Figures of Speech

Devendra asks, “what are figures of speech. I want the definition and an example of all figures of speech.”

According to The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, a figure of speech is the intentional departure from straight-forward, literal use of language for the purpose of clarity, emphasis, or freshness of expression.

To define and provide examples for all of the hundreds of figures would take a Herculean effort, and I’m no Hercules. Instead, I’ll offer a few here to get you started and direct you to the Sylva Rhetoricæ website for a more comprehensive list.

  • metaphor: a comparison between two seemingly unrelated things. Metaphor can be stated or implied. Example: “Your eyes and the valley are memories. / Your eyes fire and the valley a bowl.” —Carl Sandburg, “Valley Song”
  • simile: a direct comparison between two seemingly unrelated things using “like” or “as.” Example: “Sorrow like a ceaseless rain / beats upon my heart.” —Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Sorrow”
  • personification: granting human characteristics to something that is not human. Example: “Vine leaves tap my window, / Dew-drops sing to the garden stones” —Conrad Aiken, “Morning Song of Senlin”
  • apostrophe: addressing an inanimate object as if it were living. Example: “Oh overshoes, / don’t you / remember me, / pushing you up and down / in the winter snow?” —Anne Sexton, “The Fury of Overshoes”
  • hyperbole: deliberate exaggeration for effect, usually for emphasis. Example: “Do I dare / Disturb the universe?” —T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
  • paradox: a statement that appears self-contradictory, but is true. Or, two seemingly contradictory statements that are both nonetheless true. Example: “I have the moon, the timberline, and you. / All three are gone—and I keep all three.” —Carl Sandburg, “Valley Song”
  • irony: a contrast between what is stated and what is meant, or an incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs. Irony can be rhetorical (i.e. verbal), situational, or dramatic. Example (rhetorical – ironic understatement): Michael Jordan was okay at basketball.
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14 Responses to Figures of Speech

  1. Michael Tuma says:

    hyperbole: deliberate exaggeration for effect, usually for emphasis….
    In my college book for Critical Thinking by Brooke Noel Moore, and Richard Parker, they describe Hyperbole as a rhetorical device…..
    Heres exactly what it says in quotations:
    “Hyperbole is extravagant overstatement. A claim that exaggerates for effect is on its way to becoming a hyperbole, depending on the strength of its language and the point being made.”…..
    I know they say the same thing but i just thought maybee this could be helpful to you in explaining a hyperbole, by also saying its a form of rhetoric, also this definition is a little stronger than the one used. anyways just trying to help, love the site.

  2. Michael, thank you for elaborating on the hyperbole definition. That’s what comments are for, after all.
    Actually, figure of speech is just another way of saying rhetorical figure or trope. I think the three terms can be used interchangeably. If not, though, I hope someone will correct me in a comment. 🙂

  3. Clare Parker says:

    I feel that you have not gave the best definition of ‘irony’ and the example does not really help me understand the meaning, as I am revising for my English Higher exam. In my opinion, “Michael Jordan was okay at basketball” is more like a deliberate understatement(Litotes) than an irony.

  4. bob says:

    you rock

  5. Thanks, Bob! Unless, of course, you’re being ironic.
    Clare, some rhetoricians actually place litotes within the general category of irony. In Holman and Harmon’s A Handbook to Literature, for example, the authors refer to litotes as “a common device in ironic expression.”
    Also, many handbooks specify litotes as deliberate understatement “in which an affirmative is expressed by negating its opposite” (for example, “the marathon is no small race,” and “her words were not unkind”).

  6. vannessa bulotano says:

    i want have some3 examples of litotes for my assingment now it will past tommorrow.

  7. Vanessa, comment 5 has two examples in it. I’m sure you can think of another. They aren’t too hard.

  8. karina says:

    i want to know how anne sexton uses figure of speech in her poetry

  9. joe says:

    what about synecdoches, metonymy, euphemisms, anachronisms, or aphorisms? where do those come into play?

  10. Jane says:

    What is idioms ? Examples of idiomatic expression, idiomatic usage . GIves me the definition cause need to do my project.

  11. Karl says:

    Hi Jane,
    There are plenty of online resources that provide this information. See the Wikipedia entry for one.

  12. trish says:

    what the rules on correct usege in figure speech, please give me that meaning and example, it is my project?

  13. jane says:

    more examples of litotes

  14. Beth says:

    I’ve seen “alliteration” categorized as figurative language, but I’m not sure why this would be. The sound is enhanced, but the meaning isn’t necessarily changed from the literal. I’ve always thought of it as a sound device, along with rhyme, rhythm, onomatopoeia, and so forth. Can you clear up the confusion for me? Also, does the term apply to repetition of any beginning sound, or just consonants?