Figure of Speech

Illustration of three figures of speech: pun, oxymoron, and alliteration

Illustration by Hugo Lin. ThoughtCo.

In common usage, a figure of speech is a word or phrase that means something more or something other than it seems to say—the opposite of a literal expression. As Professor Brian Vickers has observed, "It is a sad proof of the decline of rhetoric that in modern colloquial English the phrase 'a figure of speech' has come to mean something false, illusory or insincere."

In rhetoric, a figure of speech is a type of figurative language (such as metaphor, irony, understatement, or anaphora) that departs from conventional word order or meaning. See Figures of Speech.

Just a Figure of Speech: The Lighter Side

- Mr. Burns: Break a leg, everyone. [to a passing employee] I said break a leg.
[Employee breaks his own leg with a hammer]
Mr. Burns: My God, man! That was a figure of speech. You're fired!

("American History X-cellent." The Simpsons, 2010)

- Lieutenant Columbo: So you had an hour to kill before you had to get back to the airport.
Dr. Neil Cahill: I take it you mean to use that phrase, "to kill." You mean that literally.
Lieutenant Columbo: No, I was just using a figure of speech. I'm not making an accusation.

(Peter Falk and Robert Walker, Jr., "Mind Over Mayhem." Columbo, 1974)

- "What if there were a gun to your head, what would you say?"
"Whose gun are you thinking of putting to my head?"
"It was just a figure of speech, for God's sake. You don't have to be so literal about it."
"It's only a figure of speech when you don't have a gun in your possession."

(Jonathan Baumbach, My Father More or Less. Fiction Collective, 1982)

- 'Yes,' said Coleridge. 'The new Commercial Trading Hall. . . . The emptiest building in town, gentlemen. If there are twenty people in it at any given time, I'll eat my tricorder on the spot.'

"Data looked at the archaeologist, and Geordi caught the look. 'That's only a figure of speech, Data. She doesn't really intend to eat it.'

"The android nodded. 'I am familiar with the expression, Geordi.'"

(Carmen Carter et al., Doomsday World. Titan, 1990)

Metaphor As a Figure of Thought

- "In its broad sense, a metaphor is not only a figure of speech but also a figure of thought. It is a mode of apprehension and a means of perceiving and expressing something in a radically different way. In such a sense, figurative images are not simply decorative but serve to reveal aspects of experience in a new light."

(Ning Yu, "Imagery." Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition, ed. by Theresa Enos. Taylor & Francis, 1996)

- "Reaching into her pocket, [Ethel] pulled out the paper, held it in the moonlight, and read, 'Beneath this brilliant metaphor will there treasure be.'

"'What's a metaphor?' I asked.

"Ethel said, 'It's a word that compares one thing to another, to show how they might be alike.'

"'Well,' I said, 'if the metaphor is brilliant, maybe it's the chandelier.'

"They stared at me. I don't know why. If you ask me, the clue had seemed pretty obvious.

"'You know,' said Kermit, 'I think Archie is right.' He turned to Ethel. 'I can't believe I just said that.'"

(Teddy Roosevelt and the Treasure of Ursa Major, adapted by Ronald Kidd from the play by Tom Isbell. Simon and Schuster, 2008)

Simile As Another Kind of Comparison

- "'What's a simile?'" asked Sandy. She looked to Cora for an answer.

"'When you compare something to something else to get a better picture of it in your head. The clouds look like cotton balls. The edge of the snow shovel is sharp like a knife.'"

(Donita K. Paul, Two Tickets to the Christmas Ball. Waterbrook Press, 2010)

- "The simile is a metaphor that gives itself away. 'The moon is a balloon': that's a metaphor. 'The moon is like a balloon': that's a simile."

(Jay Heinrichs, Word Hero: A Fiendishly Clever Guide to Crafting the Lines That Get Laughs. Three Rivers Press, 2011)

Oxymoron As an Apparent Contradiction

- "A contradiction in terms is also called an oxymoron. Debates are often started by asking whether a term is an oxymoron. For example, is artificial intelligence an oxymoron? Jokes are often based in oxymorons; is military intelligence an oxymoron?"

(Bradley Harris Dowden, Logical Reasoning. Wadsworth, 1993)

- "Her husband got hit by a bus. What was Gemma supposed to say? More to the point, what did Helen want to hear?

"'Well,' said Gemma, going to sit on the bed beside Helen, who looked a little taken aback as she shifted to make room. 'You can't have an accident on purpose,' Gemma went on. 'That's an oxymoron. If there was intent, it wasn't an accident.'

"'I guess I'm wondering if there isn't hidden intent in everything we do,' said Helen."

(Dianne Blacklock, False Advertising. Pan Macmillan Australia, 2007)

Hyperbole As Exaggeration

- "Samantha and I sat in chairs that had been set up near the table.

"'What's hyperbole?' I asked her.

"'It's a fancy way of saying bull.'"

(Steve Atinsky, Tyler on Prime Time. Thorndike Press, 2002)

- "Mark Twain was a master of hyperbole, as he reveals in this description of a tree after an ice storm: '[I]t stands there the acme, the climax, the supremest possibility in art or nature, of bewildering, intoxicating, intolerable magnificence. One cannot make the words strong enough.'"

(Thomas S. Kane, The New Oxford Guide to Writing. Oxford University Press, 1988)

Understatement As Beauty...or Sarcasm

- "She read what [Will] was going to say in his eyes before the words left his lips.

"'I love you.'

"So simple. No frills, no grandiose gestures. It was so Will. Suddenly, she understood the beauty of understatement."

(Fiona Harper, English Lord, Ordinary Lady. Harlequin, 2008)

- "[Serein] sat in the doorway, legs out onto the half deck, huddling in his greatcoat. 'Comet,' he said. 'You weren't well.'

"'Is that understatement a new type of sarcasm you're experimenting with?'"

(Steph Swainston, No Present Like Time. HarperCollins, 2006)

"Just a Figure of Speech": The Cliché

- "[I]t is interesting that the phrase 'just a figure of speech' has become a cliché, as if for something to be a figure of speech in some way downgrades it. It may not be going too far to say that there is a certain denial going on in this view; that it is more convenient and comfortable to pretend that there are some speech forms which do not use figures of speech and thus give us access to a solid, incontrovertible perception of the real, in contrast to which the figure of speech is in some way abstracted, lacking in purchase."

(David Punter, Metaphor. Routledge, 2007)

- "I'm quite sure he doesn't really think you have been abducted by aliens. It was just a figure of speech, like 'Oh, she's just little Miss Sunshine' or 'What a clown.' When you use expressions like that (which I totally never do), it doesn't mean a person is really an inhumanly hot solar ball or that they're a member of the circus. It's not literal."

(Laura Toffler-Corrie, The Life and Opinions of Amy Finawitz. Roaring Book Press, 2010)

Further Reading