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Figurative speech


Figurative speech is language that contains images. The work horses of figurative speech are
metaphor, simile and personification. Such language can be used to breathe life into otherwise
lifeless prose. One of the chief values of figurative speech is that it helps create a clear and vivid
image for the reader.
A metaphor is a direct comparison of two things. For example, if I want to say how fiercely John
plays his position in the defensive backfield on the school football team, I may call him "tiger."
In doing that, I am borrowing some of the qualities of a tiger and attributing them to John.
In his book The Complete Stylist Sheridan Baker looks at the roots of the word "metaphor," at the
embedded image in the original Greek, to drive home its meaning. The word metaphor breaks
down in two parts, Baker says:
meta = across
phor = ferry or carry
So, the word suggests a "carrying across" from one thing to the other. In the example above, we
carried the characteristics of the tiger over to John. Interestingly, the Latin word 'transfer" works
the same way:
trans = across
fer = ferry or carry
If I use "like" or "as" in the comparison, I am using a simile. I might say, for example, that "when
John gets mad, he plays like a tiger."
If we "personify" something, we give it human characteristics. One of my favorite examples to
use in class is the blackboard. i point at it and say, "Over the years, this blackboard has seen lots
of students come and go." The truth is, of course, that blackboards see nothing. However, we can
make our essays stand up and talk to people by using personification and other forms of
figurative speech.
Indeed, some of our best writers are revered precisely because of their figurative speech, because
they find new and fresh ways to say things, because they point out similarities we may not have
noticed, because they use words to create vivid images and pictures for the mind's eye. Consider
the way Cormac McCarthy describes the scene as a band of riders in his novel Blood Meridian
set off in the dawn, heading west:
"The shadows of the smallest stones lay like pencil lines across the sand and the shapes
of the men and their mounts advanced elongate before them like the strands of the night
from which they they'd ridden, like tentacles to bind them to the darkness yet to come.
They rode with their heads down, faceless under their hats, like an army asleep on the
march" (45).
In this short passage, there are four similes, all of which contribute to a vivid picture -- all done
in words.
It's a good idea to pay attention to how writers you like use figurative speech. And while you
don't necessarily want to copy their similes and metaphors, you do want to imitate the fact that
they liven up their writing with such figurative speech.

The Top 20 Figures


1. Alliteration
Repetition of an initial consonant sound.

2. Anaphora

Repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses or verses.

3. Antithesis
The juxtaposition of contrasting ideas in balanced phrases.

4. Apostrophe

Breaking off discourse to address some absent person or thing, some abstract quality, an
inanimate object, or a nonexistent character.

5. Assonance

Identity or similarity in sound between internal vowels in neighboring words.

6. Chiasmus
A verbal pattern in which the second half of an expression is balanced against the first but
with the parts reversed.

7. Euphemism
The substitution of an inoffensive term for one considered offensively explicit.

8. Hyperbole

An extravagant statement; the use of exaggerated terms for the purpose of emphasis or
heightened effect.

9. Irony

The use of words to convey the opposite of their literal meaning. A statement or situation
where the meaning is contradicted by the appearance or presentation of the idea.

10. Litotes

A figure of speech consisting of an understatement in which an affirmative is expressed by

negating its opposite.

11. Metaphor

An implied comparison between two unlike things that actually have something important in

12. Metonymy

A figure of speech in which one word or phrase is substituted for another with which it is
closely associated; also, the rhetorical strategy of describing something indirectly by
referring to things around it.

13. Onomatopoeia
The formation or use of words that imitate the sounds associated with the objects or actions
they refer to.

14. Oxymoron
A figure of speech in which incongruous or contradictory terms appear side by side.

15. Paradox
A statement that appears to contradict itself.

16. Personification

A figure of speech in which an inanimate object or abstraction is endowed with human

qualities or abilities.

17. Pun

A play on words, sometimes on different senses of the same word and sometimes on the
similar sense or sound of different words.

18. Simile

A stated comparison (usually formed with "like" or "as") between two fundamentally dissimilar
things that have certain qualities in common.

19. Synechdoche

A figure of speech is which a part is used to represent the whole, the whole for a part, the
specific for the general, the general for the specific, or the material for the thing made
from it.

20. Understatement
A figure of speech in which a writer or a speaker deliberately makes a situation seem less
important or serious than it is.