Metaphor — when something is something else: the ladder of success (i.e, success is a ladder).
- “Carthage was a beehive of buzzing workers.” Or, “This is your brain on drugs.”
Simile — when something is like something else:
- “Her skin was like alabaster.” “He was as unpleasant as a veneral disease.”
- Click here for discussion of epic similes.
Metonymy — using a vaguely suggestive, physical object to embody a more general idea: CROWN for royalty; the PEN is mightier than the SWORD. “If we cannot strike offenders in the heart, let us strike them in the wallet.” We use metonymy in everyday speech when we refer to the entire movie-making industry as a mere suburb of L.A., “Hollywood,” or when we refer to the collective decisions of the United States government as “Washington,” or the “White House.”
Synecdoche — using a part of a physical object to represent the whole object: “Twenty eyes watched our every move” (i.e., ten people watched our every move). “A hungry stomach has no ears” (La Fontaine).
Puns — A pun twists the meaning of words. Homonymic Puns — “Johnny B. Good” is a pun for “Johnny be good.” Sound similarities — “Casting perils before swains” (instead of “pearls before swine”).
Zeugma — one verb using different objects. If this changes the verb’s intial meaning, the zeugma is sometimes called syllepsis:
- “If we don’t hang together, we shall hang separately” (Ben Franklin).
- “The queen of England sometimes takes advice in that chamber, and sometimes tea.”
- “. . . losing her heart or her necklace at the ball” (Alexander Pope).
- “She exhausted both her audience and her repertoire.”
Personification — giving human qualities to inanimate objects: “The ground thirsts for rain; the wind whispered secrets to us.”
Prosopopoeia is a form of personification in which an inanimate object gains the ability to speak. For instance, in the Anglo-Saxon poem, “The Dream of the Rood,” the wooden cross verbally describes the death of Christ from its own point of view. Ecocritical writers might describe clearcutting from the viewpoint of the tree, and so on.
Apostrophe — (not to be confused with the punctuation mark): addressing someone or some abstraction that is not physically present: “Oh, Death, be not proud” (John Donne). “Ah, Mr. Newton, you would be pleased to see how far we have progressed in physics.”
Erotema — asking a rhetorical question to the reader: “What should honest citizens do?”
Onomatapoeia — echoic words or words that create an auditory effective similar to the sound they represent: Buzz; Click; Rattle; Clatter; Squish; Grunt.
Hyperbole — exaggeration: “His thundering shout could split rocks.” Or, “Yo’ mama’s so fat. . . .”
Meiosis — understatement (opposite of exaggeration): “I was somewhat worried when the psychopath ran toward me with a chainsaw.” (i.e., I was terrified). Litotes (especially popular in Old English) is a type of meiosis in which the writer uses a statement in the negative to create the effect: “You know, Einstein is not a bad mathematician.” (i.e., Einstein is a good mathematician.)
Anthimeria — using a different part of speech to act as another, such as a verb for a noun, or a noun for a verb, or an adjective as a verb, etc.:
- “Gift him with Sports Illustrated magazine for Christmas” (as opposed to give him).
- “he sang his didn’t, he danced his did.” (e. e. cummings)
- “I am going in search of the great perhaps” (Rabelais).
Catachresis — A completely impossible figure of speech, especially one breaking the limits of realism or grammar. For example, many figures of speech describe something biologically or physically impossible: “Joe will kittens when he hears this!” “I will sing victories for you.” Or as Milton so elegantly phrased it, catachresis is all about “blind mouths.”
For a more recent example, consider the disturbingly cheerful pop song by Foster the People, “Pumped Up Kicks,” which deals with a school shooting. Here, the shooter/narrator states, “I’ve waited for a long time. Yeah, the sleight of my hand is now a quick-pull trigger. / I reason with my cigarette.” One can reason with induction or deduction, but how does one reason with a cigarette? Here, the catachresis might evoke the idea of the “cool” kid using personal style instead of a persuasive argument, or it might evoke the imagery of torture–burning victims with a cigarette-butt to make one’s point. This sort of evocative, almost nonsensical language is the heart of good catachresis.
Catachresis is closely related to hyperbole and synaesthesia.
Synæsthesia — Mixing one type of sensory input with another in an impossible way, such as speaking of how a color sounds, or how a smell looks: “The scent of the rose rang like a bell through the garden.” “I caressed the darkness with cool fingers.”
Aporia — Talking about not being able to talk about something: “I can’t tell you how often writers use aporia.”
Aposiopesis — Breaking off as if unable to continue: “The fire surrounds them while — I cannot go on.”
Oxymoron (plural oxymora also called Paradox)– Using contradiction in a manner that oddly makes sense. Examples of oxymora include jumbo shrimp, sophisticated rednecks, and military intelligence. The best oxymora seem to reveal a deeper truth through their contradictions. For instance, “without laws, we can have no freedom.” Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar also makes use of a famous oxymoron: “Cowards die many times before their deaths” (2.2.32).
The examples in this section come from multiple sources. The first is an informal compilation given to me by Dr. Jerri Williams of West Texas State University. The second source is a wonderful collection: Figures of Speech by Arthur Quinn (I highly recommend acquiring a copy if you are serious about becoming a master rhetor). A few other examples originate in my students’ past papers. For extended examples and discussion, see Arthur Quinn’s Figures of Speech: 60 Ways to Turn a Phrase, or J. A. Cuddon’s Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, or Richard A. Lanham’s A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms, 2nd edition.