A figure of speech is a word or phrase that possesses a separate meaning from its literal definition. It can be a metaphor or simile, designed to make a comparison. It can be the repetition of alliteration or the exaggeration of hyperbole to provide a dramatic effect.
In truth, there are a wealth of these literary tools in the English language. But, let's start out by exploring some of the most common figure of speech examples.
Figures of speech lend themselves particularly well to literature and poetry. They also pack a punch in speeches and movie lines. Indeed, these tools abound in nearly every corner of life. Let's start with one of the more lyrical devices, alliteration.
Alliteration is the repetition of the beginning sounds of neighboring words.
She sells seashells.
Walter wondered where Winnie was.
Blue baby bonnets bobbed through the bayou.
Nick needed new notebooks.
Fred fried frogs' legs on Friday.
Anaphora is a technique where several phrases or verses begin with the same word or words.
I came, I saw, I conquered. - Julius Caesar
Mad world! Mad kings! Mad composition! - King John II, William Shakespeare
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. - A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right. - Abraham Lincoln
We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end... we shall never surrender. - Winston Churchill
Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds (not just letters) in words that are close together. The sounds don't have to be at the beginning of the word.
A - For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels named Lenore. (Poe)
E - Therefore, all seasons shall be sweet to thee. (Coleridge)
I - From what I've tasted of desire, I hold with those who favor fire. (Frost)
O - Oh hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn. (Wordsworth)
U - Uncertain rustling of each purple curtain (Poe)
Euphemism is a mild, indirect, or vague term that often substitutes a harsh, blunt, or offensive term.
'A little thin on top' instead of 'going bald.'
'Fell of the back of a truck' instead of 'stolen.'
'Letting you go' instead of 'firing you.'
'Passed away' instead of 'died.'
'Economical with the truth' instead of 'liar.'
Hyperbole uses exaggeration for emphasis or effect.
I've told you to stop a thousand times.
That must have cost a billion dollars.
I could do this forever.
She's older than dirt.
Everybody knows that.
Irony occurs when there's a marked contrast between what is said and what is meant, or between appearance and reality.
"How nice!" she said, when I told her I had to work all weekend. (Verbal irony)
A traffic cop gets suspended for not paying his parking tickets. (Situational irony)
The Titanic was said to be unsinkable but sank on its first voyage. (Situational irony)
Naming a tiny Chihuahua Brutus. (Verbal irony)
When the audience knows the killer is hiding in a closet in a scary movie, but the actors do not. (Dramatic irony)
A metaphor makes a comparison between two unlike things or ideas.
Heart of stone
Time is money
The world is a stage
She's a night owl
He's an ogre
Onomatopoeia is the term for a word that sounds like what it is describing.
An oxymoron is two contradictory terms used together.
Personification gives human qualities to non-living things or ideas.
The flowers nodded.
The snowflakes danced.
The thunder grumbled.
The fog crept in.
The wind howled.
A simile is a comparison between two unlike things using the words "like" or "as."
As slippery as an eel
Like peas in a pod
As blind as a bat
Eats like a pig
As wise as an owl
Synecdoche occurs when a part is represented by the whole or, conversely, the whole is represented by the part.
Wheels - a car
The police - one policeman
Plastic - credit cards
Coke - any cola drink
Hired hands - workers
An understatement occurs when something is said to make something appear less important or less serious.
It's just a scratch - referring to a large dent.
It's a litttle dry and sandy - referring to the driest desert in the world.
The weather is cooler today - referring to sub-zero temperatures.
It was interesting - referring to a bad or difficult experience.
It stings a bit - referring to a serious wound or injury.
Perhaps this sampling of figures of speech will offer a nice springboard for you to sprinkle a variety of stylistic and rhetorical devices into your writing.
The goal is to be able to express yourself in the more creative, interesting, and eye-catching manner.
Since poetry married figurative language a long time ago, take a look at these Examples of Lyric Poetry and see how many figures of speech you can spot!