Published: 18 November 2022
Collated from various sources, here is a list of about 40 figures of speech that may be useful for the students of rhetoric and prosody. Examples and definitions used here are commonly agreed upon by the literary critics.
A simile is the explicit statement of the similarity existing between two things that differ in kind. Such similarity is distinctly stated through words such as ‘like,’ ‘as,’ ‘such,’ ‘so,’ and ‘similarly.’
Example: "The child shows the man, as the morning shows the day." —Milton
A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or expression that, in literal usage, denotes one kind of thing is applied to a distinctly different kind of thing, without asserting a comparison.
Example: "Thy word is a lamp to my feet."
An allegory is a narrative, whether in prose or verse, in which the agents and actions, and sometimes the setting as well, are contrived by the author to make coherent sense on the literal or primary level of signification, and at the same time to signify a second, correlated order of signification, for the purpose of conveying some moral instruction.
Example: Sin’s speech to Satan in Paradise Lost II as in the following
“Out of the head I sprung. Amazement seized
All the host of heaven; back they recoiled afraid
At first and called me Sin, and for a sign
Portentous held me; but familiar grown
I pleased, and with attractive graces won
The most averse.”
A parable is an allegorical story which is intended to enforce some high moral or religious lesson, and in which the story and its meaning containing that lesson lie side by side.
Example: Jesus often spoke in parables. Read some examples here.
A fable is a short fictitious story with a moral, into which some irrational animals are introduced and which is not always allegorical like a parable.
Example: Aesop’s fables are remarkable in this context. Read the dog-rivulet fable and other fables here.
Metonymy (meta: change; onoma: name) is a figure consisting in substituting the name of one thing for that of another to which it has certain relations.
Example: He is basking in the sun. (<sunshine)
Synecdoche is that figure of speech by which a more comprehensive term (whole, genus) is used for a less comprehensive one (part, species) or vice versa, but in fact that less comprehensive term or vice versa is meant.
Example: A fleet of twenty sails. (>ships)
Drink, pretty creature (>lamb), drink.
8. HYPALLAGE OR TRANSFERRED EPITHET
By this figure, an epithet (adjective) is transferred or shifted from the object to which it properly belongs, to another with which it is associated in the mind of the writer or the speaker.
Example: They have marched a weary way. (< they are weary, not the way)
This figure consists in using a word or expression which calls to one’s mind some well-known past incident, the saying of some great men or some pieces of writing of a writer.
Example: “Now we clap
Our hands, and cry, ‘Eureka’ it is clear.”—Byron
By this figure (anti: against; tithemi: I place) contrasted words or ideas are set against each other in a balanced form for the sake of emphasis.
Examples: It is a blessing and not a curse.
United we stand—divided we fall.
The epigram, a short and pithy expression, is an apparent contradiction in language which, by causing a temporary shock, rouses our attention to some important meaning underneath.
Examples: "The child is the father of man."
"I am content, and I don’t like situation."
By this figure (klimax: a ladder), a series of words or sentiments is presented in such a manner that the least impressive of them comes first and there is a regular gradation from it to the most impressive, with an aim to artfully present the circumstances of some object or action which we intend to highlight with a strong voice.
Examples: "A heart to resolve, a head to contrive and a hand to execute."—Gibbon
"Black it stood as Night, fierce as ten Furies, terrible as Hell."—Milton
13. ANTI-CLIMAX OR BATHOS
Bathos consists of a sudden fall from lofty to mean thoughts (down the ladder) and serves to excite a sense of the ludicrous.
Example: "No louder shrieks to pitying heaven are cast,
When husbands or when lap dogs breathe their last."—Pope
14. THE CONDENSED SENTENCE
This figure, although consisting in bringing together ideas so different that each of them should ordinarily receive a separate statement, is used to produce comic effect depending upon the coming together of incongruous ideas.
Example: "She dropped a tear and her pocket-handkerchief."—Dickens
Personification consists in investing abstract ideas or manipulating objects with attributes of a living being.
Example: "The thirsty earth soaks up the rain,
And drinks and gapes for drink again."—Cowley
By this figure (literally, 'turning away') otherwise called passive personification, a speaker or a writer changes the course of his theme and makes a short impassioned address to a person who is absent, or dead, or to an inanimate object, or even to an abstraction connected with the discourse.
Example: "My mother! When I learnt that thou wast dead,
Say, wast thou conscious of the tears I shed?"—Cowper
By this figure, a writer or speaker brings to his mind some absent or imaginary picture and represents it with such graphic reality as though it were actually present to the senses.
Example: "Pride in their port, defiance in their eye,
I see the lords of humankind pass by."—Goldsmith
This is a figure by which things are represented as much greater or lesser, better or worse, than they really are.
Example: "To see her is but to love her,
And love but her for ever;
For Nature made her what she is,
And never made another."—Burns
This is a figure by which a thing is insinuated or hinted at, for instance, pointing at something damaging to its character or reputation, instead of being plainly stated. The meaning is left to be inferred by those whom he addresses.
Example: He was born of the rich but honest persons.
This figure (eiron = dissembler) consists of the use of words, the natural meaning of which is the very opposite of what is intended to be expressed.
Example: "Yet Brutus says he was ambitious,
And Brutus is an honourable man!"
More commonly used in poetry than in prose, this figure is a means to express a thing (peri: around; phrasis: saying) in a roundabout way instead of saying it directly.
Examples: "Moving isles of winter." (>icebergs)—Tennyson
"Sleep the sleep that knows no breaking." (>death)—Scott
"The knightly growth that fringed his lips." (>the moustaches)—Tennyson
This figure consists of softening down a harsh disagreeable expression in terms of stating something offensive in an agreeable and pleasing manner.
Examples: He perished on the scaffold. (>He was hanged)
Discord fell on the music of Cowper’s soul. (> He became insane).
23. PARONOMASIA or PUN
This figure rests on the duplicity of sense under the unity of sound and is essentially of laughter-provoking nature.
Example: If a woman loses her husband she pines for a second.
This is an artifice of language by which the sound of words is made to reflect their sense.
Example: "And Niagra stuns with thundering sound."—Goldsmith
25. INTERROGATION OR EROTESIS
Generally used in impassioned reasoning or oratory, by this figure a strong affirmation, often a strong contrary is implied under the form of an earnest interrogation. A question is put but the answer is implied in it.
Examples: "For who can think of submission?"—Milton
"Shall we, who struck the lion, shall we
Pay the wolf homage?"—Byron
Exclamation, stated through ‘how,’ ‘what’ etc., is the abrupt expression of an emotion, the language of wish, or of contemplation, generally producing a sublime or profound effect and stirring up some deeper emotion.
Examples: "Oh that those lips had language!"—Cowper
"How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless child!"—Shakespeare
This figure consists of an inversion of the order of words or phrases when repeated or subsequently referred to in a sentence with the aim to make a statement more emphatic and impressive.
Example: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty."—Keats
When one verb is connected with two nouns to each of which a separate verb should properly be supplied, this becomes an instance of Zeugma.
Examples: "Would hide her wrongs and her revenge."—Scott
"The moment and the vessel passed."—Tennyson
This is a figure of speech in which, by denying the contrary, more is intended than is expressed.
Example: The man is no fool. (> He is wise)
30. PROLEPSIS or ANTICIPATION
Prolepsis is particularly used to suggest an objection to what is advancing, and then return an answer to it. However, more commonly, it denotes the use of a word (generally a predicative adjective or a participle) in an anticipatory sense, i.e., when the action denoted by the verb of a sentence takes place before that is implied by such a word.
Examples: "Dash thee down,
To the hazard of thy brains and shattered sides."—Milton
"For me that widow’s mate expires."—Scott
By this figure, two substantives connected by the particle ‘and’ are used to convey one complex idea which might have been expressed by a noun qualified by an adjective.
Example: "Life and sufferance (suffering life)
With joy and tiding (joyful tidings) fraught."—Milton
This figure consists in the omission of connecting conjunctions and is conducive to energy and vividness.
"I slip, I slide, I gleam, I glance."—Tennyson
"What? Not a line, a tear, a sigh
When valour bleeds for liberty?"—Scott
This figure consists of the excessive use of conjunctive particles with an aim to impart explanations to the particulars which are enumerated.
Example: "That hoard and sleep and feed and know me not."—Tennyson
By this figure, a writer or speaker suddenly breaks off from what he was going or was expected to say, and leaves a sentence unfinished for the sake of effect.
Example: "Why urge the chase so far astray?
And why so late returned? And why?—
The rest was in her speaking eye."—Scott
By this figure, a writer or speaker professes to pass over something which he really means to declare strongly.
Examples: "I cannot delay to tell you how political quarrels might be otherwise settled. But grant that they cannot. Grant that no law of reason can be understood by nations; no law of justice submitted to by them."—Ruskin
"I might say many things, of his liberality and kindness to his domestics, his command in the army and moderation during his office in the province; but the honour of the state presents itself to my view, and calling me to it, advises me to omit these lesser matters."—Cicero
36. EPANAPHORA OR ANAPHORA
This figure consists in the repetition of an expression at the beginning of successive clauses or sentences.
Example: "There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes—
By the deep sea, and music in its roar."—Byron
This figure consists of the reiteration of words or phrases at the ends of successive clauses or sentences.
Example: "Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing and exact man."—Bacon
38. HYPERBATON or INVERSION
This figure consists in inverting the grammatical order of words in a sentence to secure emphasis.
Example: "Much have I travelled in the realms of gold."—Keats