Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

Figurative Language and Rhetorical Devices

Figures of Speech

SIMILE: An explicit comparison (using like or as): "Her lips are like roses." 

METAPHOR: A word or phrase denoting one kind of object or idea used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them ("the ship ploughs the sea.") A metaphor is generally an implicit comparison (doesn't use like or as): "Her lips are roses."

SYNECDOCHE: substituting a part for a whole or a whole for a part. "Fifty sail" for "fifty ships"; "the smiling year" for spring.

METONYMY: substituting the name of something for its attribute or whatever it is associated with ("crown" for king).

PERIPHRASIS: substituting a descriptive phrase, made up of a concrete adjective and abstract noun, for a precise word: "fringed curtains of thine eye" (= eyelashes).

PERSONIFICATION: attributing animation to something inanimate ("a grieving nation"); treating a thing or abstract quality as though it were a person.

OXYMORON: deliberate combination of seemingly contradictory words ("helpful bureaucrat"; "bittersweet").


ONOMATOPOEIA: the concordance of sounds and meaning. "Snap, crackle, pop."

ASSONANCE: recurrent vowel sounds ("sweet, sleeps, creature").

ALLITERATION: recurrent consonant sounds, frequently but not exclusively at beginning of words (e.g. in Shakespeare's Sonnet 30: sessions, sweet, silent, summon, things, past...) 

PUN: deliberate confusion of words based upon similarity of sound (waist/waste).

MALAPROPISM: unconscious pun; confusing "odious" for "onerous."

WORDPLAY: a serious pun, as when a dying man says "tomorrow you shall find me a grave man."

PARONOMASIA: wordplay based upon similar rather than identical sounds (e.g. roots/ rots).

Other Rhetorical Devices

REPETITION, PARALLELISM, CONTRAST, ANTITHESIS: devices which have the rational appeal of logic and the aesthetic appeal of symmetry. For example: "Suit the action to the word and the word to the action" uses contrasted repetition of "action" and "word" within parallel grammatical units (noun plus prepositional phrase).

ANAPHORA: repetition of word or words beginning a series of parallel syntactical units ("this sceptered isle, ... this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England"). See sonnet 91.

DOUBLE EPITHET: two words of identical or almost identical meaning joined by a conjunction. The chief effect is richness or plenitude of style: "extravagant and erring," "foul and pestilent." One of Shakespeare's favorite devices; usually combines a Latinate and an Anglo-Saxon word.

HENDIADYS: two words joined by a conjunction although one modifies the other ("this policy and reverence of age" means "this policy of reverencing age").

TRANSPOSITION: rearrangement of normal word order for effect (Noun-Verb-Direct Object may become N-DO-V, e.g. "I the apple ate" for "I ate the apple"; "gentle my lord" means "my gentle lord").

APOSTROPHE: direct address of an abstraction or of someone absent ("O time!..."; "Death, be not proud!")

HYPERBOLE: deliberate overstatement, exaggeration for effect ("I'm so hungry I could eat a horse").

ALLUSION: reference to or echo of familiar expressions, persons or objects from a cultural tradition (esp. biblical, classical, proverbial); e.g., a "prodigal son" alludes to the biblical parable.

CONNOTATION: double- and triple-level suggestive power of words; gold can connote wealth, but also beauty and excellence or greed; a dove, peace as well as innocence.

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