Frequently Asked Questions About Figures of Speech

Figures of speech offer fresh ways of thinking about our world and our lives

"Language is not the frosting, it's the cake" (Tom Robbins). (Doug Schneider/Getty Images)
Ultimately, I use figures of speech to deepen the reader's subliminal understanding of the person, place, or thing that's being described. . . . 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)

Back in 1577, Henry Peacham characterized the figures of speech as words "made new by art, and removed from the common custom" (The Garden of Eloquence).

More than 100 of these figurative structures and strategies can be found in our Toolkit for Rhetorical Analysis, and several of the most common (or commonly misunderstood) receive special treatment. As a means of introduction, here are 12 frequently asked questions (and answers) about figures of speech.

  • What Is a Metaphor?
    Since the classical age of Greece, metaphor has been recognized as one of the master tropes. "The greatest thing by far," said Aristotle, "is to have a command of metaphor. . . . It is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblance" (Poetics, 330 BC). Metaphors aren't merely the candy sprinkles on the doughnut of language, the sweet stuff of songs and poems--Love is a jewel or a rose or a journey. In fact all of us speak and write and think in metaphors every day. They can't be avoided: metaphors are baked right into our language. . . . Read more
  • What Is Personification?
    One special kind of metaphor is personification--which some people think of as the playful figure of speech. Like a Pixar film, personification (also known as prosopopoeia) animates the non-human world. Because of our natural tendency to view the universe in human terms, it's not surprising that we often rely on personification to bring inanimate things to life. . . . Read more
  • What Is an Analogy?
    Like metaphors and similes, analogies point out similarities between two different processes or things. Though you can't count on these comparisons to prove a point or settle an argument, good analogies often help to clarify the issues. Just keep in mind that analogies are like Kleenex: the more you try to do with them, the thinner they become. . . . Read more
  • What Is Hyperbole?
    According to the philosopher Seneca, hyperbole "asserts the incredible in order to arrive at the credible." In defense of hyperbole as a forceful figure of speech, we offer these 10 examples of the trope at its best--imaginative, insightful, and appropriately outlandish. . . . Read more
  • What Is a Maxim?
    Maxim, proverb, gnome, aphorism, apothegm, sententia--all mean essentially the same thing: a short, easily remembered expression of a basic principle, general truth, or rule of conduct. Think of a maxim as a little nugget of wisdom--or of apparent wisdom. In the words of Robert Benchley, "It is often difficult to tell whether a maxim means something, or something means maxim." . . . Read more
  • What Is Chiasmus?
    If you want to leave your audience with something to remember the next time you write or give a speech, try employing the Power of X: chiasmus (also called antimetabole). Chiasmus (pronounced kye-AZ-muss) is the crisscross figure of speech: a verbal pattern in which the second half of an expression is balanced against the first with the parts reversed. . . . Read more
  • What Is a Tricolon?
    tricolon is a series of three parallel words, phrases, or clauses. It's a simple enough structure, yet potentially a powerful one. Consider this familiar example: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." . . . Read more
  • What Is an Oxymoron?
    The rhetorical term oxymoron, made up of two Greek words meaning "sharp" and "dull," is itself oxymoronic. As you may remember from school, an oxymoron is a compressed paradox: a figure of speech in which seemingly contradictory terms appear side by side. It's been called "the show-off" figure, one that gives voice to life's inherent conflicts and incongruities. . . . Read more
  • What Is Irony?
    "To say one thing but to mean something else"--that may be the simplest definition of irony. But in truth there's nothing at all simple about this rhetorical concept. As J.A. Cuddon says, irony "eludes definition," and "this elusiveness is one of the main reasons why it is a source of so much fascinated inquiry and speculation" (A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory). . . . Read more
  • What Is the Value of Studying the Figures of Speech?
    Metaphor and metonymy, irony and hyperbole, chiasmus and antithesis--learning all the peculiar names of the figures of speech can be a real challenge. Learning how to recognize the figures in our reading and apply them in our writing can be even harder. So why should we even bother? Over a century ago, a popular Canadian novelist and professor of rhetoric, James De Mille, offered several good reasons for studying the figures of speech. . . . Read more

To learn more about figurative language, visit these pages: