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What is a Figure of Speech?

In the English language, figures of speech are incredibly common to the extent that they are sometimes not even recognized. Most conversations contain at least one figure of speech, whether it is how ”Alex has studied non-stop all day” or that the ”sun has climbed high over the library.” A figure of speech is explaining something in terms of something else, or to phrase it differently, when using non-literal language to describe something. If ”Alex has studied non-stop all day,” chances are that they did actually take some short breaks for eating, stretching, or other needs, but this exaggeration gets the point across that they have spent a significant amount of the day studying.

Communication is rarely limited to literal explanations and descriptions because most people do not only think and communicate in straight-forward ways. A history textbook is typically less interesting than a historical fiction novel not because of the content but because of how the writer explains it, and figures of speech play a large part in this. Using figures of speech when communicating does not mean that the speaker or author does not get their point across as well; in fact, the opposite is true. While figures of speech make communication more exciting and engaging and can create a more colorful picture of what is discussed, they also improve the ability to describe what human thought and experience and to do so with more clarity.

Figure of Speech Meaning

A figure of speech is explaining one thing in terms of another thing, or using non-literal language to describe something. It improves how well ideas and experiences are communicated by providing more meaningful description, clarifying ideas, and creating more engaging and exciting language.

Figure of Speech Examples

Commonly-used phrases in English typically include some kind of figure of speech. Consider the following examples where some of these phrases appear:

  • My hands are as cold as ice.
  • She has a heart of gold.
  • The wind is whistling through the trees.
  • That’s something that everyone knows.
  • It’s -5°F? Sure, it’s a little chilly today.
  • I know that I know nothing.
  • We have a love-hate relationship.
  • After walking my beagle, I was dog-tired.
  • Wasn’t that fire drill so fun?

Types of Figures of Speech

There are numerous types of figures of speech that people use in everyday communication, whether writing or conversation. While there are similarities among them, each has its own distinctive purpose that people choose it for. Some of the most common types figures of speech are:

  • simile: using ”like” or ”as” to make a direct comparison between dissimilar two things
  • metaphor: making an indirect comparison between two dissimilar things by saying something is something else
  • personification: describing something non-human or inanimate with human-like characteristics or assigning it human-like actions
  • hyperbole: over-exaggeration, explaining something in an over-the-top way
  • understatement: under-exaggeration, downplaying something
  • paradox: stating something in a way that seems self-contradictory at face value but actually contains an element of truth
  • oxymoron: combining two dissimilar words or concepts into a short phrase
  • pun: a play on words, often using homonyms or contronyms
  • irony: a verbal way to set-up the audience to expect one thing while doing the opposite

Below is a description of each of these with some examples from literature as well as ways to distinguish between them. Whether speakers or authors take the direct route of using non-figurative language or use figures of speech to get ideas across, all language is used for the same final purpose, like the adage that ”All roads lead to Rome.”

All roads lead to Rome just like all figures of speech are used for the same reason

road sign with lines pointing multiple directions, all ending in Rome

Simile

Similes are direct comparisons between two dissimilar things or ideas that typically use ”like” or ”as.” In the list above, ”My hands are as cold as ice” is a great example of a simile. Human bodies run around 98.6°F while ice is, at most, 32°F, so it would be impossible for a healthy person to have hands that cold. However, just saying ”My hands are cold” does not get the same point across, as including the simile ”cold as ice” expresses how severely cold the person feels.

Metaphor

Like similes, metaphors make comparisons between two dissimilar things, but they do so indirectly without comparative terms like ”like” or ”as.” The example above, ”She has a heart of gold,” is a metaphor because it draws this comparison indirectly by saying something is something else: her heart = gold. Obviously, her heart is not literally made of gold; gold is a precious metal that has a lot of value, so making this comparison demonstrates how wonderful and caring of a person she is. This creates a much more solid comparison than if a simile were used here: ”She has a heart of gold” makes a lot stronger statement than ”Her heart is like gold.”

Personification

Perhaps because of how people try to relate to the world around them, one of the types of figures of speech most used is personification, or giving human-like characteristics and actions to non-human beings or inanimate objects. One might say, ”My cat was crying when I left him,” ”My computer is waking up,” or, from the list above, ”The wind is whistling through the trees.” Cats do not cry tears of sadness like humans do; computers cannot literally wake up; wind cannot actually whistle. All of these are actions that humans do, but people attribute these actions to other beings and objects to better explain and understand what they sound like or seem like.

Hyperbole

Hyperbole is simply over-exaggeration. Hyperbole is a way to express the degree to which someone experience something. For example, Avery was not just so tired that he slept for twelve and a half hours: he was so tired that he slept ”all day.” If someone says, ”That’s something that everyone knows,” they are using hyperbole or being hyperbolic because what they mean is that the information is common knowledge, but they say it in a way that literally means every person in the world actually knows it.

Understatement

Understatement is basically the opposite of hyperbole. Rather than over-exaggerating, understatement is under-exaggerating. This is usually used to downplay the significance or severity of something. Rather than saying that it is very cold outside when it is -5°F, one might say, ”It’s a little chilly today.” It is much more than a little chilly at that temperature, but describing the temperature this way downplays how cold it actually is. The Monty Python and the Holy Grail scene where King Arthur cuts off the Black Knight’s limbs one by one is a great example of understatement, as the Black Knight says, ”’Tis but a scratch!” when Arthur cuts off his arm.

Paradox

Paradoxes are one of the most complicated types of figures of speech. They state something that, at face value, seems contradictory; however, it still has an element of truth to it. In the previous list, ”I know that I know nothing” is a paradox because it is impossible for someone to know that they know nothing because that means they know something. However, it still has an element of truth because knowing that they know nothing is the first step to figuring out gaps where they need to learn. René Descartes famous saying, ”I think, therefore I am,” is a paradox because being (”I am”) is necessary for thinking, yet there is truth in the fact that thinking is necessary to truly develop one’s state of being.

Oxymoron

Oxymorons are much like paradoxes, just shorter and more concise. They combine two words or ideas that are dissimilar in a short phrase. ”We have a love-hate relationship” is an oxymoron because love and hate and antonyms, yet when they are combined, there is an element of truth of loving certain things about someone or something while hating other aspects. The same is true of ”bittersweet” and ”random selection” as both take dissimilar or even contradictory words and combine them to mean something different.

Pun

Puns are perhaps the type of figures of speech that people are most familiar with. They are, at their most basic level, a play on words. Sometimes they are intended to be humorous while other times they are intended to demonstrate some key truth or idea. From the list, ”After walking my beagle, I was dog-tired” is a pun simply for the sake of humor, and it draws on the idea of ”dog-tired” meaning ”exhausted” to make a play on words with walking the beagle, which is a type of dog.

Irony

Irony can be used in a variety of ways and provides a set-up that makes the audience expect one thing while giving them the opposite, again often involving an added element of truth. Verbal irony does this through use of words, like ”Wasn’t that fire drill so fun?” The fire drill was, of course, not fun, but irony plays on that concept to say the opposite of what is expected or thought. This ”Dead End” sign is a situational example of irony that demonstrates something that is true in more ways than one: the road ends, but there is also a graveyard at the end, which is a ”dead” end.

The irony of a dead end that continues into a graveyard

Dead End road sign before a graveyard

Uses of Common Figures of Speech

Figures of speech can be used to describe things in non-literal ways, which is why they frequently appear in literature. Figures of speech, often called figurative language or included in the broad idea of literary devices, have appeared in literature over the past few millennia. In William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, metaphor is used in Romeo’s description of Juliet, ”But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!” while simile is used in the nurse’s description of Romeo, ”I’ll warrant him, as gentle as a lamb.”

George Orwell’s Animal Farm is rife with figurative language, as he explains in a paradox that ”All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Even within this paradox, we see an example of an oxymoron with the idea of being ”more equal” since ”equal” implies there are no degrees of equality. Mark Twain writes in Life on the Mississippi that he ”could have hung my hat on my eyes, they stuck out so far,” a clear example of hyperbole matched by an excellent understatement in a journal interview that ”The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

Lesson Summary

  • A figure of speech is a non-literal expression to say something in terms of something else.
  • A simile uses ”like” or ”as” to make a direct comparison between dissimilar two things.
  • A metaphor makes an indirect comparison between two dissimilar things by saying something is something else.
  • Personification is describing something non-human or inanimate with human-like characteristics or assigning it human-like actions.
  • Hyperbole is an over-exaggeration or explaining something in an over-the-top way.
  • Understatement is an under-exaggeration or downplaying something.
  • A paradox is stating something in a way that seems self-contradictory at face value but actually contains an element of truth.
  • An oxymoron involves combining two dissimilar words or concepts into a short phrase.
  • A pun is a play on words, often using homonyms or contronyms.
  • Irony is a verbal way to set-up the audience to expect one thing while doing the opposite.
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