indirect or innocuous word or phrase used instead of something considered unpleasant, harsh or sensitive, or embarrassing. It is often intended to amuse or downplay something that the speaker deems offensive or upsetting somehow. They may be used to cover profanity or sensitive subjects such as gender, disability, and death in a polite manner.
- Friendly fire (attack from allied forces)
- He is telling us a tall story (a lie)
- Senior citizen (old person)
- Staff restructure (making people redundant)
Litotes is an understatement, usually involving a hint of irony. Instead of saying something simple or obvious, a phrase contrary to the truth is used.
- It’s hardly rocket science is it? (often said when a task is very simple)
- The weather isn’t so good today. (Said during a thunder-storm)
- She’s no spring chicken. (meaning someone is not young)
- He’s not exactly a beggar. (He’s financially solvent)
Circumlocution (or Periphrasis)
Circumlocution (also called circumduction, circumvolution, periphrasis, kenning or ambage) is the unnecessary use of many words, when fewer would be more appropriate. An idea or subject is circled, talked around, or avoided altogether instead of directly referencing it.
- I work 9am to 2pm on Mondays and Wednesdays. (I work part time)
- He resides in a refurbished Victorian establishment on the edge of town. (He lives in a terraced house)
- Our Lord in heaven, the holy father. (God)
- The vehicle that I own is a fabulous shade of metallic dark turquoise. (My car is blue)
It is saying the same thing twice using different words. It is a way of adding emphasis or clarity but can come across as being unnecessarily wordy.
- Sally told everyone with pride that she had made the handmade sweater herself.
- The kids always take turns to answer the questions one after the other.
- She’s in the middle of reading Michelle Obama’s autobiography about her life story.
- They climbed up to the top of Kilimanjaro all the way to the summit.
Pun is a play on words as it is usually a jokey way of exploiting the fact that some words sound alike or have more than one meaning or spelling. They rely heavily on homophones and homonyms to work.
- The chicken farmers favourite car is a coupe.
- He’s been to see his dentist so many times now that he knows the drill.
- I’ve forgotten where my wife said we were going, don’t worry, Alaska.
- The cyclist was two tired to win the race.
An epigram is a clever, witty, or satirical phrase or line of poetry. It is usually expressing an ingenious, paradoxical, memorable, or amusing idea.
- I can resist everything but temptation – Oscar Wilde
- There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.
- Winners never quit, and quitters never win.
- For most of history, Anonymous was a woman – Virginia Woolf
This is from the Greek word klimax, meaning staircase or ladder. In narrative the words or clauses are arranged to build tension or drama to a peak (main part of the story) and get the undivided attention of the audience. The reader is mentally preparing for the climax of the story as the conflict or tension rises and finally reaches resolution.
Most films, books, plays or anecdotes have conflict/drama which reaches a climax and then is resolved by the end of the narrative.
- Titanic – Think of the rising tension as the ship hits the ice-burg and starts to sink. The water everywhere and people screaming, running trying to save themselves or find family members. The intrigue builds until finally the ship slips below the surface and there is shock and disbelief at the sad a sorry, survivors left floating above.
- Martin Luther King – His ‘I have a dream speech’ builds in tension and reaches this climax:-
A promise that all men, yes black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
- Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has many plot twists and rising tension in the form of family conflicts, love, murder, and finally death.
Irony – (Sarcasm)
A subtle form of humour involving words opposing to what is actually meant. Irony can fall into three categories.
Verbal irony – Saying one thing and meaning something else, usually the opposite of what is said.
Example: Saying that you couldn’t possibly eat another thing, then reaching for some more cake.
Dramatic irony – This is when the audience is more aware of the plotline than the characters.
Example: In Shakespeare’s Macbeth – While Duncan thinks Macbeth is faithful to him, Macbeth is actually plotting to murder him. The audience knows this, but Duncan doesn’t.
Situational irony – This is when something happens that is completely contrary to what is expected. Often with an element of shock or surprise.
Example: winning the lottery and dying the day after. (Listen to Ironic by Alanis Morrisette for many more examples)
This is the exact opposite of something or when two things contrast greatly.
- One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind – Neil Armstrong 1969
- Many are called, but few are chosen. Matthew 22:14
- It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. – Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.
Assonance is the repetition of the same vowel sounds in a phrase or sentence.
- We received three emails each week.
- The rain in Spain, stays mainly on the plain. (From the musical ‘My Fair Lady’)
- Hear the mellow wedding bells. (The Bells – Edgar Allen Poe)
Consonance is the repetition of the same consonant sound in a phrase or sentence.
- The rain pitter pattered in the puddle.
- The cook cooked the cutest cupcakes.
- Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.
Anastrophe is a deliberate change of normal word order for emphasis.
- The greatest teacher, failure is. – Yoda (Star Wars)
- Into the lake the jeep drove.
- One swallow a summer does not make.
A logosglyph is a word that looks like what it represents.
- She had eyes like pools. (The word eye looks like a pair of eyes with a ‘y’ for a nose and the double ‘oo’ in pools actually looks round like eyes and pools)
- The word bed actually looks like a bed.
A way of comparing things based on ways they are similar. This is to show the similarity without explaining.
- Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you are going to get. (From Forrest Gump)
- He is strong as an ox.
- She’s as quiet as a mouse.
Paradox is a statement containing two opposing facts that seems impossible, contradictory or absurd but might turn out to be true.
- I must be cruel, only to be kind—Hamlet by Shakespeare.
- Nobody goes to the seaside at the weekend, because it’s too crowded.
- Youth is wasted on the young.
Something that is added to a statement to provide extra information or an explanation. This is often separated from the main clause by brackets, commas, or dashes.
- His older brother, the one with six kids, will be visiting next week.
- Sean Mullins (last year’s winner) is the current favourite to win.
- The singer – and her backing band – arrived two hours late.
A statement punctuated with an exclamation mark is conveying strong emotion or excitement.
- Ouch! That really hurt!
- You just made me jump out of my skin!
- It’s a girl!
This is a sentence that asks a direct question and is punctuated with a question mark.
- What is the capital of Canada?
- Shall we invite the neighbours around for a barbeque tomorrow?
- Where are my car keys?
This is when a part of something is used instead of the whole.
- He took us for a spin in his new wheels. (Wheels = car)
- There are hundreds of boots on the ground searching for the fugitives. (Boots = soldiers or police)
- There was no comment from The White House. (The White House = The President)
Metonymy replaces a word or phrase with something related or associated to it.
- Have you seen the latest Hollywood blockbuster? (Hollywood = the whole of the film industry)
- The crown is not able to take political a side. (crown = the queen or royal family)
- The press is going to have a field day. (press = all news organizations)
Dialect is the way people talk in a particular region. In literature, this involves representing speech in the way it actually sounds with phonetic spelling, missing words, and unusual grammar.
- I told ‘er she wer wrong, innit? (I told her she was wrong, didn’t I?)
- Howdy Y’all! (Hello everybody!)
- Am gonna nae do that. (I’m not going to do that)
It is when we combine an incongruous adverb or adjective with an incongruous noun.
Transferred Epithets Examples
- They got divorced after years in an unhappy marriage.
- I balanced a thoughtful lump of sugar on the teaspoon. – P. G. Woodhouse.
- The farmer plodded along the weary lane.
Origin of Figure of Speech
Every figure of speech has a different origin. It is not clear where the phrase “figure of speech” comes from. The earliest use of figures of speech is found in the Bible, so it is clear that they have been around for hundreds of years. The most commonly used ones in the Bible are similes. This means that one thing is used in place of another. For example, ‘God is light.’