Get Your Premium Membership

Figures of Speech and Examples

Written by: Sherwin Cody

It is not an easy thing to pass from the logical precision of grammar to the vague suggestiveness of words that call up whole troops of ideas not contained in the simple idea for which a word stands. Specific idioms are themselves at variance with grammar and logic, and the grammarians are forever fighting them; but when we go into the vague realm of poetic style, the logical mind is lost at once. And yet it is more important to use words pregnant with meaning than to be strictly grammatical. We must reduce grammar to an instinct that will guard us against being contradictory or crude in our construction of sentences, and then we shall make that instinct harmonize with all the other instincts which a successful writer must have. When grammar is treated (as we have tried to treat it) as “logical instinct,” then there can be no conflict with other instincts.

The suggestiveness of words finds its specific embodiment in the so called “figures of speech.” We must examine them a little, because when we come to such an expression as “The kettle boils” after a few lessons in tracing logical connections, we are likely to say without hesitation that we have found an error, an absurdity. On its face it is an absurdity to say “The kettle boils” when we mean “The water in the kettle boils.” But reflection will show us that we have merely condensed our words a little. Many idioms are curious condensations, and many figures of speech may be explained as natural and easy condensations. We have already seen such a condensation in “more complete” for “more nearly complete.”

The following definitions and illustrations are for reference. We do not need to know the names of any of these figures in order to use them, and it is altogether probable that learning to name and analyse them will to some extent make us too self-conscious to use them at all. At the same time, they will help us to explain things that otherwise might puzzle us in our study.

1. Simile. The simplest figure of speech is the simile. It is nothing more or less than a direct comparison by the use of such words as like and as.

Examples: Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel. How often would I have gathered my children together, as a hen doth gather her broodunder her wings! The Kingdom of God is like a grain of mustard seed, is like leaven hidden in three measures of meal. Their lives glide on like rivers that water the woodland. Mercy droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.

2. Metaphor. A metaphor is an implied or assumed comparison. The words like and as are no longer used, but the construction of the sentence is such that the comparison is taken for granted and the thing to which comparison is made is treated as if it were the thing itself.

Examples: The valiant taste of death but once. Stop my house's ears. His strong mind reeled under the blow. The compressed passions of a century exploded in the French Revolution. It was written at a white heat. He can scarcely keep the wolf from the door. Strike while the iron is hot. Murray's eloquence never blazed into sudden flashes, but its clear, placid, and mellow splendor was never overclouded.

The metaphor is the commonest figure of speech. Our language is a sort of burying-ground of faded metaphors. Look up in the dictionary the etymology of such words as obvious, ruminating, insuperable, dainty, ponder, etc., and you will see that they got their present meanings through metaphors which have now so faded that we no longer recognize them.

Sometimes we get into trouble by introducing two comparisons in the same sentence or paragraph, one of which contradicts the other. Thus should we say “Pilot us through the wilderness of life” we would introduce two figures of speech, that of a ship being piloted and that of a caravan in a wilderness being guided, which would contradict each other. This is called a “mixed metaphor.”

3. Allusion. Sometimes a metaphor consists in a reference or allusion to a well known passage in literature or a fact of history. Examples: Daily, with souls that cringe and plot, we Sinais climb and know it not. (Reference to Moses on Mt. Sinai). He received the lion's share of the profits. (Reference to the fable of the lion's share). Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed by a kiss. (Reference to the betrayal of Christ by Judas).

4. Personification. Sometimes the metaphor consists in speaking of inanimate things or animals as if they were human. This is called the figure of personification. It raises the lower to the dignity of the higher, and so gives it more importance.

Examples: Earth felt the wound. Next Anger rushed, his eyes on fire. The moping Owl doth to the Moon complain. True Hope is swift and flies with swallow's wings. Vice is a monster of so frightful mien, as to be hated needs but to be seen. Speckled Vanity will sicken soon and die.

(Note in the next to the last example that the purely impersonal is raised, not to human level, but to that of the brute creation. Still the figure is called personification).

5. Apostrophe. When inanimate things, or the absent, whether living or dead, are addressed as if they were living and present, we have a figure of speech called apostrophe. This figure of speech gives animation to the style. Examples: O Rome, Rome, thou hast been a tender nurse to me. Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks. Take her, O Bridegroom, old and gray!

6. Antithesis. The preceding figures have been based on likeness. Antithesis is a figure of speech in which opposites are contrasted, or one thing is set against another. Contrast is almost as powerful as comparison in making our ideas clear and vivid.

Examples: (Macaulay, more than any other writer, habitually uses antitheses). Saul, seeking his father's asses, found himself turned into a king. Fit the same intellect to a man and it is a bowstring; to a woman and it is a harp-string. I thought that this man had been a lord among wits, but I find that he is only a wit among lords. Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven. For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

7. Metonymy. Besides the figures of likeness and unlikeness, there are others of quite a different kind. Metonymy consists in the substitution for the thing itself of something closely associated with it, as the sign or symbol for the thing symbolized, the cause for the effect, the instrument for the user of it, the container for the thing contained, the material for the thing made of it, etc.

Examples: He is a slave to the cup. Strike for your altars and your fires. The kettle boils, He rose and addressed the chair. The palace should not scorn the cottage. The watched pot never boils. The red coats turned and fled. Iron bailed and lead rained upon the enemy. The pen is mightier than the sword.

8. Synecdoche. There is a special kind of metonymy which is given the dignity of a separate name. It is the substitution of the part for the whole or the whole for the part. The value of it consists in putting forward the thing best known, the thing that will appeal most powerfully to the thought and feeling.

Examples: Come and trip it as you go, on the light fantastic toe. American commerce is carried in British bottoms. He bought a hundred head of cattle. It is a village of five hundred chimneys. He cried, “A sail, a sail!” The busy fingers toll on.