You might have heard the expression “it’s a figure of speech,” but what does that really mean? A figure of speech is just that – figurative language. It might be words with a literal meaning, a certain arrangements of words, or a phrase with a meaning that is something entirely other than that of the words themselves. Figures of speech can be refreshing and fun, but for some – especially those who are not native English speakers – a figure of speech can be very confusing. Here are some of the most common figures of speech and what they mean.
List of Figure of Speech and Examples
This is a very common figure of speech that involves using words that begin with the same sound.
For instance, “Sally sells sea shells by the seashore” is alliteration – and try saying it fast to see how difficult it is! It is often used in advertising slogans to create something catchy that more people will remember.
This figure of speech uses a specific clause at the beginning of each sentence or point to make a statement.
For instance: “Good night and good luck” is an example of the beginning word being the same. The more it is used, the more of an emotional effect is can evoke among those who are listening. Another example is "Mad world! Mad kings! Mad composition!" from King John, II, I by William Shakespeare.
Remember the phrase “I Like Ike”? It was a very common phase for those who supported Dwight Eisenhower during his presidential run. This is a figure of speech that focuses on the vowel sounds in a phrase, repeating them over and over to great effect.
“It was as big as a mountain! It was faster than a cheetah! It was dumber than a rock!” This figure of speech makes things seem much bigger than they really were by using grandiose depictions of everyday things. Hyperbole is often seen as an exaggeration that adds a bit of humor to a story.
This figure of speech tries to use a word in a literal sense that debunks what has just been said. “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!” from Dr. Strangelove is a great example. It is often used to poke fun at a situation that everyone else sees as a very serious matter.
There are different types of irony and here are the details and examples.
The use of metaphor compares two things that are not alike and finds something about them to make them alike.
“My heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill” from a book by William Sharp is a good example of metaphor. Some writers try to use this style to create something profound out of comparing two things that appear to have nothing at all in common.
In this figure of speech, two things are compared that are not really the same, but are used to make a point about each other.
“Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get” is a famous line from the movie Forrest Gump that illustrates the simile. This is often used to make an emotional point about something. The difference between simile and metaphor is that you can obviously see words "like" in the sentence.
In this figure of speech, one word that has a very similar meaning can be used for another. Using the word “crown” for “royalty” or “lab coats” for “scientists” are two examples. In some ways it can be seen as a nickname for something else; for instance, “The White House said” doesn’t actually mean the White House said it (a house can’t speak!) but that the President said it. However, we all understand the meaning, and so the words are interchangeable.
This is the use of a word that actually sounds like what it means. Good examples include “hiss” or “ding-dong” or “fizz.” These words are meant to describe something that actually sounds very much like the word itself. This is a trick often used in advertising to help convey what something is really like.
This figure of speech completely contradicts itself in the same sentence. Famous quotes that illustrate this from George Orwell’s “1984” include: “War is peace. Ignorance is strength. Freedom is slavery.” Though we know these things aren’t true, they present an interesting paradox that makes a person think seriously about what they have just read or heard.
This is a way of giving an inanimate object the qualities of a living thing. “The tree quaked with fear as the wind approached” is an example; “The sun smiled down on her” is another. This can sometimes be used to invoke an emotional response to something by making it more personable, friendly and relatable.
This play on words uses different senses of the word, or different sounds that make up the word, to create something fun and interesting. For instance: “I would like to go to Holland some day. Wooden shoe?” is a pun that actually means “wouldn’t you?” Sometimes puns are so subtle that they can be tough to pick up unless you are really listening for them.
This is a figure of speech in which one thing is meant to represent the whole. A few good examples include “ABCs” for alphabet, “new set of wheels” for car, or “9/11” to demonstrate the whole of the tragedy that happened in the United States on September 11, 2001. This is often used in journalism as a type of shorthand.
This is a situation in which the thing discussed is made to seem much less important than it really is. This famous line from Catcher in the Rye is a good example: “I have to have this operation. It isn’t very serious. I have this tiny tumor on the brain.” Understatement can often be used to comedic effect.
This is a contradiction that pits two ideas against each other in a balanced way. “You’re easy on the eyes, hard on the heart” is a line from a country song that illustrates this perfectly. This is often used to indicate just how something can be more than one thing at the same time.
Words that are used to soften the message are often considered euphemisms. “Passed away” is often used in place of “died” or “killed.” A “misunderstanding” might be used in place of “fight” or “argument.” And who could forget “wardrobe malfunction,” which is a fancy way of saying “your clothes fell off.”
This puts two words together that seem to contradict each other. “Military intelligence,” “real phony,” “civil war,” and “silent yell” are all examples of an oxymoron. Many people use these to promote the humor in a situation.