Figures of speech

Figures of speech are literary devices; words or phrases that are used in a way that is different from their literal (plain, normal) meaning. This is done to produce a special effect. For example, when we say, “the horses thundered across the meadow,” we do not really mean that literally. We are saying that the sound of the horses’ hoofs as they galloped was like thunder.

In European languages figures of speech are generally classified in five major categories:

(1) Figures of resemblance or relationship (e.g., conceit, euphemism, kenning, metaphor, metonymy, parallelism, personification, simile and synecdoche);

(2) Figures of emphasis or understatement (e.g., antithesis, bathos, climax, hyperbole, irony, litotes, oxymoron, paradox, and rhetorical question);

(3) Figures of sound (e.g. alliteration, anaphora, onomatopoeia, and repetition);

(4) Verbal games and gymnastics (e.g., anagram and pun) ; and,

(5) Errors (e.g., malapropism, periphrasis, and spoonerism).

Figures of speech involving a change in sense, such as metaphor, simile, and irony, are called tropes.

A figure of speech is any intentional deviation from literal statement or common usage that emphasises, clarifies, or embellishes both written and spoken language. Forming an integral part of language, figures of speech are found in primitive oral literatures, as well as in polished poetry and prose and in everyday speech. Greeting-card rhymes, advertising slogans, newspaper headlines, and the captions of cartoons. The mottoes of families and institutions often use figures of speech, generally for humorous, mnemonic, or eye-catching purposes. The argots of sports, jazz, business, politics, or any specialised groups abound in figurative language.

Most figures of speech in everyday speech are formed by extending the vocabulary of what is already familiar and better known to what is less well known.

One of the most powerful single literary influences upon world cultures has been the Bible. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament are rich in simile, metaphor, and personification and in the special figure of Hebrew poetry, in parallelism. So what are these figures of speech and how are they used?

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By Nigel Benetton, science fiction author of Red Moon Burning and The Wild Sands of Rotar

Last updated: Friday, 24th April 2020