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Figures of speech are expressions that stretch words beyond their literal meanings. By connecting or juxtaposing different sounds and thoughts, figures of speech increase the breadth and subtlety of expression.



Alliteration: The repetition of similar sounds, usually consonants, at the beginning of words. For example, Robert Frost’s poem “Out, out—” contains the alliterative phrase “sweet scented stuff.”

Aposiopesis: A breaking-off of speech, usually because of rising emotion or excitement. For example, “Touch me one more time, and I swear—”

Apostrophe: A direct address to an absent or dead person, or to an object, quality, or idea. Walt Whitman’s poem “O Captain, My Captain,” written upon the death of Abraham Lincoln, is an example of apostrophe.

Assonance: The repetition of similar vowel sounds in a sequence of nearby words. For example, Alfred, Lord Tennyson creates assonance with the “o” sound in this line from “The Lotos-Eaters”: “All day the wind breathes low with mellower tone.”

Cacophony: The clash of discordant or harsh sounds within a sentence or phrase. Cacophony is a familiar feature of tongue twisters but can also be used to poetic effect, as in the words “anfractuous rocks” in T. S. Eliot’s “Sweeney Erect.” Although dissonance has a different musical meaning, it is sometimes used interchangeably with “cacophony.”

Chiasmus: Two phrases in which the syntax is the same but the placement of words is reversed, as in these lines from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Pains of Sleep”: “To be beloved is all I need, / And whom I love, I love indeed.”

Cliché: An expression such as “turn over a new leaf” that has been used so frequently it has lost its expressive power.

Colloquialism: An informal expression or slang, especially in the context of formal writing, as in Philip Larkin’s “Send No Money”: “All the other lads there / Were itching to have a bash.”

Conceit: An elaborate parallel between two seemingly dissimilar objects or ideas. The metaphysical poets (see Literary Movements, below) are especially known for their conceits, as in John Donne’s “The Flea.”

Epithet: An adjective or phrase that describes a prominent feature of a person or thing. “Richard ‘the Lionheart’ ” and “ ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson” are both examples of epithets.

Euphemism: The use of decorous language to express vulgar or unpleasant ideas, events, or actions. For example, “passed away” instead of “died”; “ethnic cleansing” instead of “genocide.”

Euphony: A pleasing arrangement of sounds. Many consider “cellar door” one of the most euphonious phrases in English.

Hyperbole: An excessive overstatement or conscious exaggeration of fact: “I’ve told you about it a million times already.”

Idiom: A common expression that has acquired a meaning that differs from its literal meaning, such as “it’s raining cats and dogs” or “a bolt from the blue.”

Litotes: A form of understatement in which a statement is affirmed by negating its opposite: “He is not unfriendly.”

Meiosis: Intentional understatement, as, for example, in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, when Mercutio is mortally wounded and says it is only “a scratch.” Meiosis is the opposite of hyperbole and often employs litotes to ironic effect.

Metaphor: The comparison of one thing to another that does not use the terms “like” or “as.” Shakespeare is famous for his metaphors, as in Macbeth: “Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage.”

  • Mixed metaphor: A combination of metaphors that produces a confused or contradictory image, such as “The company’s collapse left mountains of debt in its wake.”


Metonymy: The substitution of one term for another that generally is associated with it. For example, “suits” instead of “businessmen.”

Onomatopoeia: The use of words, such as “pop,” “hiss,” and “boing,” that sound like the thing they refer to.

Oxymoron: The association of two contrary terms, as in the expressions “same difference” or “wise fool.”

Paradox: A statement that seems absurd or even contradictory on its face but often expresses a deeper truth. For example, a line in Oscar Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”: “And all men kill the thing they love.”

Paralipsis: Also known as praeteritio, the technique of drawing attention to something by claiming not to mention it. For example, from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick: “We will not speak of all Queequeg’s peculiarities here; how he eschewed coffee and hot rolls, and applied his undivided attention to beefsteaks, done rare.”

Parallelism: The use of similar grammatical structures or word order in two sentences or phrases to suggest a comparison or contrast between them. In Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 129”: “Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.” Parallelism also can refer to parallels between larger elements in a narrative (see Literary Techniques, below).

Pathetic fallacy: The attribution of human feeling or motivation to a nonhuman object, especially an object found in nature. For example, John Keats’s “Ode to Melancholy” describes a “weeping” cloud.

Periphrasis: An elaborate and roundabout manner of speech that uses more words than necessary. Saying “I appear to be entirely without financial resources” instead of “I’m broke” is an example. Euphemisms often employ periphrasis.

Personification: The use of human characteristics to describe animals, things, or ideas. Carl Sandburg’s poem “Chicago” describes the city as “Stormy, husky, brawling, / City of the Big Shoulders.”

Pun: A play on words that exploits the similarity in sound between two words with distinctly different meanings. For example, the title of Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest is a pun on the word “earnest,” which means “serious or sober,” and the name “Ernest,” which figures into a scheme that some of the play’s main characters perpetrate.

Rhetorical question: A question that is asked not to elicit a response but to make an impact or call attention to something. For example, the question “Isn’t she great?” expresses regard for another person and does not call for discussion.

Sarcasm: A simple form of verbal irony (see Literary Techniques, below) in which it is obvious from context and tone that the speaker means the opposite of what he or she says. Sarcasm usually, but not always, expresses scorn. Commenting “That was graceful” when someone trips and falls is an example.

Simile: A comparison of two things through the use of “like” or “as.” The title of Robert Burns’s poem “My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose” is a simile.

Synaesthesia: The use of one kind of sensory experience to describe another, such as in the line “Heard melodies are sweet” in John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

Synecdoche: A form of metonymy in which a part of an entity is used to refer to the whole, for example, “my wheels” for “my car.”

Trope: A category of figures of speech that extend the literal meanings of words by inviting a comparison to other words, things, or ideas. Metaphor, metonymy, and simile are three common tropes.

Zeugma: The use of one word in a sentence to modify two other words in the sentence, typically in two different ways. For example, in Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers, the sentence “Mr. Pickwick took his hat and his leave” uses the word “took” to mean two different things.


Brian M Logan

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