Definition of Figure of Speech
A figure of speech is a word or phrase that is used in a non-literal way to create an effect. This effect may be rhetorical as in the deliberate arrangement of words to achieve something poetic, or imagery as in the use of language to suggest a visual picture or make an idea more vivid. Overall, figures of speech function as literary devices because of their expressive use of language. Words are used in other ways than their literal meanings or typical manner of application.
For example, Margaret Atwood utilizes figures of speech in her poem “you fit into me” as a means of achieving poetic meaning and creating a vivid picture for the reader.
you fit into me
like a hook into an eye
a fish hook
an open eye
The simile in the first two lines sets forth a comparison between the way “you” fits into the poet like a hook and eye closure for perhaps a garment. This is an example of rhetorical effect in that the wording carefully achieves the idea of two things meant to connect to each other. In the second two lines, the wording is clarified by adding “fish” to “hook” and “open” to “eye,” which calls forth an unpleasant and even violent image. The poet’s descriptions of hooks and eyes are not meant literally in the poem. Yet the use of figurative language allows the poet to express two very different meanings and images that enhance the interpretation of the poem through contrast.
Types of Figures of Speech
The term figure of speech covers a wide range of literary devices, techniques, and other forms of figurative language, a few of which include:
Common Examples of Figures of Speech Used in Conversation
Many people use figures of speech in conversation as a way of clarifying or emphasizing what they mean. Here are some common examples of conversational figures of speech:
- I have a million things to do.
- This suitcase weighs a ton.
- This room is an ice-box.
- I’ll die if he doesn’t ask me on a date.
- I’m too poor to pay attention.
Understatement is a figure of speech that invokes less emotion than would be expected in reaction to something. This downplaying of reaction is a surprise for the reader and generally has the effect of showing irony.
- I heard she has cancer, but it’s not a big deal.
- Joe got his dream job, so that’s not too bad.
- Sue won the lottery, so she’s a bit excited.
- That condemned house just needs a coat of paint.
- The hurricane brought a couple of rain showers with it.
A paradox is a figure of speech that appears to be self-contradictory but actually reveals something truthful.
- You have to spend money to save it.
- What I’ve learned is that I know nothing.
- You have to be cruel to be kind.
- Things get worse before they get better.
- The only rule is to ignore all rules.
- A sleeping bull is called a bull-dozer.
- Baseball players eat on home plates.
- Polar bears vote at the North Poll.
- Fish are smart because they travel in schools.
- One bear told another that life without them would be grizzly.
An oxymoron is a figure of speech that connects two opposing ideas, usually in two-word phrases, to create a contradictory effect.
- open secret
- Alone together
- true lies
- controlled chaos
- pretty ugly
Common Examples of Figure of Speech in Writing
Writers also use figures of speech in their work as a means of description or developing meaning. Here are some common examples of figures of speech used in writing:
Simile is a figure of speech in which two dissimilar things are compared to each other using the terms “like” or “as.”
- She’s as pretty as a picture.
- I’m pleased as punch.
- He’s strong like an ox.
- You are sly like a fox.
- I’m happy as a clam.
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things without the use of the terms “like” or “as.”
- He is a fish out of water.
- She is a star in the sky.
- My grandchildren are the flowers of my garden.
- That story is music to my ears.
- Your words are a broken record.
Euphemism is a figure of speech that refers to figurative language designed to replace words or phrases that would otherwise be considered harsh, impolite, or unpleasant.
- Last night, Joe’s grandfather passed away (died).
- She was starting to feel over the hill (old).
- Young adults are curious about the birds and bees (sex).
- I need to powder my nose (go to the bathroom).
- Our company has decided to let you go (fire you).
Personification is a figure of speech that attributes human characteristics to something that is not human.
- I heard the wind whistling.
- The water danced across my window.
- My dog is telling me to start dinner.
- The moon is smiling at me.
- Her alarm hummed in the background.
Writing Figure of Speech
As a literary device, figures of speech enhance the meaning of written and spoken words. In oral communication, figures of speech can clarify, enhance description, and create interesting use of language. In writing, when figures of speech are used effectively, these devices enhance the writer’s ability for description and expression so that readers have a better understanding of what is being conveyed.
It’s important that writers construct effective figures of speech so that the meaning is not lost for the reader. In other words, simple rearrangement or juxtaposition of words is not effective in the way that deliberate wording and phrasing are. For example, the hyperbole “I could eat a horse” is effective in showing great hunger by using figurative language. If a writer tried the hyperbole “I could eat a barn made of licorice,” the figurative language is ineffective and the meaning would be lost for most readers.
Here are some ways that writers benefit from incorporating figures of speech into their work:
Figure of Speech as Artistic Use of Language
Effective use of figures of speech is one of the greatest demonstrations of artistic use of language. Being able to create poetic meaning, comparisons, and expressions with these literary devices is how writers form art with words.
Figure of Speech as Entertainment for Reader
Effective figures of speech often elevate the entertainment value of a literary work for the reader. Many figures of speech invoke humor or provide a sense of irony in ways that literal expressions do not. This can create a greater sense of engagement for the reader when it comes to a literary work.
Figure of Speech as Memorable Experience for Reader
By using effective figures of speech to enhance description and meaning, writers make their works more memorable for readers as an experience. Writers can often share a difficult truth or convey a particular concept through figurative language so that the reader has a greater understanding of the material and one that lasts in memory.
Examples of Figure of Speech in Literature
Works of literature feature innumerable figures of speech that are used as literary devices. These figures of speech add meaning to literature and showcase the power and beauty of figurative language. Here are some examples of figures of speech in well-known literary works:
Example 1: The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.
Fitzgerald makes use of simile here as a figure of speech to compare Gatsby’s party guests to moths. The imagery used by Fitzgerald is one of delicacy and beauty, and creates an ephemeral atmosphere. However, the likening of Gatsby’s guests to moths also reinforces the idea that they are only attracted to the sensation of the parties and that they will depart without having made any true impact or connection. This simile, as a figure of speech, underscores the themes of superficiality and transience in the novel.
Example 2: One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
Both described at the same time how it was always March there and always Monday, and then they understood that José Arcadio Buendía was not as crazy as the family said, but that he was the only one who had enough lucidity to sense the truth of the fact that time also stumbled and had accidents and could therefore splinter and leave an eternalized fragment in a room.
In this passage, Garcia Marquez utilizes personification as a figure of speech. Time is personified as an entity that “stumbled” and “had accidents.” This is an effective use of figurative language in that this personification of time indicates a level of human frailty that is rarely associated with something so measured. In addition, this is effective in the novel as a figure of speech because time has a great deal of influence on the plot and characters of the story. Personified in this way, the meaning of time in the novel is enhanced to the point that it is a character in and of itself.
Example 3: Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury)
A book is a loaded gun in the house next door…Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?
In this passage, Bradbury utilizes metaphor as a figure of speech to compare a book to a loaded gun. This is an effective literary device for this novel because, in the story, books are considered weapons of free thought and possession of them is illegal. Of course, Bradbury is only stating that a book is a loaded gun as a means of figurative, not literal meaning. This metaphor is particularly powerful because the comparison is so unlikely; books are generally not considered to be dangerous weapons. However, the comparison does have a level of logic in the context of the story in which the pursuit of knowledge is weaponized and criminalized.