H – M


Hyperbole is the deliberate exaggeration to heighten the effect rather than to deceive. Examples:

  • ‘All the money in the world will not be enough to repay the debt that he owes you.’
  • ‘I have a mountain of work to do.’
  • ‘Listening to him talk is as exciting as watching paint dry.’
  • ‘I’m so mad I could chew nails.’

Innuendo hints at something without actually saying it:

  • “I read this morning that there were 2 000 people at your grandmother’s funeral.”

Irony is a figure of speech that expresses the opposite of what is meant. That is, the use of words to convey the opposite of their literal meaning. Irony is a statement or situation where the meaning is contradicted by the appearance or presentation of the idea. Examples:

  • “Things have come to a pretty pass.”
  • “That’s clever.” (when someone has done something silly)
  • “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room.” (Peter Sellers as President Merkin Muffley in Dr. Strangelove, 1964)

And consider this example for an ironic situation:

A man has lost his job. He has no money left so he decides to take his own life. As he jumps off the fifth floor of his apartment building, a messenger is on his way up in the lift with a telegram to say he has won a million dollars in the sweepstakes. (His suicide is ironic because we know he is now rich, whereas the man believes he is poor, and he need not have committed suicide).

Irony and Sarcasm

The difference between irony and sarcasm is very simple: irony expresses the opposite of what is meant for dramatic effect. It is usually humorous and reveals the incongruity between what actually happens and what might be expected to happen, especially when this disparity seems absurd or laughable. On the other hand, sarcasm is a form of irony used with the intention to hurt or ridicule. Like irony it means the opposite of what it seems but is intended to mock or deride.

Neither should they be confused with cynicism (see separate note)


Litotes is an emphasis by negation, as in “It’s no fun to be sick”. By placing a negative before a word makes it into a strong affirmative. Thus:

  • “He is no fool.” (He is bright or clever)
  • “This is no laughing matter.” (It is very serious)
  • “This is no small problem.” (It is a big one)

A Metaphor is an implied resemblance, a comparison between two unlike things that actually have something important in common. The metaphor is often derived from human physiology and commonly extended to nature or inanimate objects. For example: “the mouth of a river,” “the snout of a glacier,” “the bowels of the earth,” or “the eye of a needle.”

Conversely, resemblances to natural phenomena are frequently applied to other areas, as in the expressions “a wave of enthusiasm,” “a ripple of excitement,” or “a storm in a tea cup.”

Metaphor and a Simile

Metaphors and similes are both comparisons. The difference is that metaphors imply a comparison whereas the similes are direct comparisons. Examples:

  • “He has a heart like a lion.” (simile).
  • “He is lion-hearted.” (metaphor).
  • “Joanne burned her boats when she resigned.” (There was no going back) (metaphor)
  • “His debts are a shadow hanging over his hopes to succeed.” (metaphor)
  • “The streets were a furnace, the sun an executioner.” (metaphor)
  • “Life is like an onion: you peel if off one layer at a time.” (simile)

Metonymy is a figure of speech in which one word or phrase is substituted for another; where it is not called by its actual name but by something associated with it, as for example, referring to “crown” when you mean “royalty”. Examples:

  • “How would the Pentagon react?”
  • “The pen is mightier than the sword.” (the pen is substituted for writer; the sword for soldier)
  • “The kettle is boiling.” (It is not the kettle that is boiling but the water)
  • “Whitehall prepares for a hung parliament.” (The Guardian, January 1st, 2009)

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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