Figures of Speech
In parts of speech we looked at the basic rules for using words to build phrases and sentences that convey a meaning. On this webpage we will look at figures of speech, which are intentional deviations from literal statements and are designed to emphasise, clarify, or embellish both the written and spoken language. We will discover that figures of speech are everywhere, that they tend to go beyond simple dictionary definitions, and in introducing cultural and/or emotional associations they make the texts more expressive and interesting.
Not to detract from the complex subject of 'meaning', but there is a literal language that uses words exactly according to their conventionally accepted denotation, i.e. we could define a dog as "a four-legged domesticated carnivorous mammal of which there are at least 800 different breeds". Here we have used "dictionary definitions" devoid of emotion, attitude and colour, just keeping to the facts. The literal meaning is clear, and the construction of the sentence is logical and respects all the usual rules of grammar. In contrast to denotation we have connotation which describes the cultural and/or emotional associations that the words, phrases or sentences creates (either positive or negative), e.g. we could include the role of dogs as "man's best friend" and as working animals, or maybe the sounds they make, the games they play, or their enhanced sense of smell, etc.
Let's take an example with the number 13. Wikipedia tells us the number 13 is the natural number following 12 and preceding 14. We learn that it can be used in counting and ordering things, and it is the sixth prime number. This is what 13 denotes, it's literal meaning. But the number 13 also includes associated meanings, a connection in our minds with concepts, events or just mental states, i.e. the number 13 has associated connotations. In some countries 13 is considered unlucky, but in other countries it's considered lucky. Connotations are not unique to 13, 12 is central in many systems of timekeeping and frequently appears in religious texts, whereas 14 is often the minimum age for certain privileges and services, and also appears in religious texts. This is just to highlight that almost any word may have associated connotations for some people.
I thought that parts of speech were complicated, but it looks as if figures of speech are even more complex. What constitutes a figure of speech? For example, there are suggestions that there are six or seven 'common' figures of speech, but you can also find those who list 20, 22, 23, 27, 100 or even 400 figures of speech, and provide examples to prove it. You can find more or less the same examples under rhetorical devices, poetic devices, and literary or narrative techniques.
I started by trying to list figures of speech, which Wikipedia tells us are either schemes (a change in the usual sentence structure or pattern of words) or tropes (which play with the meaning of words). And of course some phrases can involve both.
The idea is that figures of speech are the way to define the language style of a writer or speaker, they are a kind of code for the way they have deviated from the general norms of communication, i.e. deviations from the literal meaning. Experts were able to categorise figures of speech into two groups, schemes and tropes, and they found this categorisation not only in literary works, but also in speeches, advertising, news, etc. The idea is that schemes are the "foreground repetitions of expressions", and tropes are "foregrounded irregularities of content". Schemes could involve repetitions of sounds, grammatical features, and words. So phonological schemes are patterns of rhyme, alliteration and assonance, while grammatical and lexical schemes contain formal and structural repetitions and mirror-image patterns. Tropes are all the poetic figures of speech, each with their individual interpretations.
Now Wikipedia lists 92 different schemes, but only a few were recognisable (to me), i.e. alliterations, climax, hyperbole, onomatopoeia, puns, Spoonerisms, and superlatives.
And Wikipedia lists 117 different tropes, but again only a small number were recognisable (to me), i.e. allegories, allusions, ambiguities, analogies, anthropomorphism, cliché, double negatives, euphemism, exclamation, humour, innuendo, irony, metaphors, neologisms, onomatopoeia, oxymorons, parables, paradoxes, parody, proverb, puns, rhetorical question, satire, similes, style and truisms.
A couple of figures of speech, namely onomatopoeia and puns, appear in both lists, and a few things appeared to be missing, i.e. the idiom, sarcasm, and witticisms came to mind.
In moving to figures of speech one immediately encounters other categorisations, namely constrained writing, jargon, literary devices (and literary elements and literary terminology and literary theory), logology, narrative techniques (and narratology), poetic devices (and poetics), rhetorical devices (and rhetorical techniques and rhetorical terms and rhetorical modes), sayings, stylistic devices (and style), word plays, and even forms of controlled/restricted 'languages'.
Let have a rapid peak at each of them, starting with constrained writing, which is where the writer is bound by some condition that forbids certain things or imposes a specific pattern, and it includes:-
Lipogram - where the aim is to omit one or more letters (commonly 'o' or 'a').
Reverse-lipogram - where every word must contain a specific letter.
Palindrome - where words or phrases must reads the same backwards as forwards.
Tautogram - where every word in a text must start with the same letter, e.g. "bacon bites beats bruschetta".
Anagram - a word or phrase formed by rearranging the letters of a different word or phrase, e.g. 'binary' and 'brainy', or "rail safety" and "fairy tales".
Jargon or specialised terminologies, and including slang (argot, cant, etc.).
Literary devices appear to be more or less the same as Figures of Speech, i.e. typical terms and structures used by writers to convey messages to the reader. Wikipedia calls literary devices, poetic devices or literary devices used in poetry. (See Glossary of Literary Terms)
Literary elements (e.g. Genre, Plot, Theme, Character, Mood, Tone, etc.).
Literary terminology is a list which includes Figures of Speech. (See the Glossary of Literary Terms which also mentions many literary/poetic devices)
Literary theory is the study of the nature of literature and method of literary analysis (see the associated list).
Logology or so-called recreational linguistics could be classified as a partner to constrained writing. It includes word games (include Scrabble and crosswords) and well as isograms, pangrams, heterograms, and tautonyms.
Narrative techniques which is equated with literary techniques, literary devices, and fictional devices, and is presented as a list including topics such as Setting, Backstory, etc.
Narratology including narrative structure as a literary element, and the art of storytelling.
Poetic devices are literary devices used in poetry, a form of literature that uses aesthetic and often rhythmic qualities of language such as phonaesthetics, sound symbolism and metre to evoke meaning over and above the prosaic ostensible meaning. (See Glossary of Poetry Terms)
Poetics is the theory of literary form and literary discourse (see also the associated list).
Rhetorical devices also called persuasive devices or stylistic devices, and includes a sub-set of Figures of Speech. (See the Glossary of Rhetorical Terms, the list of rhetorical techniques and the collection of rhetorical terms)
Rhetorical modes also known as modes of discourse, and including narration, description, exposition and argumentation.
Sayings with aphorism (including adages, saws, and apophthegms), bromide and platitudes, wooden language, officialese, snowclones, glittering generalities, epigram, epitaph, epithet including nicknames, idioms, mantras, maxim's with brocards, mottos and slogans, and witticisms and wit including quips, repartee and wisecracks.
Stylistic devices mentions 12 key figurative language techniques, 6 sound techniques and irony (all in the list of Figures of Speech). Storyline and plot are mentioned as diction, syntax, etc.
Writing style is about the choice of words, and sentence and paragraph structure.
Word plays includes puns, Spoonerisms, Wellerisms, neologisms, double entendre, similes, analogies, figures of speech (including oxymorons), tautologies, and metaphors.
And last but not least controlled/restricted 'languages' such as aviation English, Standard Marine Communication Phrases (SMCP), or 1984's Newspeak (and good old doublespeak).
My understanding is that the idea of constrained writing involves the imposition of prosody, metre, rhyme, verse, repetition, length, and other characteristics on a written text, and thus must also, in one way or another, include nursery rhymes, poetry, sonnets, sestinas, villanelles, limericks, etc. and even nonsense verse and accentual verse.
And what about:-
Should even old wives tales figure in our collection of figures of speech?
Figures of speech - basic definitions
In mentioning poetry and old wives tales as figures of speech, have we gone too far?
Figures of speech are a way to make the expression of a language more effective and possibly even more 'beautiful'. They are a way to say something other than in a literal way, adding something extra to a language, revealing one meaning by relating it to another. Some experts have suggested that any form of expression or grammar which deviates from the plainest expression of meaning is a figure of speech. Authors will use literary elements (e.g. Genre, Plot, Mood, etc.), narrative techniques (e.g. Setting, Backstory, etc.) and figures of speech to convey meaning and lend depth and richness to the story.
I could not quite un-knot figures of speech from literary devices and from stylistic devices, until I came across a cool set of definitions:-
Stylistic devices are tools and techniques that offer extra meaning, ideas or feeling
Literary devices are disruptive stylistic devices that force the reader to reconsider, re-read and respond emotionally to what is read
Figures of speech are the individual literary devices used, forcing the reader to realise the implied, alternative (figurative) meanings in the writing.
In this sense figures of speech are the different ways the writer can personalises, deepens and broadens meaning, and then emphasise the ideas they want the reader to notice.
Another view is that literary devices are simply all the specific features identifiable in a text, and are made up of literary elements and literary techniques. The literary elements are always present in a text, and include the theme, motif, plot, tone, setting and context, antagonists and their characterisation, relationships, struggles and climaxes, particular points-of-view, etc. The literary techniques look to be in part our figures of speech along with topics such as narrative, plot and twists, dialogue, imagery, thematic patterning, sensory details, emotional appeal, backstory and flashbacks, foreshadows of the future, etc.
Many authors who write on figures of speech/literary devices explicitly or implicitly references the work of Laurence Dollins Perrine (American, 1915-1995) who wrote on "story and structure" particularly in poetry. His view appeared to have been refreshingly simple, a figure of speech was any way of saying something other than through the ordinary word for word meaning. In figurative language, words can convey more than one meaning and are used to express thoughts, feelings, and perceptions that can't be adequately expressed in literal language. Perrine identified just twelve types of figurative language, namely allegory, apostrophe, hyperbole, irony, metaphor, metonymy, paradox, personification, simile, symbol, synecdoche, and understatement.
An attractive alternative is that figures of speech serve one of four functions:-
They afford imaginative pleasure, and create an image that is fun, joyful, memorable, etc.
They bring additional imagery, usually by changing an abstract thing into something concrete, e.g. maybe adding strong wings and a sturdy body to the idea of flying high.
They add emotional intensity, e.g. by stressing that action is needed now, it's the final chance, everyone waits, its your decision, etc.
And they say much with few words, e.g. the metaphor "life is like a bicycle, to keep your balance you must keep moving" is compact and creates layer upon layer of meaning to those who listen.
The simile appears near the top of every list of figures of speech, and is simply defined as a way to directly compare two things, using words such as 'like' and 'as' (and not 'is' which would make it a metaphor).
So Alfred Tennyson (English, 1809-1892) in writing…
"He watches from his mountain walls
And like a thunderbolt he falls"
used a simile in his poem "The Eagle", and thus employed a figure of speech.
We mentioned above that Wikipedia tells us that figures of speech are either schemes or tropes.
Schemes are figures of speech that rely on the structure of the sentence to go beyond a literal meaning, i.e. an artful deviation from the ordinary or expected pattern of words. One of the most often used examples in the way words can be repeated to create effect, is Winston Churchill's speech of June 4, 1940,
"We shall fight on the beaches,
We shall fight on the landing-grounds,
We shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
We shall fight in the hills".
Tropes are figures of speech that use figurative language, different words or phrases to create an alternative view for artistic effect, some people have called these effects 'poetic devices'. We must be careful because it is not just about alternatives, but it's often just the use of a word in an unusual or unexpected way. For example, irony can simply involve changing the general meaning of words. The often used example of irony is from Antony's speech in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar,
"For Brutus is an honourable man
So are they all, all honourable men".
If you look at the Wikipedia article on figures of speech it lists in alphabetical order 92 different schemes and 117 different tropes, most of which are totally unknown to the average person. And with the few that are known, most people won't be certain about the exact definition, etc.
Wikipedia 'only' lists 209 figures of speech whereas the website Literary Devices lists a nice round 400 different figures of speech.
Figures of speech - a rhetorical effect
In the Wikipedia article on figures of speech it states that it is "a word or phrase that entails an intentional deviation from ordinary language use in order to produce a rhetorical effect".
The English word "rhetoric" comes from Rhetorike in Greek, and denoted the civic art of public speaking as it developed in deliberative assemblies, law courts, and other formal occasions under constitutional government in the Greek cities, and especially in the Athenian democracy (from ca. 6th century BC). Under democracies, citizens were expected to participate in political debate, and they were also expected to speak on their own behalf in courts of law. A theory of public speaking evolved, which developed an extensive technical vocabulary to describe features of argument, arrangement, style, and delivery. Over time regular schools of rhetoric became common, and throughout the Greco-Roman period the study of rhetoric was a regular part of the formal education of young men.
The reality is that almost all literature is "rhetorical" in the sense that its function is "to teach and to please" the reader, and much Greek and Latin literature is overtly rhetorical in that it was composed with a knowledge of classical rhetorical theory.
Aristotle (Greek, 384-322 BC) in his "Rhetoric" starts by defining rhetoric as the counterpart of dialectic, i.e. the establishment of truth through reasoned methods of argumentation, excluding subjective elements such as emotional appeal. Logical reasoning starts with a premise, an assumption that something is true. Aristotle held that any logical argument could be reduced to two premises and a conclusion. Argumentation in this sense is a series of statements intended to lead to a conclusion, the truth. So the idea is to use deductive reasoning to determine whether the truth of a conclusion can be determined based solely on the truth of the premises. Inductive reasoning based upon empirical evidence can be used to support the conclusions of deductive reasoning. Abductive reasoning in the form of logical inference yields a most likely or plausible conclusion which in turn could be tested by additional reasoning or acquisition of new data.
Aristotle went on to define rhetoric as "the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion". He saw the mastery of the art of rhetoric as necessary for victory in a case at law, or for passage of proposals in an assembly, or simply for fame as a speaker in civic ceremonies. Rhetoric typically provides heuristics for understanding, discovering, and developing arguments for particular situations, such as Aristotle's three persuasive audience appeals, i.e. logos, pathos, and ethos.
Aristotle saw the audience as either a judge, or not a judge, of what is being said. One type of audience is, or is not, being asked to make a specific decision on an issue presented to it. If the audience is a judge, it is either judging events of the past, as in a court of law, in which case the speech is classified as "judicial", or it is judging what action to take in the future, in which case the speech is "deliberative".
But what if the audience is not being asked to take a specific action. Aristotle calls this type of speech "epideictic" (i.e. "demonstrative"). What he had in mind were speeches on ceremonial occasions, such as public festivals or funerals, involving speeches he characterised as aimed at praise or blame. These three categories, judicial, deliberative and epideictic remained fundamental throughout the history of classical rhetoric and are still useful in categorising forms of discourse today.
The concept of epideictic rhetoric, however, needed to be broadened beyond Aristotle's definition. In late antiquity, some rhetoricians included within it all poetry and prose. Perhaps epideictic rhetoric is best regarded as any discourse that does not aim at a specific action but is intended to influence the values and beliefs of the audience.
Where does that leave us with figures of speech? We can see from the above that rhetoric is about persuasion, and that means going beyond a logical but plain expression of meaning. It means using literary elements, narrative techniques and figures of speech to convey meaning, lend depth and richness, and create emotional appeal.
So let's try to identify, define and offer examples for the most useful and effective figures of speech. There are a number of attempts to isolate a few key figures of speech, i.e. the simile, metaphor, personification, hyperbole, onomatopoeia, idiom, and proverb. Others have added the alliteration, euphemism, irony, oxymoron, pun, repetition, etc.
The people at TheVisualCommunicationGuy.com have come up with the Periodic Table of Figures of Speech above. This gives us a good basis for looking at figures of speech in more detail.
There are a few inconsistencies between the list on Wikipedia and the periodic table above, so I will follow this periodic table, but highlight those inconsistencies as they occur.
Figures of speech - schemes
We mentioned above that Wikipedia tells us that figures of speech are either schemes or tropes. Schemes are figures of speech that rely on the structure of the sentence to go beyond a literal meaning, i.e. an artful deviation from the ordinary or expected arrangement of words. But the problem is that Wikipedia lists 92 different schemes, so which are the most useful and effective? Wikipedia does not commit to offering a 'hit list' of the most effective schemes, but as a first guess the ones you have heard of are likely to be the most used. However, people actually use one or other scheme without knowing that they have a unique name and an intellectual and historical pedigree.
There does appear to be four major categories of schemes, namely repetitions, omissions of words, changes in word order, and what has been called 'structures of balance'. This last category covers the expression of similar or related ideas using similar grammatical structures, and with the alignment comes a sense of rhythm which helps the reader to see the opposing or supporting ideas more clearly. In our periodic table (shown above) schemes represent the 'elements' 20 through to 40. The biggest category is repetition, so we will start with them.
We have already mentioned "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers", a famous nursery rhyme, tongue-twister, and alliteration. We can think of this as a form of repetition of the letter 'p', but it is much more. Here we can see (or hear) that an alliteration places specific emphasis on sounds in words, whilst repetition would just repeat words to stress their importance. Alliteration is used to give rhythm to a phrase or sentence, and please the ear, and for this reason they are often called "initial rhymes" or "head rhymes". So the letters don't have to be the same, but the sound does, e.g. the 'c' in crooks and the 'k' in kings sound the same and could be strung together to form an alliteration. You find alliterations in poetry, prose and musical lyrics. I have put alliterations first because when you start to look for them, they are everywhere. Examples include "Home sweet home", "Good as gold", "Back to basics", "Making a mountain out of a molehill", "Where there's a will there's a way", and "Pompous, pontificating, pretentious, politicians". Alliterations are pleasing to the ear, and help stress a point and attract the attention of the listener. They appear a lot in branding and marketing, with products such as KitKat, Coca-Cola and PayPal, and people also find it easier to remember names such as Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny and Fred Flintstone.
So alliterations sound easy (sorry about the pun), but that's far from the truth. Alliterations are strongly linked with rhythm (a regular succession of strong and weak elements) and rhyme (repetition of similar sounds in stressed syllables, most evident in nursery rhymes). Experts think that from our childhood we "tune-in", or attribute "selective attention" to "alliterating strings", as part of the process of language acquisition (rhythm and intonation help babies focus on speech as opposed to non-speech stimuli). There is even the suggestion that a rhyming quality eases the processing time of statements in the brain, and enhances people's perception of their truthfulness.
Lets rapidly look at the other types of repetition based upon sounds (as opposed to the 'simple' repetition of words).
We have already mentioned the alliteration, which is usually defined as the repetition of the initial consonant sound in two or more neighbouring words. They are often presented as tongue-twisters, "She sells sea shells by the sea shore" is well known example, but they are not difficult to invent "Rustic reptiles regretted recruiting rare rebellious ravenous reindeers". The definition would include "…lazy languid line along…" because the 'l' in 'along' is the first consonant sound.
Assonance - is the similarity in the sounds of words/syllables either between their vowels or between their consonants. The perfect example of assonance is the proverb "The early bird catches the worm" where we see the repetition of 'r' following a vowel. Rhyme is a special case of assonance where the repetition of similar sounds occurs in the final stressed syllables at the endings of words. "The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain" from the musical My Fair Lady, is a well known example of assonance (rhyme), as is Joseph Mohr's Silent Night with "Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright".
Consonance - is the counterpart to assonance, in that it is the repetition of identical or similar consonants in words whose vowel sounds are different, e.g. "fuddy duddy", "pitter patter", and "better late than never".
Consonance, alliteration, and assonance are all literary devices that utilise sound as a means of enhancing the emphasis, significance, and importance of words. Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds, and therefore alliteration is a subcategory in that it refers only the repetition of the initial consonant sounds.
Oddly Wikipedia list paroemion as one of its 209 figures of speech, whereas Literal Devices does not include it amongst its 400 different figures of speech. Wikipedia defines it as an extreme alliteration in that every word begins with the same consonant. Some prefer "nearly every word" to "every word", but still define it as excessive or even a "stylistic vice". Many examples are totally artificial constructs, but here is one of the better ones, "Mischievous money makes many men marvellously mad".
Repetitions of sounds in words date back to Old English Poetry, such as Beowolf, and today at least 20% of all English idioms alliterate and more than 40% of similes alliterate and/or rhyme. You have common rhyming expressions such as "belly button" and "brain drain", and modern expressions such as "snail mail", "cuddle puddle" (a whirlpool), "street spam" (for advertisements posted in public places), or "knee-mail" (a prayer).
We also mentioned the simple verbatim repetition of words, which is a well known rhetorical device. The constant repetition of a key word helps connect with the audience, and is used a lot in public speaking. As we have already mentioned Winston Churchill in his speech of June 4, 1940, stressed the word 'fight', …
"We shall fight on the beaches,
We shall fight on the landing-grounds,
We shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
We shall fight in the hills".
This particular way of creating of emphasis by the repetition of a word or sequence of words at the beginning of neighbouring clauses is called an anaphora. Martin Luther King Jr. used the same idea of repetition to connect with his audience in his "I have a dream" speech in 1963.
You might imagine that the repetition of words was a sufficiently finely-tuned definition, and we could move on. But no, as in any academic field, there are a multitude of different options, each with it's own name and definition.
Epistrophe - is the opposite of the above anaphora, where the words are repeated at the end of phrases. Examples abound with "government of the people, by the people, for the people" (Abraham Lincoln) and "I want the best, and we need the best, and we deserve the best" (John F.Kennedy).
Anadiplosis - is the repetition of the last word of a preceding clause, as in a talk given by Clarence Thomas in 1993,…
"If you lie, you cheat,
If you cheat, you will steal,
If you steal, you will kill".
Antimetabole - is just the repetition of words but in a transposed order. The most effect examples should trigger a deeper reflection than just that suggested in the first half of the line. A powerful example is "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" in the Inaugural Address of John F.Kennedy in January 20, 1961. But an equally thought provoking example is "We didn't land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us", by Malcolm X.
What we see with the antimetabole is that the order of words are simply inverted when transposed, whereas there is a literary device called a chiasmus where it is the grammatical structures in successive phrases that must be reversed but without the need to repeat the words, i.e. the symmetry is important but the repeated phrases need not be exactly symmetrical. A really nice example is a quote from Thomas Szasz,
"When religion was strong and science weak, men
mistook magic for medicine,
Now, the science is strong and religion weak, men
mistake medicine for magic".
Antanaclasis - is the repetition of a single word, but in two different senses, and it can produce some memorable witticisms (making it also a trope). The perfect example is from Benjamin Franklin, who wrote "Your argument is sound, nothing but sound", where the first 'sound' means reasonable, and second just noise. It is suggested that Franklin said, when signing the US Declaration of Independence, "We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately". An expression with a similar format is "On Sunday they pray for you, and on Monday the prey on you", which exploits the same sound of the two words. Another very compact example is "The peasants are revolting", which does not involve a repetition, but is a pun because it offers two meanings within the same phrase. The antanaclasis is also used in taglines and catch phrases, such as "If you don't get it, you don't get it", inciting people to buy a newspaper, or they won't know what's going on. Vince Lombardi, a US football coach, gave this figure of speech some teeth when he said "If you aren't fired up with enthusiasm, your will be fired, with enthusiasm".
Polyptoton - is the repetition of words from the same root word, as with sanctum sanctorum ("holy of holies") or in the Biblical quote "Judge not, that ye be not judged". Perhaps the most powerful example comes from Lord Acton with "absolute power corrupts absolutely", although "to be ignorant of one's ignorance is the malady of the ignorant" by Amos Bronson Alcott, comes a close second.
A telling comment was written about our dear Mr. Alcott, and it was "When he sits down to write, all his genius leaves him, and he gives you the shell and throws away the kernel of his thought".
Adnomination - the repetition of words with the same root word, as in "He is a nobody from nowhere and he knows nothing"
Epanalepsis - is the repetition of the initial part of a sentence at the end of the sentence, with each being emphasised as in the example "The king is dead, long live the king!". They say that the epanalepsis is a powerful tool to emphasise a concept, because people tend to remember the first and last parts of sentences.
The second type of scheme is the change in word order.
Anastrophe - is about changing the word order to create a specific poetic effect, although it can help place the emphasis on the end of the sentence. In "1984" George Orwell wrote "In the face of pain there are no heroes", to underline the forbidding nature of the message. In "The Raven" Edgar Allen Poe wrote, "Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing", highlighting the gradual decent of the speaker into madness.
Parenthesis - are just that, a parenthetical phrase inserted into a passage, and marked with brackets or commas. They are used to add a precision or explanation (or simple comment), so the reader is not obliged to look something up.
Apposition - is were two elements are placed side-by-side so that one helps identify the other in a different way, e.g. in "My sister, Alice, …", Alice is the appositive, and in "Aretha Franklin, a very popular singer, …" it's the "a very popular singer" that provides the additional detail to the name of the singer.
The third type of scheme is the omission.
Ellipsis - is the omission of one or more words that are nevertheless understood in the context of the remaining elements. There are lots of different options here, e.g. "What some coffee?" had the "Do you" left out.
Asyndeton - is the deliberate omission of one or several conjunctions from a series of related clauses. So in "I came, I saw, I conquered" the 'and' has been left out, speeding up the rhythm of the expression.
Polysyndeton - is the insertion of conjunctions designed to slow down the rhythm of the expression, but it can add a numbing or distancing effect as well. It is in often contrasted with the asyndeton. As example, "… and it was dark, and there was water standing on the street, and no lights, and windows broken, and everything all blown, and …".
The fourth and final type of scheme is called "structures of balance".
Parallelism - is when phrases in a sentence have similar or the same grammatical structure, and they create very readable passages with a symmetry that can create a rhythm that makes the phrases more catchy and memorable, e.g. with Neil Armstrong's "One step for man, one giant leap for mankind". The "I have a dream" speech of Martin Luther King Jr. is also an example of parallelism because the evocative phrase starts each paragraph and is followed each time by a noun and the verb 'will'. There are quite a number of short pithy examples of parallelism, e.g. "no pain, no gain", "luck is the idol of the idle", "in for a penny, in for a pound", "where there is smoke, there is fire", "it takes one to know one", and the famous "To err is human, to forgive, divine" by Alexander Pope. You might consider parallelism a form of repetition, but the key different is that whilst parallelism does involve the repetition of words or phrases, it also requires the repetition of the grammatical and/or structural elements as well.
A subset of parallelism are the isocolons, where the parallel elements possess the same number of words or syllables, so "I came, I saw, I conquered" is also called a 'tricolon' because it has three elements (you can see a few 'bicolons' in the above examples).
Antithesis - is where there are two opposites within one statement, e.g. "For many are called, but few are chosen" and "He who desires peace, should prepare for war".
Climax - is where expectation are raised, and raised again, e.g. "I came, I saw, I conquered". A climax generally contains a 'stair' of at least three discrete words, in order of increasing importance. And there is also the anti-climax, where expectation are raised, but finish with something boring or out of context, e.g. "He lost his job, his family, his house, and his glasses". The anti-climax can be humorous or it can be designed to leave room for the writer to build up to a new or additional situation that will need an even higher emotional intensity.
Figures of speech - tropes
We mentioned above that Wikipedia tells us that figures of speech are either schemes or tropes. Tropes are artful deviations or plays on the principle meaning of a word. But the problem is that Wikipedia lists 117 different tropes, so which are the most useful and effective? Wikipedia does not commit to offering a 'hit list' of the most effective tropes, but there does appear to be five major categories of tropes, namely references, wordplay and puns, substitutions, overstatements/understatements, and semantic inversions. With references we mean words that refer to other words that might or might not be explicitly mentioned. In our periodic table tropes represent the 'elements' 1 through to 19.
In cross-checking the 'elements' in our periodic table against the list in Wikipedia, I found a few tropes that appear to be missing, notably allegories, allusions, ambiguities, analogies, archaisms, bathos, clichés, circumlocutions, double negatives, euphemisms, exclamations, humour, innuendo, neologisms, parables, parodies, satire, superlatives, and truisms. We will see how they all fit-in as we go along.
Tropes are just as complicated as schemes, but they have the added difficulty that they include quite a number of figures of speech that we know, or think we know, e.g. metaphors, similes, wordplays, puns, onomatopoeia, hyperboles, litotes, irony, oxymorons, paradoxes, etc.
The first type of trope are references.
Metaphor - refers to one thing by mentioning another. The example quoted in Wikipedia is "All the world's a stage" from Shakespeare's As You Like It. It is a metaphor because the world in not literally a stage. Experts note that the metaphor is a post-Renaissance phenomenon, but there are vivid examples in the Hebrew psalms (ca. 1000 BC) with "The Lord is my rock" and "The Lord is my shepherd".
Metaphors are most often compared, and sometimes confused, with similes. The key difference is that a metaphor asserts that the objects being compared are identical on the point of comparison, and uses, as above, 'is'. Whereas a simile asserts a similarity with words 'like' and 'as'. So a metaphor is considered more 'forceful' than a simile. What some experts have highlighted is that a simile more or less tells you the connection (She is like my sunshine), whereas a metaphor (She is my sunshine) forces people to find their own interpretation.
Since metaphors are one of the better known figures of speech it's not surprising that they have been analysed in depth. Wikipedia mentions that Aristotle considered the metaphor as a way to make learning easier, and thus more pleasant. The idea is that with one expression a whole set of characteristics are transferred from a better known object (often called a source domain) to a lesser known object (target domain). This avoids breaking up the lesser known object into bits, each to be separately explained, and makes the experience more vivid and memorable. Aristotle also noted that metaphors have "qualities of the exotic and the fascinating, but at the same time we recognise that strangers do not have the same rights as our fellow citizens". So there is a touch of a metaphor-producer talking-down to a metaphor-receiver with "you won't understand what I'm saying, so I will use an example that is closer to your everyday experience". And linked to this view was the idea that this device, used to enhance the forcefulness and ornateness of an expression, was only available to master linguists and writers and not for the average person to use properly. However today the view is that metaphors are far more than just ornaments used to show the superiority of the sophisticated classes.
Thomas Hobbes considered the metaphor as one of the four cardinal abuses of language, along with equivocation, eloquence and absurdity. He considered them productive of political disorder, and he proposed science and counsel (advice) as necessary for the governance of well-ordered commonwealths (i.e. political communities founded for the common good). On the other hand Nietzsche argued that the metaphor plays a fundamental role in human understanding, and an essential element in apprehending truth. The reality must be somewhere between, we can certainly explain things avoiding metaphors, but they are important elements in creative thought and in the way we use language (i.e. we can generate new meanings from old ones). I should say that we can avoid metaphors on the descriptive or cognitive level, but many writers would claim that an equivalent will not capture the affective and aesthetic aspects of the original metaphor.
Almost all metaphors are so-called dead metaphors, i.e. they are frozen in that they have become part of our literal vocabulary. As an example, we certain first used the word 'run' as a human (and animal) activity, but now the fact that rivers run, taps run, fences run, etc. signifies that those meaning are so ingrained in our everyday vocabulary that we don't considered them metaphors any more. Running was motion, but the metaphor of a fence running around a boundary has created a new meaning, the sense of following a path. This is equally true for the wings of an aircraft or the legs of a chair, they are also dead metaphors. Some people argue that these words are no longer metaphors, but just separate vocabulary items. Others argue that that they are metaphors because they retain the quality that was at the origin of their creation, i.e. an aircraft wing still does the same basic job as a birds wing.
Wittgenstein noted that a "metaphor is a ladder of cognitive ascent which can be kicked away after the vista it has exposed is revealed". So the argument today is that the metaphor is not just an alternative way of expressing common sense, but it is a common way of achieving new sense. Some people prefer to consider the 'new sense' as a fusion of the two ideas, creating a new entity that involves characteristics of both. Yet others suggest that a metaphor is above all a visual tool, helping a person 'see' the ideas being expressed. Others talk of the metaphor as a path leading the person to a new destination using the concepts and experiences they already possess.
So if there are dead metaphors then logically there must also be live metaphors, ones that we are still conscious of interpreting. And if we have live and dead metaphors then we must have "dormant metaphors", i.e. metaphors we don't notice as metaphors but which are unmistakably metaphors if we stop to think about them, i.e. "the bottom line" and "level playing field" are dormant metaphors that might degenerate into clichés if overused. Dormant metaphors can be revived by producing mixed metaphors, typically very present in political rhetoric, e.g. "when you open that Pandora's box, you will find it full of Trojan horses" or "living from hand to mouth like the birds of the air". Many people will remember Gerald Ford's immortal observation "Solar technology cannot be introduced overnight", and what about George W. Bush's "a zebra does not change it spots" (and three years later he said "the leopard can't change his stripes"). But don't underestimate a good mixed metaphor, because in a study of the British press in 2004-2005 76% of all metaphors were mixed, and most were straightforwardly comprehensible.
So the metaphor is a tool for conceptual economy, but it also a tool for discovering structures within novel or unfamiliar situations. But perhaps the most telling justification of metaphors is that our language would certainly be duller without them.
The metaphor is a genus (to use a metaphor) and there are quite a number of known species, including simile, synecdoche, metonymy, catachresis, zeugma, … and allegories are just expanded metaphors.
Lets kick of with a few well worn metaphors - "you are a couch potato", "love is a battlefield", "the exam was murder", "no man is an island", "he has blood on his hands", "here is my better half", "adults are just obsolete children", "simmer down!", "loose cannon", "blanket of snow", "apple of my eye", "silence is golden", "talking to a brick wall", "lent weight to the argument", "threw light on the subject", "he froze for a second", "your wasting my time", "lot's of new blood in parliament", "follow in his footsteps", "the infection curve is going up like a rocket", …
Here are a few "dead metaphors" - "heart of gold", "raining cats and dogs", "time is money", "scapegoat", "high and dry", "melting pot", "panic stations", "plain sailing", "peace of mind", "early bird", "cold feet", "safety net", "bailout", "body politic", …
And here are a few more thought provoking metaphors:-
"Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life" - Pablo Picasso
"Our words are but crumbs that fall down from the feast of our mind" - Kahlil Gibran
"If you can look into the seeds of time, and say which grain will grow and which will not, speak then to me" - Macbeth, Shakespeare
"Time is the moving image of eternity" - Plato
"My life has a superb cast, but I can't figure out the plot" - Ashleigh Brilliant
"Education is the gateway to success" - Anon
"A photograph is the pause button of life" - Anon
"We are stars wrapped in skin" - Anon
"I don't approve of political jokes, I have seen too many of them elected" - Jon Stewart
Wikipedia has a list of political metaphors, but the key message is that we use metaphors all the time without knowing it, e.g. "give him a hand", "I don't want to burden you", "I was very attached to him", "they have split up", "the future looks bright", "I see what you mean", "the baby arrived in the early morning", "the weeks crawled by", "the countries high unemployment", "oil prices have collapsed", "visit our website", … are all metaphors.
Allegories are often called a type of expanded metaphor, which is true but incomplete. As Wikipedia points out, an allegory is a complete narrative which can be used to express large, complex ideas in an approachable manner. It allows writers to "create some distance between themselves and the issues they are discussing, especially when those issues are strong critiques of political or societal realities". So allegories are complete stories, while metaphors are brief figures of speech, and this is why Wikipedia calls allegories a form of literature. A few examples, such as Animal Farm, Aesop's Fables, The Pilgrim's Progress, The Divine Comedy, and many stories in the Old Testament, show how powerful allegories can be in conveying a meaning not explicitly set forth in the narrative itself.
Simile - explicit compares one thing to another. We mentioned that "All the world's a stage" is a metaphor, but had it been written "The world is like a stage" it would have been a simile. They are often used in poetry, but can also express importance statements, e.g. "Your explanations is as clear as mud" and "Watching you play is like watching grass grow".
Here are some common clichéd similes - "nutty as a fruitcake", "slept like a log", "blind as a bat", "strong as an ox", "tough as nails", "mad as a hatter", "fit as a fiddle", …
And here are a few more thought provoking similes:-
"They needed only to rise up and shake themselves like a horse shaking off flies" - 1984
"The truth was like a bad taste on his tongue" - Anon
"The paparazzi circled like vultures above a tottering camel" - Anon
"The art of the simile is as dead as a doornail" - The New York Times
"As greasy as a public opinion poll" - Anon
"Politicians, like the Earth, are flattened at the polls" - Anon
"Ships are like flies in the spider's web of the sea" - Victor Hugo
"Secrets are like maidens, the closer they are kept locked up, the more certain they are to escape" - Honoré de Balzac
"Riches are like muck which sticks in a heap, but spread abroad, makes the earth fruitful" - Anon
"Reputation, like other mistresses, is never true to a man in his absence" - William Wycherley
"His mouth tasted as if a Chinese family had just moved out" - Anon
"A mind is like a parachute, it doesn't work if it isn't open" - Anon
"His tongue is like a biscuit-seller's shovel" - Proverb
"Great warriors, like great earthquakes, are principally remembered for the mischief they have done" - Christian Nestell Bovee
"Unappetising as the floor of a parrot's cage" - Anon
"States, as great engines, move slowly" - Francis Bacon
"Reform, like charity, must begin at home" - Thomas Carlyle
"Soldiers are like cloaks, one thinks of us only when it rans" - Marshal Saxe
"Power, like a desolating pestilence, pollutes whate'er it touches" - Percy Bysshe Shelley
"Much reading is like much eating - wholly useless without digestion" - Robert South
"Love should be as private a sentiment as a toothbrush" - O. Henry
"Praise, like gold and diamonds, owes its value only to its scarcity" - Samuel Johnson
"Prancing round like a pair of cannibals about to eat a victim" - Honoré de Balzac
"High positions are like the summit of high steep rocks. Eagles and reptiles alone can reach them" - Madame Necker
"Similes prove nothing, but yet greatly lighten and relieve the tedium of argument" - Robert South
"I will be popular like a raindrop. I will be friendly like the sun" - Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev
The key message is that everyone, and their dog, have always used similes.
Metonymy - is where a thing or concept is referred to by the name of something closely associated with it, e.g. The White House refers to the president of the United States (The Oval Office or West Wing would also be metonyms). Other examples include 'suits' for business people, 'heart' for love or emotion, 'Hollywood' for the film industry, "boots on the ground" for the deployment of the military, "lend me your ears" referring to the act of listening. If we take the familiar saying "The pen is mightier than the sword", we are looking at a metonymy. Neither 'pen' nor 'sword' are meant to be taken literally, each is a metonymy for writing and warfare respectively. Other metonyms include "rear end" for the back of a car, "tongues" for languages, "hired gun" for assassin, "great minds" for brilliant thinkers. The phrase "let me give you a hand" highlights how important the metonymy is in creating an association between hand as part of the human body and the action of giving help, and this is why there is a list of metonyms on Wikipedia.
Synecdoche - is where a term for a part of something refers to the whole, or vice versa. This is considered a class of metonymy. If we were to see "The White released a statement …", this would be a synecdoche because the statement would actually be released by an individual or group of individuals on behalf of The White House, thus on behalf of the presidency. Some other examples of synecdoches are "head count" for counting people, "lend a hand" to provide help, "wearing heals" to mean high-heeled shoes, "England" when they mean Great Britain, "Pearly Gates" for heaven, "behind bars" for jail.
It's important not to forget the "vice versa" in the initial definition. Calling an older woman "blue haired" is referring to a small part of her body to represent her as a whole person. But also "Silver Belles" or "Sassy Seniors" as a larger collection of older women is also synecdoche.
As an example of the occasional difficulty to distinguish between metonymy and a synecdoche, different texts place "boots on the ground" in one or other of these two figures of speech. It's a metonymy it means the deployment of the military, and it's a synecdoche when it refers to actually people (soldiers) being deployed. Another word that caused confusion in the different texts is calling someone "Freckles". As an attribute that stands for the whole person it would be a metonymy, as a name that indicates a part of that person, it would be a synecdoche. This is equally true when using the word 'plastic' for "credit card". Since the "credit card", as just one means of payment, 'plastic' is a metonymy, but since 'plastic' is one part of the physical card, it's a synecdoche.
Another useful way to identify a synecdoche is the suggestion to look for a wordplay where something is referred to with an associated concept. I'm not sure how effective this is, but boots=soldiers and freckles=face=identity, might suggest a synecdoche, whereas "plastic" is not really much of a wordplay on the physical card, so I might see it as a metonymy for payment (i.e. "do you accept plastic?").
Another example is the difference between "I am at the peak of my career" and "I have a mountain of work to do". Which is the metonymy and which the synecdoche given that 'peak' and 'mountain' are related words? Since 'peak' is a small part of the speakers career as a whole, it's a synecdoche. Whereas 'mountain' relates to a pile of paperwork, and thus would be a metonymy meaning lots of work.
Just to hammer home the difference between a metaphor, simile, synecdoche, and metonymy. "The wheels have fallen off" is a metaphor for something going wrong in life, whereas "It felt like the wheels had come off" is a simile. In both these cases the "wheels" are unrelated to the subject. Using "wheels" to represent a car is a synecdoche, whereas using "ride" to represent a car is a metonymy (i.e. wheels are a physical part of a car, a ride is not but 'car' and 'ride' are related).
There exists also the metalepsis which requires an understanding of metonymy. The classical example is the relationship between 'lead' and 'heavy', a metonymy. If we turn to the metaphor "he drives with such a heavy foot", we can create a metalepsis with the expression "he drives with such a lead foot".
In the discussion concerning the metaphor we also mentioned both the catachresis and the zeugma. Catachresis is often seen as the use of a mixed metaphor in an inappropriate way, but in a way that exaggerate the comparison and creates a rhetorical effect. Francis Bacon wrote "A man that studies revenge keeps his own wounds green …", thus creating an unexpected metaphor comparing revenge and wounds. Shakespeare created a mixed metaphor in The Tempest with "His complexion is perfect gallows…" ,suggesting that the character looked like a criminal and should be hanged. Wikipedia also includes under catachresis the replacement of a word with a more ambiguous synonym, with the example of the use of 'job-seeker' instead of unemployed. A zeugma appears to be about surprising the reader by using a word once in a sentence, but conveying two different meaning at the same time, e.g. "The farmers in the valley grew potatoes, peanuts, and bored" and "I held her hand and my tongue". The Wikipedia article offers a short but complex view of the zeugma, covering a range of alternative uses.
Personification - is a reference to abstractions or inanimate objects as though they had human qualities or abilities. Wikipedia limits its application to an anthropomorphic metaphor, where the abstraction is represented as a person in literature or art. What that basically means is representing things such as passions, rivers, daemons, justice, virtues and vices, sins, liberty, etc. as human beings. So the personification helps the reader visualise something non-human in terms of the human form, even to the point of allowing something non-human to perform actions like humans, e.g. "bad weather halts the search". Other sources distinguish between anthropomorphism and personification. Anthropomorphism concerns human qualities or characteristics applied to animals or deities. Personification is applied to abstract ideas or inanimate objects, e.g. "my alarm yelled at me", "the sign on the door insulted my intelligence", "the bus is driving too fast", "the ATM died on me", "the school bell called us in", "my heart danced", "the wind whispered", "his eyes smiled", "the sun kissed my cheeks".
The second type of trope are wordplays and puns.
Antanaclasis - was included as a scheme when defined as a repetition of a word in two different senses. However, it is also included here because it is a common type of pun, a kind of word play exploiting words with multiple meanings or words with different meaning but similar sounds (paronomasia as below). "Why are you and your wife here? A workshop, I'm working, she's shopping" is a typical pun. Another pun of this type is "In America, you can always find a party. In Soviet Russia, the Party always finds you!", and talking of politics "Being in politics is just like playing golf, you are trapped in one bad lie after another". The British press has increasingly enjoyed using puns as headlines, e.g. "I'll curry on at work" and "Brits don't know fats from fiction", and even shops are using puns, e.g. "Cane & Able" (mobility healthcare) and "Planet of the Grapes" (wine and spirits). We will close with a combination of two different puns with a philosophical bent, "A Freudian slip is when you say one thing but mean your mother" and "Immanuel doesn't pun, he Kant".
Paronomasia - exploits words that have multiple meanings or are similar-sounding (so it's just another word for pun), e.g. as with George Carlin's phrase "atheism is a non-prophet institution". Alfred Hitchcock claimed that puns were the "highest form of literature", whereas Samuel Johnson called then the "lowest form of humour" (both could be right).
Syllepsis - is where a single phrase or word joins different meanings in the same sentence. The Wikipedia entry groups syllepsis and zeugma together, so it's difficult for a non-expert to pull them apart. At least one definition of syllepsis is that it is a kind of ellipsis in which one word (usually a verb) is understood differently in relation to two or more other words, which it modified or governs. But everyone appears to recognise the confusion and interchangeability of the two terms. Examples of a syllepsis would be "When I talk to my boss I never have to raise either my voice or my hopes", "Vegetarianism is harmless enough, though it is apt to fill a man with wind and self-righteousness", and "You took my hand and my breath away".
Onomatopoeia - are words who sound like their meaning, e.g. "slap", "drizzle", "whoosh", "giggle", "mumble", "clang", and the animal noises "hiss", "purr" and "chirp". The overall objective is to breath life into an expression.
The third type of trope are substitutions.
Anthimeria - is where one part of speech (word) is used as another part of speech, e.g. a noun is used as a verb, or a verb is used as a noun. The classical example is "I could use a good sleep" where the verb 'to sleep' is used as a noun. Now we get the idea, and we can see that the noun 'book' can be used as a verb when "booking a ticket". There are situations where some anthimerias are popular for a moment, whereas others become permanent, and as such an anthimeria is one of the ways language evolves over time. For example, a neologism is a new word, and they can also be anthimerias, e.g. blog was a neologisms that has been permanently accepted into our lexicon, and can be a noun 'a blog' and a verb 'to blog', and the same things in true for 'spam'. In English, many nouns have become verbs.
Periphrasis - is a substitution of a descriptive word or phrase for a proper name or a proper name for a quality associated with the name. Wikipedia tells us it is another word for circumlocution, a form of round about speech, e.g. son't say scissors, say "tools used for cutting things like paper and hair". Wikipedia also noted that euphemisms, innuendos and equivocations are forms of circumlocution, all ways to avoid saying a particular word. So it can be as simple as seeing "I am going to…" instead of "I will", or using "answering the call of nature" (instead of …), or just saying "I'll be there" instead of "I believe I will be able to attend the event". Often people look for the more complicated description, e.g. "Our Father who art in Heaven" when referring to God, or talking of the dead as "those who have passed on from this earth". Someone who was "not burdened with an overabundance of schooling" might better be called 'uneducated', or 'dull', or even just 'stupid'. And finally the hateful "at this point in time" instead of 'now'.
The fourth type of trope are overstatements/understatements.
Hyperbole - use of exaggerated terms for emphasis or effect, e.g. "this bag weighs a ton", "I could eat a horse", "I'm dying for a beer". So a hyperbole is more extreme than a simple overstatement. But there is also an adynaton, which is a form of hyperbole, but an impossible exaggeration, e.g. "When pigs fly!", "…a snowball's chance in hell" or the classic "I've told you a million times". The true hyperbole should be in the service of truth, e.g. "we need to stop I'm tired", "finally something to eat", "We should have stopped earlier for something to drink".
Auxesis - something disproportionately greater than its nature (a kind of hyperbole), and many see it as something that grows, e.g. "You with that throat, those lungs, that strength, you would do credit to a prizefighter". I suppose it's the opposite of a meiosis.
Litotes - is a form of verbal irony involving an understatement that is used to emphasise a point by stating a negative to further affirm a positive. What the speaker is doing is stating less than the truth. They could have exaggerated with "I could eat a horse", but they prefer to underline the truth by saying "a snack would go down just fine". In difficult situations litotes help to de-dramatise things. Litotes look to be very culturally dependent, because in English it includes "not bad" to mean good, and "its not the best weather" to describe a hurricane. "It's not a Picasso" might refer to a Monet, but it could, as a litotes, mean that it was painted by a rank amateur, i.e. there is no way this is like a Picasso. Verbal irony includes litotes, sarcasm, overstatement, and understatement. Here are few often used expressions that at litotes, "It's not rocket science", "…wasn't a total loss", "no mean feat", "I wouldn't say no …", "isn't exactly world class…", and the most power of all "…isn't a genius" or "it doesn't take a genius to…".
Meiosis - is something with a name disproportionately lesser than its nature (a kind of litotes), e.g. "the war has developed not necessarily to our advantage", and calling a war or conflict a "recent unpleasantness" or just "troubles". It's also like calling the Atlantic "the Pond" or a psychiatrist a "shrink". I suppose it's the opposite of an auxesis.
The fifth and last type of trope are semantic inversions.
Rhetorical Question - asking a question for a purpose other than obtaining an answer, e.g. "Can't you do anything right", "Are you stupid, or what?", or "Who wouldn't want to be a millionaire?"
Irony - conveying a meaning opposite to what the terms usually denotes (often by exaggeration), e.g. "as clear as mud", or "beautiful weather we're having" (when it's not), or the classic "Buy American" T-shirt that was made in China. There are three types of irony, i.e. verbal irony, dramatic irony, and irony of the situation. Verbal irony is all about the contrast between what is said and what is meant. Dramatic irony is just that, irony for dramatic effect. And irony of situation is about people expecting the opposite of what actually happens, e.g. "the country is very rich, so beggars are always well treated".
Oxymoron - placing two ordinarily opposing terms adjacent to one another, a so-called "compressed paradox". Some examples include "terribly good", "divorce court" (think about it), "friendly fire", "unbiased opinion", "real fake", "act naturally", "seriously funny", "deafening silence", "pretty ugly", "your only choice", "plastic glasses", "small crowd", "definitely possible", or as someone once suggested "military intelligence", "honest politician", "business ethics", and the inevitable "Microsoft Works". Andy Warhol once said "I am a deeply superficial person", which might have been true, but it was certainly an oxymoron.
Paradox - an apparently contradictory statement that contains a measure of truth, e.g. "you're dammed if you do and damned if you don't", "the enemy of my enemy is my friend", "the beginning of the end", "impossible is not a word in my vocabulary", "the only constant is change", and "I know one thing, that I know nothing". The idea of a paradox is that it seems self-contradictory, but it may reveal a deeper meaning, or even a truth, upon reflection. Maybe the "enemy of my enemy" is the true friend, or is that 'friend' the true enemy? One things is sure, a paradox is a form of irony in that it reminds us how irrational the world is.
Leftovers and left outs
We started out asking the question what was a figure of speech, and we looked for a way to reduce a potential list of 400 down to a list of 40 thanks to the Periodic Table of Figures of Speech prepared by TheVisualCommunicationGuy.com.
Wikipedia provides a list of 209 figures of speech, but you can find some of them also classed under rhetorical devices, poetic devices, and literary or narrative techniques. Even though Wikipedia lists figures of speech, in many of the individual articles it does not commit to any particular classification. Wikipedia avoids explicitly calling alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia, pun, and paradox, a figure of speech, and it occasionally refers to others as "stylistic literary devices", "a rhetorical device" or "a literary technique" (whilst simply not committing to any classification for others).
Literary Devices 'just' lists 400 literary devices.
Literary Devices and Terms list 136 items and tells us that literary devices and terms includes figures of speech, and narrative devices through to poetic metres. This list includes some very specific terms such as envoi, etc. not included in other lists.
Literary Terms lists 235 techniques, styles and formatting used by writers and speakers, but that includes generic terms such as figures of speech (which it limits to seven examples), poetry, rhetoric, etc.
In listing only 40 figures of speech we have intentionally excluded quite a large number of important categories, styles, techniques, etc. We need to collect together some of the more important, but missing literary terms/devices, and see what we have.
Below we have 12 more figures of speech or literary devices worth a mention.
Allusion - is a covert or indirect reference to an object or circumstance from an unrelated context. Wikipedia tells us that allusions are related to parody and pastiche, which are also "text-linking" literary devices. It would appear that the idea is to exploit a persons prior knowledge concerning the covert reference and rapidly and 'economically' draw upon a "ready stock of idea, cultural memes or emotions associated with the theme". Andy Warhol wrote "In the future everyone will be world famous for fifteen minutes", later he would also write "in fifteen minutes everybody will be famous", and in the 1980's he would have a TV show "Andy Warhol's Fifteen Minutes". Today we often see people attracting media attention for something fairly trivial along with the comment "15 minutes of fame", alluding to Warhol's famous remark. Often stories from the Bible or Greek myths will be alluded to, and musicians often 'allude' to melodies used by other musicians. Some great examples are "don't be a Scrooge", "helped by a good Samaritan", "you've opened Pandora's box", and the simple reference to "big brother". The whole point of an allusion is that it is not explained, and it becomes a kind of test of someones cultural literacy.
The notion of "text-linking" literary devices is because an allusion 'points' to another text, author or style. Equally a parody is an imitation of another authors style with intent to ridicule, whereas a pastiche is the same imitation but with the intent to celebrate the authors style.
A sobriquet is also an allusion because it is a descriptive nickname (not a pseudonym), e.g. Big Apple for New York City or The King for Elvis Presley. There are also a couple of other, closely related, literary devices. The first is the epithet, which is a word or phrase that describes an important characteristic of someone or something through an allusion, e.g. "Honest Abe" for Abraham Lincoln, or "the boy who wouldn't grow up" for Peter Pan. The second is the euphemism, which is replacing something harsh or improper by a polite or indirect word. These type of allusions enrich and deepen the meaning in texts, and at the same time create a sense of cultural kinship between the storyteller and listener or reader, e.g. those who understand the allusion are "in the know". Of course there's always the problem when readers don't catch the allusion. Film makers often include complex and quite obscure allusions to scenes or music from past films. Try out these film tests:-
"She smiles like a Cheshire cat"
"My maths teacher is he who must not be named"
"He can't stop staring at himself"
"I felt like I had just received a golden ticket"
"I feel as if I am carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders"
Answers: Alice in Wonderland, Voldemort, Narcissus, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Atlas.
Analogy - is a linguistic expression which creates a comparison by transferring meaning from one subject to another. As a literary device it also explains the comparison, and in this sense it is more complex that a metaphor or simile. A couple of simple examples are "ripples are to pond as waves are to ocean" and "words are to writing as notes are to music". More complex analogies are Shakespeare's "That which we call rose, By any other name would smell as sweet" and Thomas Carlyle's "Silence is deep as Eternity, Speech is shallow as Time". Carlyle has provided us with one of the most telling analogies "Show me the man you honour, and I will know what kind of man you are". Another analogy comes from Henry David Thoreau, "This world is but a canvas to our imaginations". Remember, analogies explain the abstract relationships, other forms of comparison don't. Analogy, metaphor and simile are all useful literary devices, but the intention and wording differentiates them.
Archaism - is just a word or style that is old-fashioned or antiquated. They often involve expressions with "thou hast", "thee" or "thine" as in "To thine own self be true". Writers often use archaisms to evoke a superior, mythical, ancient golden age. The sound patterns in archaic words often helps bring poetry alive.
Calque - is a word borrowed from another langue by a literal word-for-word translation, with 'calque' borrowed directly from French. Calquing is not a process of phonetic matching, so there is no attempt to retain a similar sound. But idiomatic phrases are translated word for word, e.g. "it goes without saying" is directly from the French "ça va sans dire". Wikipedia has a list of calques, which include expressions like Adam's apple (from "pomp d'Adam"), Flea market (from "marché aux puces"), antibody (from "antikörper"), and blue-blood (from "sangre azul"). And naturally it works in the other way with "gratte-ciel" from skyscraper, "jardin d'enfants" from kindergarten, "datenverarbeitung" from data processing, and "red mundial" from World Wide Web. A nice one is the French adopting "cor anglais" for the French horn, whereas "cor anglais" in English refers to a totally different musical instrument.
Cliché - is a saying or idea that has become overused to the point of losing it original meaning or effect. Some cliché are just stereotypes, self-evident truisms, or simple facts. Some classics are "dark as night", "eats like a pig", "white as snow", "love is blind", "better late than never", "here we go again", "live and let live", "out of sight, out of mind", "saved by the bell", "you can't have your cake and eat it", "it's the thought that counts", "tomorrow is another day", "all's well that ends well" and the more recently created "I'll be back", i.e. expressions that leave little or no trace on the speaker or listener.
Double Entendre - is a wording that has a double meaning, and generally exploits puns or word play. In English a double entendre generally has a suggestive twist, or innuendo, that might be more or less easy to detect (some call its use "indelicate"). As a simple example, watermelons are often used as a substitute for part of a woman's anatomy. Euphemisms tend to fit in quite well, with expressions such as "the birds and the bees" or "passed away" being used rather than a more blunt or harsh word. Another simple example is the use of "that's what she said" that can turn almost any phrase into somethings suggestive. Another example is that Mae West once said "Marriage is a fine institution, but I'm not ready for an institution" with a double meaning on the second use of "institution".
Euphemism - is the use of an innocuous word or expression in place of one that maybe offensive. It can be a rhetorical strategy with the aim to persuade by changing a negative connotation into one that is more attractive or at least acceptable, e.g. using "affirmative action" and not "preference for minorities". It can just mean using "feeling under the weather" for being ill, or "we must let you go" for firing someone. It is similar to an understatement, but in this case someone might use "a little cold" rather than avoid mentioning a more serious illness, whereas a euphemism goes that one step further. It is also similar to an innuendo, but a euphemism might be "womanly figure" whereas an innuendo would be "a healthy figure, if you know what I mean". Here are a few common euphemisms, "porcelain throne" (toilet), "senior" (old), "between jobs" (unemployed), "thin on the top" (bald), "one too many" (drunk), "eternal slumber" (dead), "terminological inexactitudes" (lies), "housebroken" (knows how to use the bathroom).
Innuendo - is a hint or insinuation about a person or things, usually derogatory, e.g. "he's been spending a lot of time away, if you know what I mean", or "he's ill again, on another Friday, of all days", and even Dickens called a teacher "Mr.Choakumchild". Try this one out for innuendo "I just wish I were as confident as you to wear something so revealing". Advertising is full of innuendo, in suggesting certain claims about a produce which it can't factually support. And don't forget that with advertising, sex sells, e.g. "Sleep with your wife - Same day return flights".
Invective - an abusive or reproachful language used to express blame or censure (can sometimes be offensive). Examples are "are you chicken?", "why should she be interesting in you?", and "your so old, you must have taken your driving test on a dinosaur". Invectives can be just calling a psychiatrist a shrink, or an environmentalist a "tree hugger", or a civil servant a parasite.
Kenning - is a type of circumlocution, using figurative language in place of a simple noun (and strongly linked to Old Norse poetry). "Couch potato" and "bookworm" are two common examples. An epithet is not a kenning because it does not involve a noun-noun replacement. i.e. book-worm is a kenning because the replacement is a noun-noun. Epithets create a contrast, e.g. calling water the "bane of fire", but a kenning creates a simile, e.g. "the sea is like a path for whales". Other examples are "sea-cloth" for sail, "battle-sweat" for blood, "breast-hoard" for heart, "petal-fall" for autumn, "word-hoard" for book, and "sky-candle" for the sun.
Non Sequitur (meaning "it does not follow") - is an absurd literary device because of its apparent lack of relevance to the topic in question. Often the starting point is a logical fallacy based upon an invalid premise and incorrect deductive reasoning, e.g. "X is different from Y. X is a man. Therefore Y is different from a man". A hasty generalisation might be "X and Y are men. X is tall. Therefore Y is tall". The non sequitur goes one step further, in that it does not even try to incorrectly deduce a consequence of a formal fallacy, i.e. "X is different from Y. X is a man. Y must be water". It's possible to add a little humour, e.g. "X is different from Y. Y is a man. X must be intelligent", but it is not a requirement. A non sequitur might be used to divert an argument to an unrelated topic, suggest a false comparison, introduce a sloppy generalisation, etc., but the key is an absurd jump in logic.
Tautology - is about saying the same thing twice using nearly the same words, so its about repeating something again with words that are very similar. Examples abound, "bad writing lacks the quality of good writing", "we are one group, unified, standing together", "I'll do it later, at another time", and "this is deja vu all over again".
I fully admit to covering this topic rather superficially, and here are a few links that will help anyone wanting to delve deeper into the subject.
Literary Devices and Terms