Brief Introductions to Common Figures of Speech

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Of the hundreds of figures of speech, many have similar or overlapping meanings. Here we offer simple definitions and examples of 30 common figures, drawing some basic distinctions between related terms.

How to Recognize Common Figures of Speech

For additional examples and more detailed discussions of each figurative device, click on the term to visit the entry in our glossary.

A Metaphor vs. a Simile

Both metaphors and similes express comparisons between two things that aren't obviously alike. In a simile, the comparison is stated explicitly with the help of a word such as like or as: "My love is like a red, red rose / That's newly sprung in June." In a metaphor, the two things are linked or equated without using like or as: "Love is a rose, but you better not pick it."

Metaphor vs. Metonymy

Put simply, metaphors make comparisons while metonyms make associations or substitutions. The place name "Hollywood," for example, has become a metonym for the American film industry (and all the glitz and greed that go with it).

Metaphor vs. Personification

Personification is a particular type of metaphor that assigns the characteristics of a person to something non-human, as in this observation from Douglas Adams: "He turned on the wipers again, but they still refused to feel that the exercise was worthwhile, and scraped and squeaked in protest."

Personification vs. Apostrophe

A rhetorical apostrophe not only animates something absent or non-living (as in personification) but also addresses it directly. For instance, in Johnny Mercer's song "Moon River," the river is apostrophized: "Wherever you're going, I'm going your way."

Hyperbole vs. Understatement

Both are attention-getting devices: hyperbole exaggerates the truth for emphasis while understatement says less and means more. To say that Uncle Wheezer is "older than dirt" is an example of hyperbole. To say that he's "a bit long in the tooth" is probably an understatement.

Understatement vs. Litotes

Litotes is a type of understatement in which an affirmative is expressed by negating its opposite. We might say litotically that Uncle Wheezer is "no spring chicken" and "not as young as he used to be."

Alliteration vs. Assonance

Both create sound effects: alliteration through the repetition of an initial consonant sound (as in "a peck of pickled peppers"), and assonance through the repetition of similar vowel sounds in neighboring words ("It beats . . . as it sweeps . . . as it cleans!").

Onomatopoeia vs. Homoioteleuton

Don't be put off by the fancy terms. They refer to some very familiar sound effects. Onomatopoeia (pronounced ON-a-MAT-a-PEE-a) refers to words (such as bow-wow and hiss) that imitate the sounds associated with the objects or actions they refer to. Homoioteleuton (pronounced ho-moi-o-te-LOO-ton) refers to similar sounds at the endings of words, phrases, or sentences ("The quicker picker upper").

Anaphora vs. Epistrophe

Both involve the repetition of words or phrases. With anaphora, the repetition is at the beginning of successive clauses (as in the famous refrain in the final part of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech). With epistrophe (also known as epiphora), the repetition is at the end of successive clauses ("When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child").

Antithesis vs. Chiasmus

Both are rhetorical balancing acts. In an antithesis, contrasting ideas are juxtaposed in balanced phrases or clauses ("Love is an ideal thing, marriage a real thing"). A chiasmus (also known as antimetabole) is a type of antithesis in which the second half of an expression is balanced against the first with the parts reversed ("The first shall be last, and the last shall be first").

Asyndeton vs. Polysyndeton

These terms refer to contrasting ways of linking items in a series. An asyndetic style omits all conjunctions and separates the items with commas ("They dove, splashed, floated, splashed, swam, snorted"). A polysyndetic style places a conjunction after every item in the list.

A Paradox vs. an Oxymoron

Both involve apparent contradictions. A paradoxical statement appears to contradict itself ("If you wish to preserve your secret, wrap it up in frankness"). An oxymoron is a compressed paradox in which incongruous or contradictory terms appear side by side ("a real phony").

A Euphemism vs. a Dysphemism

A euphemism involves the substitution of an inoffensive expression (such as "passed away") for one that might be considered offensively explicit ("died"). In contrast, a dysphemism substitutes a harsher phrase ("took a dirt nap") for a comparatively inoffensive one. Though often meant to shock or offend, dysphemisms may also serve as in-group markers to show camaraderie.

Diacope vs. Epizeuxis

Both involve the repetition of a word or phrase for emphasis. With diacope, the repetition is usually broken up by one or more intervening words: "You're not fully clean until you're Zestfully clean." In the case of epizeuxis, there are no interruptions: "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!"

Verbal Irony vs. Sarcasm

In both, words are used to convey the opposite of their literal meanings. Linguist John Haiman has drawn this key distinction between the two devices: "[P]eople may be unintentionally ironic, but sarcasm requires intention. What is essential to sarcasm is that it is overt irony intentionally used by the speaker as a form of verbal aggression" (Talk Is Cheap, 1998).

A Tricolon vs. a Tetracolon Climax

Both refer to a series of words, phrases, or clauses in parallel form. A tricolon is a series of three members: "Eye it, try it, buy it!" A tetracolon climax is a series of four: "He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world."

Rhetorical question vs. Epiplexis

A rhetorical question is asked merely for effect with no answer expected: "Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who would want to live in an institution?" Epiplexis is a type of rhetorical question whose purpose is to rebuke or reproach: "Have you no shame?"

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Nordquist, Richard. "Brief Introductions to Common Figures of Speech." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Brief Introductions to Common Figures of Speech. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Brief Introductions to Common Figures of Speech." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).