Definition and Examples

As personifications of their respective nations, the U.S. and England, Uncle Sam (on the left) and John Bull (on the right) became popular during the 19th century. In this political cartoon from Punch magazine (1876), the personified figure of Justice attempts to reconcile the feuding parties. (The Cartoon Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Personification is a trope or figure of speech (generally considered a type of metaphor) in which an inanimate object or abstraction is given human qualities or abilities. The term for personification in classical rhetoric is prosopopoeia.

Pronunciation: per-SON-if-i-KAY-shun

Types of Personification

"[I]t is necessary to distinguish two meanings of the term 'personification.' One refers to the practice of giving an actual personality to an abstraction. This practice has its origins in animism and ancient religion, and it is called 'personification' by modern theorists of religion and anthropology.

"The other meaning of 'personification' . . . is the historical sense of prosopopoeia. This refers to the practice of giving a consciously fictional personality to an abstraction, 'impersonating' it. This rhetorical practice requires a separation between the literary pretense of a personality and the actual state of affairs," (Jon Whitman, Allegory: The Dynamics of an Ancient and Medieval Technique, Harvard University Press, 1987).

Personification in Literature

For centuries, authors have been personifying the ideas, concepts, and objects in their work in order to inject meaning into otherwise insignificant things and abstractions. Keep reading for examples from the likes of Roger Angell, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and more.

Roger Angell

Although personification doesn't always fit into formal writing, essayist Roger Angell proved that it can when he wrote about living into his nineties for The New Yorker in 2014. "Death, meanwhile, was constantly onstage or changing costume for his next engagement—as Bergman’s thick-faced chess player; as the medieval night-rider in a hoodie; as Woody Allen’s awkward visitor half-falling into the room as he enters through the window; as W.C. Fields’s man in the bright nightgown—and in my mind had gone from specter to a waiting second-level celebrity on the Letterman show.

"Or almost. Some people I knew seemed to have lost all fear when dying and awaited the end with a certain impatience. 'I’m tired of lying here,' said one. 'Why is this taking so long?' asked another. Death will get it on with me eventually, and stay much too long, and though I’m in no hurry about the meeting, I feel I know him almost too well by now," ("This Old Man," The New Yorker, February 17, 2014).

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Looking now at the work of novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, personification looks very different but serves a similar purpose—adding depth and character to an object or concept of focus. "Right opposite our house, on our Mount Clear, is an old oak, the apostle of the primeval forest. ... His limbs have been here and there shattered; his back begins to look mossy and dilapidated; but after all, there is a piquant, decided air about him, that speaks the old age of a tree of distinction, a kingly oak. Today I see him standing, dimly revealed through the mist of falling snows; tomorrow's sun will show the outline of his gnarled limbs—all rose color with their soft snow burden; and again a few months, and spring will breathe on him, and he will draw a long breath, and break out once more, for the three-hundredth time, perhaps, into a vernal crown of leaves," ("The Old Oak of Andover," 1855).

William Shakespeare

You didn't think that William Shakespeare, master of drama and poetry, wouldn't use personification in his work, did you? See how he did in the excerpt from Timon of Athens below, setting an example for writers for centuries to come.

"Do villainy, do, since you protest to do't,
Like workmen. I'll example you with thievery.
The sun's a thief, and with his great attraction
Robs the vast sea; the moon's an arrant thief,
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun;
The sea's a thief, whose liquid surge resolves
The moon into salt tears; the earth's a thief,
That feeds and breeds by a composture stolen
From general excrement: each thing's a thief,"

Percy Bysshe Shelley

For yet another look at personification in poetry, see how poet Percy Bysshe Shelley gives fraud human-like traits in this passage from "The Mash of Anarchy."

"Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Eldon, an ermined gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell.
And the little children, who
Round his feet played to and fro,
Thinking every tear a gem,
Had their brains knocked out by them."

James Stephens

"The wind stood up and gave a shout/ He whistled on his fingers and/ Kicked the withered leaves about/ And thumped the branches with his hand/ And said he'd kill and kill and kill,/ And so he will! And so he will!" ("The Wind")

Margery Allingham

"The fog had crept into the taxi where it crouched panting in a traffic jam. It oozed in ungenially, to smear sooty fingers over the two elegant young people who sat inside." ("The Tiger in the Smoke," 1952)

Toni Morrison

"Only the champion daisy trees were serene. After all, they were part of a rain forest already two thousand years old and scheduled for eternity, so they ignored the men and continued to rock the diamondbacks that slept in their arms. It took the river to persuade them that indeed the world was altered." ("Tar Baby," 1981)

"Pimento eyes bulged in their olive sockets. Lying on a ring of onion, a tomato slice exposed its seedy smile ... " ("Love: A Novel," Alfred A. Knopf, 2003).

E.B. White,

"The small waves were the same, chucking the rowboat under the chin as we fished at anchor." ("Once More to the Lake," 1941)

P.G. Wodehouse

"Unseen, in the background, Fate was quietly slipping the lead into the boxing gloves." ("Very Good, Jeeves," 1930)

David Lodge

"They crossed another yard, where hulks of obsolete machinery crouched, bleeding rust into their blankets of snow ... " ("Nice Work." Viking, 1988)

Richard Selzer

"The operation is over. On the table, the knife lies spent, on its side, the bloody meal smear-dried upon its flanks. The knife rests. And waits," ("The Knife." Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery, Simon & Schuster, 1976).

Douglas Adams

"Dirk turned on the car wipers, which grumbled because they didn't have quite enough rain to wipe away, so he turned them off again. Rain quickly speckled the windscreen. He turned on the wipers again, but they still refused to feel that the exercise was worthwhile, and scraped and squeaked in protest," ("The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul," William Heinemann, 1988).

Richard Wilbur

"Joy’s trick is to supply
Dry lips with what can cool and slake,
Leaving them dumbstruck also with an ache
Nothing can satisfy," ("Hamlen Brook").

Dylan Thomas

"Outside, the sun springs down on the rough and tumbling town. It runs through the hedges of Goosegog Lane, cuffing the birds to sing. Spring whips green down Cockle Row, and the shells ring out. Llaregyb this snip of a morning is wildfruit and warm, the streets, fields, sands and waters springing in the young sun," ("Under Milk Wood," 1954).

Fran Lebowitz

"There was a time when music knew its place. No longer. Possibly this is not music's fault. It may be that music fell in with a bad crowd and lost its sense of common decency. I am willing to consider this. I am willing to even to try and help. I would like to do my bit to set music straight in order that it might shape up and leave the mainstream of society. The first thing that music must understand is that there are two kinds of music--good music and bad music. Good music is music that I want to hear. Bad music is music that I don't want to hear." ("The Sound of Music: Enough Already." Metropolitan Life, E.P. Dutton, 1978).

Personification in Popular Culture

Take a look at these additional examples of personification in media to practice identifying what is being personified. Personification is a unique language tool that's hard to miss, but deciphering the meaning and purpose of its use can be tricky.

Oreo Commercial

"Oreo: Milk’s favorite cookie."

Slogan for Chevrolet Automobiles

"The road isn't built that can make it breathe hard!"

Christopher Moltisanti, "The Sopranos"

"Fear knocked on the door. Faith answered. There was no one there."

Steve Goodman, "The City of New Orleans"

"Good morning, America, how are you?
Don't you know me I'm your native son?
I'm the train they call the City of New Orleans;
I'll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done."

Homer Simpson, "The Simpsons"

"The only monster here is the gambling monster that has enslaved your mother! I call him Gamblor, and it's time to snatch your mother from his neon claws!"

"SpongeBob SquarePants: No Weenies Allowed"

"[inside SpongeBob's mind] SpongeBob boss: Hurry up! What do you think I'm paying you for?
SpongeBob worker:
You don't pay me. You don't even exist. We're just a clever visual metaphor used to personify the abstract concept of thought.
SpongeBob boss:
One more crack like that and you're outta here!
SpongeBob worker:
No, please! I have three kids."

Personification Today

Here's what a couple of writers have to say about the use of personification today—how it functions, how it is perceived, and how critics feel about it.

"In present-day English, [personification] has taken on a new lease of life in the media, especially film and advertising, although literary critics like Northrop Frye (cited in Paxson 1994: 172) might well think it is 'devalued.' ...

Personification Devices

"Linguistically, personification is marked by one or more of the following devices:

  1. the potentiality for the referent to be addressed by you (or thou);
  2. the assignment of the faculty of speech (and hence the potential occurrence of I);
  3. the assignment of a personal name;
  4. co-occurrence of personified NP with he/she;
  5. reference to human/animal attributes: what TG would thus term the violation of 'selection restrictions' (e.g. 'the sun slept')," (Katie Wales, Personal Pronouns in Present-Day English. Cambridge University Press, 1996).

"Personification, with allegory, was the literary rage in the 18th century, but it goes against the modern grain and today is the feeblest of metaphorical devices,"
(Rene Cappon, Associated Press Guide to News Writing, 2000).

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Personification." ThoughtCo, Apr. 12, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, April 12). Personification. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Personification." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 30, 2023).

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