Figures of Speech: Definition and Examples

The figures of speech are the various rhetorical uses of language that depart from customary construction, word order, or significance. “Figures of speech,” Gleaves Whitney has observed, “are all of the ways in which human beings bend and stretch words to heighten meaning or create a desired effect” (American Presidents: Farewell Messages to the Nation, 2003).

Common figures of speech include metaphorsimilemetonymyhyperbolepersonification, and chiasmus, though there are countless others.

Figures of speech are also known as figures of rhetoric, figures of style, rhetorical figures, figurative languageand schemes.

Although the figures of speech are sometimes regarded as simply ornamental additions to a text (like candy sprinkles on a cake), in fact they serve as integral elements of style and thought (the cake itself, as Tom Robbins points out). In the Institutes of Oratory (95 AD), Quintilian says that the figures, used effectively, are “exciting to the emotions” and give “credibility to our arguments.”

For examples of the most common figures, follow the links at The Top 20 Figures of Speech. Also see Examples and Observations below.

For definitions of well over 100 figures, visit The Tool Kit for Rhetorical Analysis.

Examples and Observations

  • “An integral part of language, figures of speech are found in oral literatures, as well as in polished poetry and prose and in everyday speech. Greeting-card rhymes, advertising slogans, newspaper headlines, the captions of cartoons, and the mottoes of families and institutions often use figures of speech, generally for humorous, mnemonic, or eye-catching purposes. The argots of sports, jazz, business, politics, or any specialized groups abound in figurative language. Most figures in everyday speech are formed by extending the vocabulary of what is already familiar and better known to what is less well known.”
    (Merriam-Webster’s Reader’s Handbook. Merriam-Webster, 1997)
  • The Figures as Ways of Seeing
    – “The vast pool of terms for verbal ornamentation has acted like a gene pool for the rhetorical imagination, stimulating us to look at language in another way. . . . The figures have worked historically to teach a way of seeing.”
    (Richard Lanham, A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms, 2nd ed. University of California Press, 1991)

    – “The most excellent ornaments, exornations, lightes, flowers, and formes of speech, commonly called the figures of rhetorike. By which the singular partes of mans mind, are most aptly expressed, and the sundrie affections of his heart most effectuallie uttered.”
    (Henry Peacham, The Garden of Eloquence, 1593)

  • “Language Is Not the Frosting, It’s the Cake”
    “If, as Terence McKenna contended, the world is actually made of language, then metaphors and similes (puns, too, I might add) extend the dimensions and expand the possibilities of the world. When both innovative and relevant, they can wake up a reader, make him or her aware, through elasticity of verbiage, that reality—in our daily lives as well as in our stories—is less prescribed than tradition has led us to believe. . . .

    “Ultimately, I use figures of speech to deepen the reader’s subliminal understanding of the person, place, or thing that’s being described. That, above everything else, validates their role as a highly effective literary device. If nothing else, they remind reader and writer alike that language is not the frosting, it’s the cake.”
    (Tom Robbins, “What Is the Function of Metaphor?” Wild Ducks Flying Backward. Bantam, 2005)

  • The Plasticity of Language
    “The figurings of speech reveal to us the apparently limitless plasticity of language itself. We are confronted, inescapably, with the intoxicating possibility that we can make language do for us almost anything we want. Or at least a Shakespeare can.”
    (Arthur Quinn, Figures of Speech: 60 Ways To Turn A Phrase. Routledge, 1995)
  • Schemes
    “The Greeks called them ‘schemes,’ a better word than ‘figures,’ because they serve as persuasive tricks and rules of thumb. While Shakespeare had to memorize more than 200 of them in grammar school, the basic ones aren’t hard to learn. . . .

    Figures of speech change ordinary language through repetition, substitution, sound, and wordplay. They mess around with words—skipping them, swapping them, and making them sound different.”
    (Jay Heinrichs, Thank You for Arguing. Three Rivers Press, 2007)

  • Figures of Argument and Figures of Style
    “We consider a figure to be argumentative if it brings about a change of perspective, and its use seems normal in relation to this new situation. If, on the other hand, the speech does not bring about the adherence of the hearer to this argumentative form, the figure will be considered an embellishment, a figure of style. It can excite admiration, but this will be on the aesthetic plane, or in recognition of the speaker’s originality.”
    (Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca, The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation. Translated by J. Wilkinson and P. Weaver. University of Notre Dame Press, 1969)
  • Figures of Speech in Economics
    Figures of speech are not mere frills. They think for us. Says Heidegger, ‘Die Spracht spricht, nicht der Mensch’: The language speaks, not the human speaker. Someone who thinks of a market as an ‘invisible hand’ and the organization of work as a ‘production function’ and her coefficients as being ‘significant,’ as an economist does, is giving the language a lot of responsibility. It seems a good idea to look hard at the language.”
    (Deirdre N. McCloskey, The Rhetoric of Economics, 2nd ed. University of Wisconsin Press, 1998)

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