Figures of Speech


1. Definition

2. Category

3. Simile

4. Metaphor

5. Metonymy

6. Synecdoche

7. Personification

8. The functions of figures of speech


According to the Oxford Dictionary of English, a figure of speech is a word or phrase used in a non-literal sense for persuasive or impressive effect. In other words, figures of speech imply or suggest rather than state directly what the writer intends to say. Figures of speech often provide emphasis, freshness of expression, or clarity which appeal to the imagination, create mental pictures and make the writing vivid and interesting.[1]


There are mainly three branches of figures of speech. They are phonological rhetorical devices which include onomatopoeia, alliteration and assonance; semantic rhetorical devices which embody simile, metaphor, allusion, metonymy, transferred epithet, personifi-cation, hyperbole, irony, euphemism, pun, oxymoron, zeugma, contrast which mainly include simile, metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and personification and so on; syntactical rhetorical devices which include repetition, rhetorical question, antithesis, apostrophe etc. Here I pick out some frequently-used figures of speech to further explain.

.jpgSimile A simile is a direct comparison between two things that are essentially unlike, yet are alike in a certain respect. The comparison is expressed through the use of like, as,, as if(though) or other comparing words. [1] For instance:

  • O my love's like a red, red rose that's newly sprung in June. (Robert Burns)
  • The man can't be trusted. He is as slippery as an eel.
  • Childhood is like a swiftly passing dream.
  • The waterfall is like a piece of silk hanging down from the edge of a precipice.

.jpgMetaphor A metaphor is very similar to a simile except that the comparison is suggested implicitly. For instance, simile says, "The world is like a stage," while metaphor says,"The world is a stage." Here the comparison is expressed not by using words as like or as, but by just saying that one thing is another. [1] For more examples:

  • A stream of rush-hour traffic flooded down the street.
  • Some books are to be tasted, others swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.

Similes and metaphors are often used in descriptive writing to convey ideas, create vivid sight and offer sound images. Metaphors and similes can not only make our writing more interesting but also help us to think more carefully about our subjects. In other words, metaphors and similes are not just pretty ornaments; they are ways of thinking.[3]


A metonymy consists in the use of the name of one thing for the name of another which is closely associated with it, also, the rhetorical strategy of describing something indirectly by referring to things around it. For example, using crown to represent king, the White House to American government or American President, the bottle to wine or alcohol. [4] Westminster" is used for the Parliament of the United Kingdom, because it is located there. More examples:
His purse would not allow him that luxury. = His didn't have enough money to buy luxuries.
The mother did her best to take care of the cradle.= The mother did her best to take care of the child.
He succeeded to the crown in 1848.= He succeeded to be the King in 1848.


According to the Oxford Dictionary of English, a synecdoche is to use a part to represent the whole or vice versa. "Synecdoches are ways in which we construct our understanding of the whole, although we only have access to the part. Synecdoches are part of our general cultural heritage and exist in literature as well as science. Archetypes, mythic characters, gods and goddesses have all been viewed as synecdochical, as have some literary characters, such as Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Desdemona, Romeo, Juliet, Jane Eyre, and Willy Loman." "Within science writing, synecdoches are common as well. For example, DNA is a synecdoche for life, the test tube for experiment, the statistical test for proof, and Tally's corner for a kind of social organization." [5]More examples:
  • He earns his bread by writing=He earns his living by writing.
  • The farms were short of hands during the harvest season.
  • Australia beat Canada at cricket.


Personification is a figure of speech in which an inanimate object or abstraction is endowed with human qualities or abilities, as in Odysseus Elytis’ poem “Aegean Melancholy” — “And the sea playing on its concertina.” The sea in this line is personified as a musician, playing an accordion-like instrument. The sea playing on its piano would be far less interesting, because the piano, and the sea are already very familiar images to the reader. The contrast between the already familiar image of the sea, with the idiosyncratic image of the concertina, is more surprising. Also, a concertina is played by squeezing it from both sides, and pulling it outward, letting it expand, much like the motion of waves. There are similarities and striking differences all within this one comparison.[6] More examples:
  • This time fate was smiling to him.
  • The flowers nodded to her while she passed.
  • The wind whistled through the trees.

.jpgThe functions of figures of speech

First, plain language is like distilled water, flashy things. With figures of speech, however, the writing will become polished and lifelike which can attract more readers. If we say, "A stream is flowing quietly nearby," "The little girl is singing merrily," we are making literal statements which give mere information about some facts and nothing more. But when we say, "The stream is murmuring dreamily nearby," "The little girl is singing as merrily as a lark," we are speaking figuratively and more impressively.[1] Second, figures of speech can specify abstract and complicated conceptions to make it more clearer to understand. Third, by repetition, the writing will be more persuasive and effective.[7]


1. Xiahua,Yang. Composition and Rhetoric. Hefei: Anhui Educational Publishing House, 1984. Print.
2. Wondercat. "翻译难点-- 英语修辞格译法." HDWiKi V 4.0.5©., Web. 25 May. 2011.
3. Nordquist, Richard. "Using Metaphors and Similes to Enrich Our Writing.", Web. 5 June. 2011.
4. Fei, Xu. "修辞手法可以增加作文闪光点." HDWiKi V 4.0.5©., Web. 25 May. 2011.
5. Richardson, Laurel.
Writing Strategies: Reaching Diverse Audiences. Sage, 1990. Print.
6. Tanemura, Kenny. "Poetry in Writing Courses." The Writing Lab & The OWL at Purdue and Purdue University., 21 April. 2010. Web. 5 June. 2011.7. Mei, Li. Huiyao, Diao. 英语写作中级教程. 北京:高等教育出版社,2006. Print.

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PS: I wrote the essay in Word and then copied it here.