I. What are Figures of Speech?
A figure of speech is a word or phrase using figurative language—language that has other meaning than its normal definition. In other words, figures of speeches rely on implied or suggested meaning, rather than a dictionary definition. We express and develop them through hundreds of different rhetorical techniques, from specific types like metaphors and similes, to more general forms like sarcasm and slang.
Figures of speech make up a huge portion of the English language, making it more creative, more expressive, and just more interesting! Many have been around for hundreds of years—some even thousands—and more are added to our language essentially every day. This article will focus on a few key forms of figures of speech, but remember, the types are nearly endless!
III. Types of Figure of Speech
There are countless figures of speech in every language, and they fall into hundreds of categories. Here, though, is a short list of some of the most common types of figure of speech:
Many common figures of speech are metaphors. That is, they use words in a manner other than their literal meaning. However, metaphors use figurative language to make comparisons between unrelated things or ideas. The “peak of her career,” for example, is a metaphor, since a career is not a literal mountain with a peak, but the metaphor represents the idea of arriving at the highest point of one’s career.
An idiom is a common phrase with a figurative meaning. Idioms are different from other figures of speech in that their figurative meanings are mostly known within a particular language, culture, or group of people. In fact, the English language alone has about 25,000 idioms. Some examples include “it’s raining cats and dogs” when it is raining hard, or “break a leg” when wishing someone good luck.
This sentence uses an idiom to make it more interesting:
There’s a supermarket and a pharmacy in the mall, so if we go there, we can kill two birds with one stone.
The idiom is a common way of saying that two tasks can be completed in the same amount of time or same place.
A proverb is a short, commonplace saying that is universally understood in today’s language and used to express general truths. “Don’t cry over spilt milk” is a popular example. Most proverbs employ metaphors (e.g. the proverb about milk isn’t literally about milk).
This example uses a proverb to emphasize the situation:
I know you think you’re going to sell all of those cookies, but don’t count your chickens before they hatch!
Here, “don’t count your chickens before they hatch” means that you shouldn’t act like something has happened before it actually does.
A simile is a very common figure of speech that uses the words “like” and “as” to compare two things that are not related by definition. For example, “he is as tall as a mountain,” doesn’t mean he was actually 1,000 feet tall, it just means he was really tall.
This example uses a simile for comparison:
The internet is like a window to the world—you can learn about everything online!
The common phrase “window to the world” refers to a hypothetical window that lets you see the whole world from it. So, saying the internet is like a window to the world implies that it lets you see anything and everything.
An oxymoron is when you use two words together that have contradictory meanings. Some common examples include small crowd, definitely possible, old news, little giant, and so on.
A metonym is a word or phrase that is used to represent something related to bigger meaning. For example, fleets are sometimes described as being “thirty sails strong,” meaning thirty (curiously, this metonym survives in some places, even when the ships in question are not sail-powered!) Similarly, the crew on board those ships may be described as “hands” rather than people.
Irony is when a word or phrase’s literal meaning is the opposite of its figurative meaning. Many times (but not always), irony is expressed with sarcasm (see Related Terms). For example, maybe you eat a really bad cookie, and then say “Wow, that was the best cookie I ever had”—of course, what you really mean is that it’s the worst cookie you ever had, but being ironic actually emphasizes just how bad it was!
IV. The Importance of Figures of Speech
In general, the purpose of a figure of speech is to lend texture and color to your writing. (This is itself a figure of speech, since figures of speech don’t actually change the colors or textures on the page!) For instance, metaphors allow you to add key details that make the writing more lively and relatable. Slang and verbal irony, on the other hand, make the writing seem much more informal and youthful (although they can have the opposite effect when misused!) Finally, other figures of speech, like idioms and proverbs, allows a writer to draw on a rich cultural tradition and express complex ideas in a short space.
V. Examples of Figures of Speech in Literature
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.” (William Shakespeare, As You Like It)
This is one of the most famous metaphors ever crafted in the English language. Shakespeare uses his extended metaphor to persuade the audience of the similarities between the stage and real life. But rather than making his play seem more like life, he suggests that life is more like a play. His metaphor calls attention to the performative, creative, and fictional aspects of human life.
“Our words are but crumbs that fall down from the feast of the mind.” (Khalil Gibran, Sand & Foam)
Gibran’s timeless metaphor succeeds for a number of reasons. For one thing, it is not a cliché – had Gibran said “words are just the tip of the iceberg,” he would have been making roughly the same point, but in a much more clichéd way. But the feast of the mind is a highly original metaphor. In addition, it’s a successful double metaphor. The crumbs and the feast are two parts of the same image, but they work together rather than being “mixed” (see How to Use Figures of Speech).
“If you chase two rabbits, you will lose them both.” (Russian Proverb)
Like many proverbs, this one draws on a simple metaphor of chasing rabbits. The rabbits can stand in for all sorts of objectives, from jobs to relationships, but the coded message is quite clear – focus your energy on a single objective, or you will likely fail. This literal statement, though, is quite dry and not terribly memorable, which shows the power of figures of speech.
VI. Examples of Figures of Speech in Pop Culture
The chorus to Sean Kingston’s Fire Burning contains a couple of figures of speech. First of all, there’s the word “shorty” used as a slang term (see Related Terms) for a young woman. She may or may not be literally short, but the figure of speech applies either way (though it could easily be taken as belittling and derogatory). Second, Kingston sings the metaphor: “she’s fire, burning on the dance floor.” Hopefully this is a figure of speech and not a literal statement; otherwise, Kingston and everyone else in the club are in mortal danger!
“Oh, thanks! This is much better!” (Townspeople, South Park)
This is an example of irony. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, South Park satirized the government’s response to the disaster by writing about a similar disaster in South Park. In a bumbling effort to rescue people from the floods, the authorities accidentally spill oil on the flood waters and set it on fire, making the situation far more dangerous. In response, they ironically “thank” the people responsible—their meaning is obviously the opposite of their words!
“Years of talks between Washington and Havana resulted in Obama’s historic visit to Cuba on March 21st.” (Patreon 2016)
This is a common form of metonym in foreign policy and news media. The capital city of a country is used as a metonym for the national government. The talks, of course, are not literally between these two cities, but between the leaders and government officials of the two countries (US and Cuba).
VII. Related Terms
Literal and Figurative Language
Language is generally divided into two categories: literal, and figurative. Literal language relies on the real definition of words and phrases, or their literal meanings. Figurative language, on the other hand, relies on implied meanings, which can be understood differently depending on the location or who is using it. For example, “the sky is blue” relies on the literal definition of the word “blue,” while “I am feeling blue” relies on the figurative definition. All figures of speech rely on the use of figurative language for their meaning.
Sarcasm is mocking or bitter language that we use to express different meaning than what we say; often the exact opposite. When your intended meaning is the opposite of the literal meaning, that’s irony (another type of figure of speech), which includes common phrases like “Oh, great…” when you really mean something is bad.
Slang is language that uses atypical words and phrases to express specific meanings. It varies greatly by region, demographic, and language—for example, you would find different slang in the U.S. and in the U.K. even though they are both English speaking countries. Likewise, teenagers and the elderly will use different slang terms, as would Spanish and English. Many slang terms are figures of speech. For example, “bro” could be used to describe a friend rather than an actual brother; this would be using the word as a figure of speech.