How to Use Figures of Speech
Figures of speech are used in everything from descriptions (of people, settings, events, etc) to comparisons to explanations. We use them all the time without realizing it. In particularly, metaphors and proverbs are extremely common in everyday language.
It’s helpful, though, to avoid certain clichéd figures of speech. These phrases have been worn out through overuse, and can make your writing seem dull or uncreative.
- In the nick of time
- At the speed of light
- Woke up on the wrong side of the bed
- Scared to death
- As old as dirt
- Blind as a bat
In addition to clichés, it’s also important to avoid mixed metaphors, or figures of speech that use several different images that don’t fit together. The term “sharp cookie” is a common figure of speech for an intelligent person, but also a mixed metaphor: “smart cookie” or “sharp student” would be effective figures of speech since they use coherent (though non-literal) imagery. But a sharp cookie? A cookie with a razor’s edge and thumbtacks for chocolate chips? The two images here don’t work very well together, so it’s a mixed metaphor.
Here is one of the most famous (and certainly one of the most extreme) examples of a mixed metaphor:
“Now what we are dealing with is the rubber meeting the road, and instead of biting the bullet on these issues, we just want to punt.” (Chicago Tribune, 2007)
Tires, bullets, and football all at once, the mixed scenes are too confusing!
When to Use Figures of Speech
As we’ve seen, figures of speech are abundant in every form of writing – nobody can write a completely literal story or essay (at the very least, it would be exceedingly boring to read)! However, it’s best to use them sparingly in formal writing, like essays. Technically, figures of speech are untrue statements, which means you have to be pretty careful with them, and ensure that your reader will not take them literally. In a formal context, it’s better to use literal language (see Related Terms) where possible.
In addition, as we saw earlier, many figures of speech are tired clichés, which adds to the danger of using them in all forms of writing. The overall rule is that you should use a figure of speech if it adds something unique to the piece you’re writing.