Figures of Speech

Figures of Speech

Figures of speech are metaphorical phrases used to suggest a deeper meaning of an idea or thought. Figures of speech are adopted by most native speakers without a second thought, as they are intrinsically tied to casual, native communication patterns. The term figure of speech can be used to describe a host of different phrases, but is perhaps best explained by identifying its opposite: a literal phrase or sentence. Figures of speech are not literal, but instead work to convey an idea or a thought without stating it outright.

The Many Types of Figures of Speech

Although figures of speech are more commonly used in casual conversations, it is important to understand the many figures of speech found in the English language. These phrases frequently permeate professional and even educational writing, as well, because figures of speech include similes, alliteration, personification, paradoxes, and metaphors, and often use irony in order to get the point across. Although they are common enough to be found in the vocabularies of most native speakers, they frequently employ more complex types of speech than might immediately be evident.

Here’s a list of ten of the most commonly used types of figures of speech with the function and an example of each.

Type How It Works Example
alliteration Alliteration is when the same
letter or sound is used repeatedly
in a sentence.
“Sally sells seashells by the seashore.”
hyperbole The word hyperbole is a
synonym for exaggeration.
“That mosquito was the size of
a truck”
irony Although there are many types
of irony, irony in its broadest
form is when a situation, phrase,
or idea goes against what is
“In The Gift of the Magi, a husband
gives his wife a set of combs for
her hair by selling his watch, but she
had already sold her hair to purchase
her husband a chain for his watch.”
metaphor A metaphor compares two seemingly
unlike things without using like
or as.
“Her cheeks were roses, her smile a
piercing set of thorns.”
oxymoron An oxymoron pairs two opposing
“Passive-aggressive”. “Freezer burn.”
onomatopoeia Onomatopoeia describes words that
sound similar to what they are
“Bang!” “Gulp.”
paradox A paradox occurs when a sentence
contains thoughts or ideas that
seem to contradict each other.
“You most effectively save money by
spending it”
personification Personification assigns human traits
to non-human entities.
“The car’s engine sighed as it drove,
groaning under the strain of its task”
pun A pun uses a word with multiple
meanings for comic effect.
“A man walked into a bar. Ouch.”
simile A simile is a comparison using the
words like or as.
“You dance as gracefully as a swan;
your feet feel light as a feather.”

Common Figures of Speech

Perhaps one of the most easily recognized figures of speech is the phrase piece of cake. When someone declares, “That was a piece of cake!”, they are not literally suggesting that a situation or task is a piece of cake; instead, they are suggesting that a task or event is easy.

Similarly, when someone says “I have a ton on my mind,” they are not suggesting there is literally a one-ton weight pressing on their brain. Instead, they are suggesting that they are thinking about a lot of different things (or have a lot of things “running through”) their mind.

If you are alert for figures of speech as you read, you will discover many more of them in common use.

Recognizing Figures of Speech

Recognizing figures of speech is often as simple as asking the simple question: is this literal? Most non-literal speech falls under the umbrella of figure of speech, regardless of the exact name for the figure in question. Although simile and metaphor are frequently recognized as items used in poetry and prose, they are only a couple of examples in the broader category of figures of speech.

Figures of Speech

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