Figures of speech are words or phrases used in a non-literal sense for rhetorical effect. They often express their meaning by comparing one thing to another, and serve an unequalled role in the English language.
Skilled writers know how to use figures of speech and other literary devices to provide more vivid descriptions and help readers to understand the feeling they want to convey. As a communication tool, figures of speech give color and life to the messages we wish to share with others.
What Are Figures of Speech and How Do Authors Use Them?
Below are the most common figures of speech, along with their definitions, examples, and tips for using them.
A simile compares one object directly to another using the words “like” or “as.” The following passage from the classic fairy tale Snow White uses simile to describe the color of the girl’s complexion:
Once upon a time, there were a king and queen who had no children. On one clear winter’s day, the queen said, “Let’s go out for a walk!” And when they had gone out, they walked along the lake. There was a thick layer of ice on the water. But on the road there lay the loveliest white snow. Just then the queen’s nose began to bleed, and when she saw the red blood on the snow, she made the wish that she might conceive a daughter as white as snow and as red as blood; then she would call her Snow White.
As you can see, the use of the phrase “as white as snow” and “as red as blood” makes a direct comparison of Snow White’s complexion to the color of snow and blood.
Metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different objects that have common qualities. Read the following excerpt from a poem by Emily Dickinson, in which she compares hope to a bird:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
Here, the comparison of hope to a bird is not direct, as it would be if she were to say, “Hope is like a bird.” Instead, she likens hope to a bird by talking about hope as “the thing with feathers” and as “the little Bird.”
Puns are plays on words. Writers use words that have more than one meaning to mean something else, or they use words that sound alike to catch attention.
Most often, writers intend puns to be humorous, but they may also use them to provoke the reader to think.
William Shakespeare is known for using puns. In fact, experts have noticed that the most intelligent characters in his plays are the most liberal in using them.
Read this sentence from the opening lines of Richard III:
‘Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York.’
Here you can see that sun sounds similar to “son,” which the speaker, Richard, uses to refer to himself (as “the son of York”). The play on words allows Shakespeare to relate the winter and summer to the idea of sad and happy times.
As for puns using words that have several meanings, see this example, also from Shakespeare. As Mercutio lies dying from a stab wound, he continues to make jokes, and he uses a pun to indicate his impending death:
Romeo: Courage, man. The hurt cannot be much.
Mercutio: No, ’tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door;
but ’tis enough, ’twill serve. Ask for me to-morrow, and you
shall find me a grave man.
In this case, the word grave can mean two things: serious, or the place where dead people are buried. The use of the word in this case brings to mind both its meanings, which is what Mercutio intended in his jestlike response.
Personification is the process of giving human traits to inanimate or non-human subjects. Classic writer L.M. Montgomery frequently uses personification in the way that her main characters interact with trees and other things in nature. See this example from Anne of Green Gables:
“Maples are such sociable trees,” said Anne; “they’re always rustling and whispering to you.”
Trees do not really “whisper” to people, but describing them in that way makes them come alive in the imagination.
Hyperbole is the act of using extreme exaggeration to emphasize a certain feature or quality. This method stirs up the reader’s emotions, be they of happiness or sadness.
Mark Twain successfully uses exaggerated statements in his humorous novels. You can read the excerpt below from his description of the discomfort of wearing medieval period armour:
Meantime, it was getting hotter and hotter in there. You see, the sun was beating down and warming up the iron more and more all the time. Well, when you are hot, that way, every little thing irritates you. When I trotted, I rattled like a crate of dishes, and that annoyed me; and moreover I couldn’t seem to stand that shield slatting and banging, now about my breast, now around my back; and if I dropped into a walk my joints creaked and screeched in that wearisome way that a wheelbarrow does, and as we didn’t create any breeze at that gait, I was like to get fried in that stove; and besides, the quieter you went the heavier the iron settled down on you and the more and more tons you seemed to weigh every minute.
The hyperbole used in this description from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Courts paints a vivid picture in our mind of how the character must be feeling inside his armour.
But, it is not very likely that you would actually “get fried in that stove.” And it is also an exaggeration to say that the armour weighs “more and more tons!”
Still, the author achieved his purpose of emphasizing the trouble of using that medieval outfit.
Understatement is a figure of speech that portrays less emotion than is expected in reaction to an event. When something terrible happens, readers expect a dramatic reaction; likewise, when something wonderful happens, they expect an outburst of happiness.
But when a writer downplays the reaction, it surprises the reader. Because of that, an understatement usually has an effect of showing irony.
An example of understatement is the following line from J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye:
“I have to have this operation. It isn’t very serious. I have this tiny little tumor on the brain.”
When you have a tumor on the brain, no matter how little, and you need to have an operation, it’s hardly something that isn’t very serious! Here, the character gives little weight to the news.
A paradox is a statement that appears to be silly or self-contradictory, but actually contains a truth. Writers use it to show an opinion contrary to traditionally accepted beliefs, challenging the reader to think.
One example is found in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. In a scene where the animals are making their laws for existence, one law states:
“All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”
At first glance, the sentence seems nonsense, simply silly. But at closer look, you start to see Orwell’s point: he is portraying the government in the novel as claiming everyone to be equal, but not living up to that professed belief.
The contradiction in this statement challenges the reader to think about the concept of equality.
An oxymoron is a figure of speech made by connecting two opposite ideas, creating an interesting effect. Writers typically make an oxymoron by tying up a noun with an adjective that would not normally be used to describe that noun.
For example, “cruel kindness,” “tragic comedy,” and “best enemy” all combine nouns with surprising adjectives. Other combinations can be pairing two opposite words, such as “love-hate relationship,” “agree to disagree,” “absolutely unsure.”
Shakespeare again excels in using oxymorons, as in the passage below from Romeo and Juliet:
Why, then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
O anything, of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness! Serious vanity!
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this.
Dost thou not laugh?
The author used the onslaught of several pairs of conflicting ideas to portray the mental conflict Romeo feels in his love of an inaccessible woman. This expression causes an intense emotional response in the reader.
How to Use Figures of Speech in Your Writing
Now that you have these most common figures of speech under your belt, it’s time to put them into practice:
- Think of a scene you want to describe. Start with only one scene for the moment.
- List down as many things you can think of that may be compared to your scene. For example, if you want to describe a woman’s face, write down everything that you can connect with it. It could be objects that are the same shape as her eyes, or the same texture as her hair, etc. Be creative.
- Start by writing sentences using simile and metaphor. Remember, similes use words like “as” or “like,” whereas metaphors directly impose the compared object onto the subject.
- Next, try your hand at personification. Think of the movements or actions that your inanimate object does, and this time, think of movements that a person does. For example, in talking about a woman’s hair in a thunderstorm, you might describe it as the lash of a person’s whip.
- Also, practice using oxymoron and paradox by listing down contradicting ideas that you may use to describe your scene.
- As for understatement, practice using these in scenes of extreme emotion and see whether it makes a different impact.
Enhance Your Writing
Now that you understand how to use different figures of speech, you will likely see your writing come up with more color than ever.
Continue to practice and read more to see examples of how figures of speech are used, and be bold when it comes to trying them out in your work.
Do you have a favorite figure of speech? Share your thoughts in the comments below!