Figure of speech  

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Pablo Neruda: [after reading a poem] What do you think?
Mario Ruoppolo: I felt seasick, in fact.
Mario Ruoppolo: I can't explain it. I felt a boat tossing around on those words.
Pablo Neruda: Do you know what you've done, Mario?
Mario Ruoppolo: No, what?
Pablo Neruda: You've invented a metaphor. Yes, you have!

--Il Postino

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A figure of speech is the use of a word or words diverging from its usual meaning. It can also be a special repetition, arrangement or omission of words with literal meaning, or a phrase with a specialized meaning not based on the literal meaning of the words in it, as in idiom, metaphor, simile, hyperbole, or personification. Figures of speech often provide emphasis, freshness of expression, or clarity. However, clarity may also suffer from their use, as any figure of speech introduces an ambiguity between literal and figurative interpretation. A figure of speech is sometimes called a rhetorical figure or a locution.

Not all theories of meaning have a concept of "literal language" (see literal and figurative language). Under theories that do not, figure of speech is not an entirely coherent concept.

Rhetoric originated as the study of the ways in which a source text can be transformed to suit the goals of the person reusing the material. For this goal, classical rhetoric detected four fundamental operations that can be used to transform a sentence or a larger portion of a text: expansion, abridgement, switching, and transferring.


The four fundamental operations

rhetorical operations

The four fundamental operations, or categories of change, governing the formation of all figures of speech are:

  • addition (adiectio), also called repetition/expansion/superabundance
  • omission (detractio), also called subtraction/abridgement/lack
  • transposition (transmutatio), also called transferring
  • permutation (immutatio), also called switching/interchange/substitution/transmutation

These four operations were detected by classical rhetoricians, and still serve to encompass the various figures of speech. Originally these were called, in Latin, the four operations of quadripartita ratio. The ancient surviving text mentioning them, although not recognizing them as the four fundamental principles, is the Rhetorica ad Herennium, of unknown authorship, where they are called πλεονασμός (addition), ἔνδεια (omission), μετάθεσις (transposition) and ἐναλλαγή (permutation).


The figure of speech comes in many varieties. The aim is to use the language inventively to accentuate the effect of what is being said. A few examples follow:

  • "Round the rugged rocks the ragged rascal ran" is an example of alliteration, where the consonant r is used repeatedly. Whereas, "Sister Suzy sewing socks for soldiers" is a particular form of alliteration called sibilance, because it repeats the letter s. Both are commonly used in poetry.
  • "She would run up the stairs and then a new set of curtains" is a variety of zeugma called a syllepsis. Run up refers to ascending and also to manufacturing. The effect is enhanced by the momentary suggestion, through a pun, that she might be climbing up the curtains. The ellipsis or omission of the second use of the verb makes the reader think harder about what is being said.
  • "Military Intelligence is an oxymoron" is the use of direct sarcasm to suggest that the military would have no intelligence. This might be considered to be a satire and a terse aphorism. "But he's a soldier, so he has to be an Einstein" is the use of sarcasm through irony for the same effect. The use of hyperbole by using the word Einstein calls attention to the ironic intent. An Einstein is an example of synechdoche, as it uses a particular name to represent a class of people: geniuses.
  • "I had butterflies in my stomach" is a metaphor, referring to my nervousness feeling as if there were flying insects in my stomach. To say "it was like having some butterflies in my stomach" would be a simile, because it uses the word like which is missing in the metaphor.

Categories of figures of speech

Scholars of classical Western rhetoric have divided figures of speech into two main categories: schemes and tropes. Schemes (from the Greek schēma, form or shape) are figures of speech that change the ordinary or expected pattern of words. For example, the phrase, "John, my best friend" uses the scheme known as apposition. Tropes (from the Greek tropein, to turn) change the general meaning of words. An example of a trope is irony, which is the use of words to convey the opposite of their usual meaning ("For Brutus is an honorable man; / So are they all, all honorable men").

During the Renaissance, scholars meticulously enumerated and classified figures of speech. Henry Peacham, for example, in his The Garden of Eloquence (1577), enumerated 184 different figures of speech. Professor Robert DiYanni, in his book "Literature - Reading Fiction, Poetry, Drama and the Essay" wrote: "Rhetoricians have catalogued more than 250 different figures of speech, expressions or ways of using words in a nonliteral sense.".

For simplicity, this article divides the figures between schemes and tropes, but does not further sub-classify them (e.g., "Figures of Disorder"). Within each category, words are listed alphabetically. Most entries link to a page that provides greater detail and relevant examples, but a short definition is placed here for convenience. Some of those listed may be considered rhetorical devices, which are similar in many ways.


Scheme (linguistics)
  • accumulation: Summary of previous arguments in a forceful manner
  • adnomination: Repetition of a word with a change in letter or sound
  • alliteration: Series of words that begin with the same consonant or sound alike
  • adynaton: hyperbole taken to such extreme lengths as to suggest a complete impossibility.
  • anacoluthon: Change in the syntax within a sentence
  • anadiplosis: Repetition of a word at the end of a clause at the beginning of another
  • anaphora: Repetition of the same word or group of words at the beginning of successive clauses
  • anastrophe: Inversion of the usual word order
  • anticlimax: Arrangement of words in order of decreasing importance
  • antimetabole: Repetition of words in successive clauses, in reverse order
  • antistrophe: Repetition of the same word or phrase at the end of successive clauses (see epistrophe)
  • antithesis: Juxtaposition of opposing or contrasting ideas
  • aphorismus: Statement that calls into question the definition of a word
  • aposiopesis: Breaking off or pausing speech for dramatic or emotional effect
  • apostrophe: Directing the attention away from the audience and to a personified abstraction
  • apposition: Placing of two elements side by side, in which the second defines the first
  • assonance: Repetition of vowel sounds, most commonly within a short passage of verse
  • asteismus: Facetious or mocking answer that plays on a word
  • asyndeton: Omission of conjunctions between related clauses
  • cacophony: Juxtaposition of words producing a harsh sound
  • cataphora: Co-reference of one expression with another expression which follows it (example: If you need one, there's a towel in the top drawer.)
  • classification: Linking a proper noun and a common noun with an article
  • chiasmus: Word order in one clause is inverted in the other (inverted parallelism).
  • climax: Arrangement of words in order of increasing importance
  • commoratio: Repetition of an idea, re-worded
  • consonance: Repetition of consonant sounds, most commonly within a short passage of verse
  • dystmesis: A synonym for tmesis
  • ellipsis: Omission of words
  • enallage: Substitution of forms that are grammatically different, but have the same meaning
  • enjambment: Breaking of a syntactic unit (a phrase, clause, or sentence) by the end of a line or between two verses
  • enthymeme: Informal method of presenting a syllogism
  • epanalepsis: Repetition of the initial word or words of a clause or sentence at the end of the clause or sentence
  • epistrophe: (also known as antistrophe) Repetition of the same word or group of words at the end of successive clauses. The counterpart of anaphora
  • euphony: Opposite of cacophony - i.e. pleasant sounding
  • hendiadys: Use of two nouns to express an idea when the normal structure would be a noun and a modifier
  • hendiatris: Use of three nouns to express one idea
  • homeoptoton: in a flexive language the use the first and last words of a sentence in the same forms
  • homographs: Words that are identical in spelling but different in origin and meaning
  • homonyms: Words that are identical with each other in pronunciation and spelling, but differing in origin and meaning
  • homophones:Words that are identical with each other in pronunciation but differing in origin and meaning
  • hypallage: Changing the order of words so that they are associated with words normally associated with others
  • hyperbaton: Schemes featuring unusual or inverted word order
  • hyperbole: Exaggeration of a statement
  • hysteron proteron: The inversion of the usual temporal or causal order between two elements
  • isocolon: Use of parallel structures of the same length in successive clauses
  • internal rhyme: Using two or more rhyming words in the same sentence
  • kenning: A metonymic compound where the terms together form a sort of anecdote
  • merism: Referring to a whole by enumerating some of its parts
  • non sequitur: Statement that bears no relationship to the context preceding
  • onomatopoeia: Word that imitates a real sound (e.g. tick-tock or boom)
  • paradiastole: Repetition of the disjunctive pair "neither" and "nor"
  • parallelism: The use of similar structures in two or more clauses
  • paraprosdokian: Unexpected ending or truncation of a clause
  • parenthesis: Insertion of a clause or sentence in a place where it interrupts the natural flow of the sentence
  • paroemion: Resolute alliteration in which every word in a sentence or phrase begins with the same letter
  • parrhesia: Speaking openly or boldly, or apologizing for doing so (declaring to do so)
  • perissologia: The fault of wordiness
  • pleonasm: Use of superfluous or redundant words
  • polyptoton: Repetition of words derived from the same root
  • polysyndeton: Repetition of conjunctions
  • pun: When a word or phrase is used in two(or more) different senses
  • sibilance: Repetition of letter 's', it is a form of alliteration
  • sine dicendo: A statement that is so obvious it need not be stated, and if stated, it seems almost pointless (e.g. 'It's always in the last place you look.')
  • superlative: Declaring something the best within its class i.e. the ugliest,the most precious
  • spoonerism: Interchanging of (usually initial) letters of words with amusing effect
  • symploce: Simultaneous use of anaphora and epistrophe: the repetition of the same word or group of words at the beginning and the end of successive clauses
  • synchysis: Interlocked word order
  • synesis: Agreement of words according to the sense, and not the grammatical form
  • synizesis: Pronunciation of two juxtaposed vowels or diphthongs as a single sound
  • synonymia: Use of two or more synonyms in the same clause or sentence
  • tautology: Redundancy due to superfluous qualification; saying the same thing twice
  • tmesis: Division of the elements of a compound word
  • zeugma: The using of one verb for two actions


  • allegory: Extended metaphor in which a story is told to illustrate an important attribute of the subject
  • alliteration: Repetition of the first consonant sound in a phrase.
  • allusion: Indirect reference to another work of literature or art
  • anacoenosis: Posing a question to an audience, often with the implication that it shares a common interest with the speaker
  • antanaclasis: A form of pun in which a word is repeated in two different senses
  • anthimeria: Substitution of one part of speech for another, often turning a noun into a verb
  • anthropomorphism: Ascribing human characteristics to something that is not human, such as an animal or a god (see zoomorphism)
  • antimetabole: Repetition of words in successive clauses, but in transposed grammatical order
  • antiphrasis: Word or words used contradictory to their usual meaning, often with irony
  • antonomasia: Substitution of a phrase for a proper name or vice versa
  • aphorism: Tersely phrased statement of a truth or opinion, an adage
  • apophasis: Invoking an idea by denying its invocation
  • apostrophe: Addressing a thing, an abstraction or a person not present
  • archaism: Use of an obsolete, archaic, word (a word used in olden language, e.g. Shakespeare's language)
  • auxesis: Form of hyperbole, in which a more important sounding word is used in place of a more descriptive term
  • catachresis: Mixed metaphor (sometimes used by design and sometimes a rhetorical fault)
  • circumlocution: "Talking around" a topic by substituting or adding words, as in euphemism or periphrasis
  • commiseration: Evoking pity in the audience
  • correctio: Linguistic device used for correcting one's mistakes, a form of which is epanorthosis
  • denominatio: Another word for metonymy
  • double negative: Grammar construction that can be used as an expression and it is the repetition of negative words
  • dysphemism: Substitution of a harsher, more offensive, or more disagreeable term for another. Opposite of euphemism
  • epanorthosis: Immediate and emphatic self-correction, often following a slip of the tongue
  • enumeratio: A form of amplification in which a subject is divided, detailing parts, causes, effects, or consequences to make a point more forcibly
  • epanados: Repetition in a sentence with a reversal of words. Example: The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath
  • erotema: Synonym for rhetorical question
  • euphemism: Substitution of a less offensive or more agreeable term for another
  • exclamation: An emphatic parenthetic addition that is complete in itself, exclamation differs from interjection in that it usually involves an emotional response.
  • hermeneia: Repetition for the purpose of interpreting what has already been said
  • hyperbaton: Words that naturally belong together are separated from each other for emphasis or effect
  • hyperbole: Use of exaggerated terms for emphasis
  • hypocatastasis: An implication or declaration of resemblance that does not directly name both terms
  • hypophora: Answering one's own rhetorical question at length
  • hysteron proteron: Reversal of anticipated order of events; a form of hyperbaton
  • innuendo: Having a hidden meaning in a sentence that makes sense whether it is detected or not
  • inversion: A reversal of normal word order, especially the placement of a verb ahead of the subject (subject-verb inversion).
  • invocation: Apostrophe to a god or muse
  • irony: Use of word in a way that conveys a meaning opposite to its usual meaning
  • kataphora: Repetition of a cohesive device at the end
  • litotes: Emphasizing the magnitude of a statement by denying its opposite
  • malapropism: Using a word through confusion with a word that sounds similar
  • meiosis: Use of understatement, usually to diminish the importance of something
  • merism: Statement of opposites to indicate reality
  • metalepsis: Referring to something through reference to another thing to which it is remotely related
  • metaphor: Stating one entity is another for the purpose of comparing them in quality
  • metonymy: Substitution of an associated word to suggest what is really meant
  • neologism: The use of a word or term that has recently been created, or has been in use for a short time. Opposite of archaism
  • onomatopoeia: Words that sound like their meaning
  • oxymoron: Using two terms together, that normally contradict each other
  • parable: Extended metaphor told as an anecdote to illustrate or teach a moral lesson
  • paradox: Use of apparently contradictory ideas to point out some underlying truth
  • paradiastole: Extenuating a vice in order to flatter or soothe
  • paraprosdokian: Phrase in which the latter part causes a rethinking or reframing of the beginning
  • parallel irony: An ironic juxtaposition of sentences or situations (informal)
  • paralipsis: Drawing attention to something while pretending to pass it over
  • paronomasia: A form of pun, in which words similar in sound but with different meanings are used
  • pathetic fallacy: Using a word that refers to a human action on something non-human
  • periphrasis: Using several words instead of few
  • personification/prosopopoeia/anthropomorphism: Attributing or applying human qualities to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena
  • praeteritio: Another word for paralipsis
  • procatalepsis: Refuting anticipated objections as part of the main argument
  • prolepsis: Another word for procatalepsis
  • proslepsis: Extreme form of paralipsis in which the speaker provides great detail while feigning to pass over a topic
  • proverb: Succinct or pithy expression of what is commonly observed and believed to be true
  • pun: Play on words that will have two meanings
  • repetition: Repeated usage of word(s)/group of words in the same sentence to create a poetic/rhythmic effect
  • rhetorical question: Asking a question as a way of asserting something. Asking a question which already has the answer hidden in it. Or asking a question not for the sake of getting an answer but for asserting something (or as in a poem for creating a poetic effect)
  • satire: Use of irony, sarcasm, ridicule, or the like, in exposing, denouncing, or deriding vice, folly, etc. A literary composition, in verse or prose, in which human folly and vice are held up to scorn, derision, or ridicule. A literary genre comprising such compositions
  • simile: Comparison between two things using like or as
  • snowclone: Quoted or misquoted cliché or phrasal template
  • superlative: Saying that something is the best of something or has the most of some quality, e.g. the ugliest, the most precious etc.
  • syllepsis: Form of pun, in which a single word is used to modify two other words, with which it normally would have differing meanings
  • syncatabasis (condescension, accommodation): adaptation of style to the level of the audience
  • synecdoche: Form of metonymy, in which a part stands for the whole
  • synesthesia: Description of one kind of sense impression by using words that normally describe another.
  • tautology: Needless repetition of the same sense in different words Example: The children gathered in a round circle
  • transferred epithet: Placing of an adjective with what appears to be the incorrect noun
  • truism: a self-evident statement
  • tricolon diminuens: Combination of three elements, each decreasing in size
  • tricolon crescens: Combination of three elements, each increasing in size
  • zeugma: A figure of speech related to syllepsis, but different in that the word used as a modifier is not compatible with one of the two words it modifies
  • zoomorphism: Applying animal characteristics to humans or gods

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Figure of speech" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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