A trope (TROWpuh) is a figure of speech that allows words to deviate in some way from their literal meaning so they’re understood in a figurative way. Tropes often utilize comparison or association to shift readers away from the denotative definition of words and towards a more multifaceted meaning. Tropes appear in all genres of literature, as well as everyday speech, advertising, and political rhetoric.
The word trope first appeared in English in the 1530s. It derived from the Latin tropus, which meant “figure of speech,” and originated in the Greek word tropos, which meant “a turn, direction, way; fashion, manner.”
Types of Tropes
There are many different tropes. However, they can be separated into five categories: inversion, overstatement/understatement, reference, substitution, and wordplay/puns:
- Irony: This occurs when words or events convey something different—often the opposite—of their actual meaning. There are three different types of irony: verbal, situational, and dramatic.
- Oxymoron: This figure of speech uses contradictory words as a paired unit. Consider how Alfred Lord Tennyson describes Sir Lancelot in Idylls of the King: “His honour rooted in dishonour stood / And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true.” Even though Lancelot is the most loyal and honorable of King Arthur’s knights, his forbidden affair with the queen undercuts that image, making him “falsely true.”
- Paradox: A paradox is when one uses contradictory ideas to make a valid point.
- Synesthesia: This device takes words specific to one of the five senses and uses them to describe a different sense. For example, describing the sound of someone’s voice as “honeyed,” when honey is something associated with taste.
- Grandiloquence: This is the use of pompous or grandiose speech.
- Hyperbole: This is an extreme exaggeration for dramatic or comedic effect; for example, saying “I was waiting in line forever” or “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.”
- Litotes: This figure of speech affirms an idea by contradicting its opposite. For example, conveying the idea that your cappuccino is delicious by saying “This cappuccino isn’t bad” is litotes.
- Satire: This is a genre of literary works wherein criticism of a society is conveyed through humorous means—often portraying a wild idea as if it were valid.
- Allegory: This is a story with a hidden moral, political, or cultural message. The characters and plots of allegories often symbolize real-life people, events, and ideas, but they don’t explicitly state the comparison. Allegories can be historical, such as George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm, or conceptual, such as C. S. Lewis’s book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
- Allusion: This is a reference within the text to another creative work. For example, W. H. Auden makes an allusion to Pieter Brueghel’s painting “The Fall of Icarus” within his poem “Musee des Beaux Arts”
- Metaphor: This figure of speech is an implicit comparison between two different things, used for poetic or dramatic effect. Metaphors are most associated with literature, but they appear in everyday life as well; for example, when we say things like “I’m such a pig” after overeating or describe a trusted and supportive friend as being “my rock.”
- Personification: Writers employ personification when they give qualities of greater animation to less animate concepts, objects, or animals. It’s frequently defined as “giving human qualities to non-human entities,” such as when you say, “That dog is smiling” or “The wind is laughing.” Personification also includes non-human comparisons, such as when T.S. Eliot likens the London fog to a cat in his poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
- Simile: Similar to metaphor, this figure of speech is an explicit comparison between two things using like or as. Though primarily associated with poetry, we actually encounter similes all the time—in movies (the famous Forrest Gump line “Life is like a box of chocolates”), marketing (State Farm Insurance’s slogan “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there”), music (The lyric “My heart cold like assassins” from Jay-Z’s song “Big Pimpin’”), political discourse (“America is a melting pot”), and everyday speech (“I’m as busy as a bee”).
- Euphemism: When people replace a harsh, taboo, or unpleasant term with more delicate phrasing, that is a euphemism. For instance, saying someone has “a bun in the oven” is a more delicate way of saying they’re pregnant.
- Metonymy: This is when a word or term is replaced by something associated with it. In the phrase “The pen is mightier than the sword,” for example, pen stands in for the concept of diplomacy while sword is a substitute for the concept of warfare.
- Synecdoche: When you refer to a whole by its part(s) or a part by the whole, that is synecdoche. Some examples are referring to someone’s car as their “wheels” or saying “all hands on deck” when asking everyone around for help.
Wordplay / Puns
- Innuendo: This is a word, phrase, or sentence that contains a hidden (and often sexually suggestive) meaning.
- Malapropism: This occurs when one confuses a word with a similar word; for example, saying “A rolling stone gathers no moths” rather than the correct “A rolling stone gathers no moss.”
- Paraprosdokian: This literary device refers to an unexpected twist at the end of a phrase or sentence, leading to a surprising—and frequently humorous—ending.
- Pun: This is wordplay that takes advantage of multiple meanings of a word or words that sound similar for humorous effect.
Why Writers Use Tropes
Tropes add layers of meaning and aesthetic complexity to a writer’s work. They can heighten the imagery of a text or create additional emotional resonance. Tropes enable writers to explore familiar concepts, emotions, and situations with a fresh perspective, keeping the readers engaged.
Trope vs. Cliché
The word trope has a secondary meaning that is almost synonymous with cliché, as it’s used to indicate a familiar pattern, concept, image, or device. This colloquial usage generally occurs more in the realm of cultural criticism rather than in literature. As such, this instance of trope doesn’t require a layer of figurative meaning the way that literary tropes do.
A significant difference between cliché and this secondary meaning of trope is that clichés are considered overused and best avoided, while tropes don’t carry the same stigma. Instead, tropes are simply seen as recurrent and recognizable devices, similar to archetypes.
Examples of Tropes in Literature
1. William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
In Act II, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s tragic romance, Romeo stands in the Capulets’ orchard, looking at his beloved Juliet’s window, and says:
But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
These two lines contain a metaphor because Romeo is comparing Juliet to the sun.
2. Maya Angelou, “Still I Rise”
Angelou uses similes throughout her poem:
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
In this trope, Angelou is explicitly making a comparison between her ability to rise above obstacles and the way dust rises when disturbed.
3. Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal
In Swift’s famous essay, he proposes that the best way to solve the problem of childhood poverty is to eat the poor children:
I have been assured…that a young healthy child well nursed is, at a year
old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed,
roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve
in a fricassee, or a ragoust.
Swift is using satire to critique the cruelty of the society he lives in, which ignores the suffering of the poor. By writing an outlandish proposal, he hopes to evoke compassion for the poor.
Further Resources on Trope
The popular YouTube channel bookslikewhoa did a great video called “Know Your Tropes: Literary Fiction,” which addresses tropes in the colloquial sense.
Rhetorica.net has a wonderful list of tropes and schemes in classical rhetoric.