Figure of Speech

What Is a Figure of Speech? Definition, Usage, and Literary Examples

Figure of Speech Definition


Figures of speech (FIG-yurs of SPEEchuh) are words or phrases used in a non-literal sense for rhetorical effect. They are often constructed using literary devices such as metaphor, simile, alliteration, metonymy, synecdoche, and personification. Figures of speech allow writers to apply familiar ideas and imagery to less familiar concepts, and they are widespread in written and spoken language.


Figure of Speech Categories


Figures of speech fall into two broad categories: tropes and scheme. These are dozens of figures of speech that fall into each category, so the following are a select few examples.



These are figures of speech that play with syntax, sound, and words. They often achieve their effects by utilizing repetition of words, phrases, or sounds; omission of words or punctuation; unexpected changes in word order; or paired identical grammatical structures.


  • Alliteration: Repeating consonant sounds in a series of words
  • Diacope: Repeating words or phrases, interrupted by one or two other words
  • Homonyms: Identical words that have different meanings
  • Sibilance: Repeating hissing sounds


  • Asyndeton: Omitting conjunctions between related series of clauses
  • Brachylogia: Omitting conjunctions between individual words
  • Ellipsis: Omitting words without losing context or understanding
  • Syncope: Omitting word or phrase parts

Changes in Word Order

  • Anastrophe: Rearranging the subject, object and verb order in a phrase
  • Apposition: Two phrases, often separated by commas, where the second defines the first
  • Parenthesis: A rhetorical, qualifying phrase inserted into a sentence or passage
  • Spoonerism: Switching syllables between two words

Paired Grammatical Structures

  • Antithesis: Juxtaposing ideas
  • Isocolon: Consecutive phrases of identical length in words or syllables
  • Parallelism: Similar grammatical structure between two or more clauses
  • Tricolon: Three consecutive phrases of identical length in words or syllables



These are figures of speech that deviate in some way from the literal meanings of words. They tend to include association or comparison to shift readers’ perceptions from words’ true definitions to a layered figurative meaning. They can be broken into five categories: reference, word play/puns, substitutions, overstatement/understatement, and inversion.


  • Allegory: A narrative that is an indirect metaphor for a broader, real-world concept
  • Allusion: An intertextual reference to another creative work
  • Metaphor: A direct comparison between two unrelated things
  • Personification: Attributing human characteristics to non-human entities

Word Play/Puns

  • Innuendo: A phrase or sentence with a hidden (often salacious) meaning
  • Malapropism: Confusing a word with a similar sounding one
  • Paraprosdokian: An unexpected ending to a phrase
  • Pun: Word play that makes use of a word’s multiple meanings


  • Dysphemism: Using a harsh word or phrase to replace a gentler one
  • Euphemism: Using a more agreeable word or phrase to replace an offensive one
  • Metonymy: Replacing a word or term with something associated with it
  • Synecdoche: Referring to a whole by its part(s) or vice versa


  • Grandiloquence: Speech that is pompous or grandiose
  • Hyperbole: An emphatic exaggeration
  • Litotes: Emphasizing a statement by negating its opposite
  • Satire: Criticism of society through humorous means


  • Irony: Conveying the opposite of a word’s literal meaning
  • Oxymoron: Using contradictory words together
  • Paradox: Using contradictory ideas to make a point
  • Synesthesia: Using sensory-specific words to describe a different sense


Most Common Figures of Speech


The following are some of the most common figures of speech that appear in literature and other written forms.

  • Alliteration: This is a scheme that uses repetition of the same first consonant sound to create a musical effect. “Francine found France quite lovely” is an example of alliteration because of the repeating f sound in the words Francine, found, and France.
  • Apostrophe: With apostrophe, a speaker directly addresses an inanimate object, an abstract concept, or a person who is either imaginary or not present. John Donne use apostrophe in his poem “Holy Sonnet: Death, be not proud,” wherein he speaks directly to a personified idea of death.
  • Chiasmus: This is a scheme where the second half of an expression is balanced against the first half in a reversed order. “You should eat to live, not live to eat” is one example; it repeats the words eat and live but reverses the order the second time they occur.
  • Euphemism: This literary device takes a mild or indirect word or expression and replaces something harsh, unpleasant, or offensive with it. Saying someone passed on is a euphemism for died; powder my nose is a euphemism for go to the bathroom.
  • Hyperbole: This is the use of exaggeration for emphasis or heightened effect. “If I don’t nap right now, I will die” is a hyperbolic statement; it conveys the experience of feeling tired, but readers understand the speaker won’t literally die.
  • Irony: This literary device occurs when words are used to convey the opposite of their meaning or when a situation seems directly contrary to what is expected. Famously, Alanis Morissette’s song “Ironic” lists many situations she deems ironic when they aren’t ironic at all; thus, irony.
  • Litotes: This figure of speech refers to a type of understatement. It is used to negate a statement in a way that actually affirms it. For example, saying “That’s no small chunk of change” indicates that the sum in question is, in fact, large.
  • Metaphor: A form of trope, metaphors make an implicit comparison between two unrelated things. “Love is a battlefield” is metaphoric, as it implies the experience of being in love is the same as being on a battlefield.
  • Onomatopoeia: Words that are onomatopoeic evoke the sounds of the thing they are referring to. Hiss, crash, and tick tock are all examples because they sound like what they are describing—the sound of a snake, thunder, and a clock, respectively.
  • Oxymoron: This literary device consists of contradictory words paired together. Although the words initially appear to negate each other, they make sense when joined. Deafening silence is an oxymoronic pair; the adjective deafening means “a volume so high that nothing can be heard over it,” and the noun silence means “without sound.” These words are incongruous, but together they mean an overbearing, noticeable absence of sound.
  • Personification: When greater qualities of animation are given to a non-human or inanimate object, that is personification. In T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” fog is described as “The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes/The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes.” Here, Eliot is personifying the fog by giving it the attributes of a cat.
  • Pun: This is a humorous play on words, often using homonyms, homographs, or homophones. For example, “I’ve been to the dentist many times, so I know the drill” is a pun; it plays with the double meaning of the word drill as a tool of the dentistry trade and as a concept of something being routine.
  • Simile: Related to metaphors, similes are explicit comparisons made using the words like or as. “Lucille’s dress was as red as a fire truck” makes an explicit comparison between the color of the dress and the color of a fire truck. This allows the reader to properly visualize what Lucille is wearing.
  • Synecdoche: This is a figure of speech wherein a part of something stands in for the whole thing. “All hands on deck” is a synecdoche because hands stands in for the whole crew of a ship.”


Figure of Speech and Figurative Language


People often use the terms figurative language and figure of speech interchangeably; however, they are not the same. Instead, figurative language is a broad category that contains figures of speech, as well as imagery and sound devices.

Imagery adds additional aesthetic resonance to texts through the evocation of sensory details. Sound devices enhance the text through sonic means. These elements, in conjunction with figures of speech, give a deeper meaning to the language a writer uses in their work.


Why Figures of Speech Are Used


These literary devices emphasize, embellish, or clarify written or spoken language. They allow an audience to understand ideas through implied or suggested meaning, thus giving the language a more surprising, creative, and playful effect. Some figures of speech enhance imagery, while others allow writers to employ rich cultural traditions to express their ideas. Even further, other figures of speech allow writers to experiment with structure and sound to create specific effects. No matter which type is used, the expressive quality of figures of speech helps keep audiences engaged.


Examples of Figures of Speech in Literature


1. Hafizah Geter, “Testimony

Geter begins her poem:

Mr. President,
After they shot me they tackled my sister.
the sound of her knees hitting the sidewalk
made my stomach ache. It was a bad pain.

The poem is a dramatic monologue spoken by Tamir Rice, a 12-year old black child who was killed by police officers who mistook his toy gun for a real one. This poem uses apostrophe as the speaker, Tamir, talks directly to “Mr. President” (then president Barack Obama).

2. William Shakespeare, Macbeth

In Act III, Scene iii., of this play, before King Duncan’s murder is discovered, Lennox and Macbeth converse:

LENNOX: The night has been unruly: where we lay,
Our chimneys were blown down: and, as they say,
Lamentings heard i’the air; strange screams of death,
And prophesying with accents terrible
Of fire combustion and confused events
New hatch’d to the woeful time: the obscure bird
Clamour’d the livelong night: some say, the earth
Was feverous and did shake.

MACBETH: ‘Twas a rough night.

LENNOX: My young remembrance cannot parallel
A fellow to it.

Pathetic fallacy is a type of trope. It occurs when human feelings and attributes are ascribed to nature. This figure of speech is used throughout this Shakespearean tragedy. In this particular scene, Lennox describes how terrible and strange the weather was on the evening of the murder. The way the wind and earth seem to embody the horror of King Duncan’s death is pathetic fallacy.

3. Karl Marx, Das Kapital

In Part I (“Commodities and Money”) of Marx’s treatise on economics, philosophy, history, and political science, he claims:

In the pre-capitalist stages of society, commerce rules industry. In capitalist society, industry rules commerce.

These two sentences are an example of chiasmus. Here, “commerce” first rules “industry,” and then “industry” rules “commerce.” By reversing the order of these words/concepts, Marx employs chiasmus.

4. Toni Morrison, Sula

The last line of Morrison’s novel is considered by some to be one of the best lines in fiction and nonfiction. The sentence describes protagonist Nel’s grief at the death of her childhood friend Sula:

It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.

This sentence is rich in alliteration: “loud and long” contain L sounds at the beginning, as well as the repetition of c and s sounds with cry, circles, circles, and sorrow. The latter is also an example of sibilance.

5. Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

In Wilde’s play, the main characters John Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff pose as men named Ernest, only for Jack to learn that his given name really is Ernest. He delivers the final line of the play:

On the contrary, Aunt Augusta, I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital importance of being Earnest.

Jack/Ernest’s declaration is a homographic pun. It means both that he understands the importance of being Ernest (his real name), as well as the importance of being earnest (sincere).

6. Aimee Nezhukumatathil, “On Listening to Your Teacher Take Attendance

In this poem, Nezhukumatathil describes the experience of one’s name being mispronounced by a teacher taking attendance:

….And when
everyone turns around to check out

your face, no need to flush red and warm.
Just picture all the eyes as if your classroom

is one big scallop with its dozens of icy blues
and you will remember that winter your family

took you to the China see and you sank
your face in it to gaze at baby clams and sea stars

She uses a simile, “Just picture all the eyes as if your classroom/is one big scallop with its dozens of icy blues,” to explicitly compare the staring kids to the dozens of eyes that a sea scallop has.


Further Resources on Figure of Speech


Thought Catalog has a wonderful list of figures of speech used by Homer Simpson in The Simpsons.

Jamcampus published a great list of twenty examples of metaphors in popular songs.

This is an entertaining round up of oxymorons.


Related Terms