What Are Tropes in Language?

Definition and Examples

There are two definitions for tropes. It is another term for a figure of speech. It is also a​ rhetorical device that produces a shift in the meanings of words--in contrast to a scheme, which changes only the shape of a phrase. Also called figure of thought.

According to some rhetoricians, the four master tropes are metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony.


From the Greek, "a turn"

Examples and Observations:

  • "For the Roman rhetorician Quintilian, tropes were metaphors and metonyms, etc., and figures were such forms of discourse as rhetorical questions, digression, repetition, antithesis, and periphrasis (also referred to as schemes). He noted that the two kinds of usage were often confused (a state of affairs that has continued to this day)."
    (Tom McArthur, Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford University Press, 1992)
  • "[T]ropes do more than please the palate of the effete of the twenty-first century C.E. Tropes swerve, they defer the literal, forever, if we are lucky; they make plain that to make sense we must always be ready to trip."
    (Donna Jeanne Haraway, Introduction to The Haraway Reader. Routledge, 2003)

Distinctions Between Figures and Tropes

  • "The true difference between tropes and figures may be easily conceived. A trope is a change of a word or sentence from one sense into another, which its very etymology imports; whereas it is the nature of a figure not to change the sense of words, but to illustrate, enliven, ennoble, or in some manner or another embellish our discourse: and so far, and so far only, as the words are changed into a different meaning from that which they originally signify, the orator is obliged to the tropes, and not to the figures in rhetoric." (Thomas Gibbons, Rhetoric: Or a View of Its Principal Tropes and Figures, 1740)
  • "What was abandoned in the course of the 19th century was the traditionally strict distinction between tropes and figures/schemes (Sharon-Zisser, 1993). It gave way to the overall terms 'figures du discours' (Fontanier), 'figures of speech' (Quinn), 'rhetorical figures' (Mayoral), 'figures de style' (Suhamy, Bacry), or simple 'figures' (Genette)." (H.F. Plett, "Figures of Speech." Encyclopedia of Rhetoric. Oxford University Press, 2002)

    Richard Lanham on the Difficulty of Defining Trope

    • "Theorists have differed in defining this term  [trope], and any single definition would be prescriptive. Such consensus as there is wants trope to mean a figure that changes the meaning of a word or words, rather than simply arranging them in a pattern of some sort. (Thus the distinction would roughly correspond to that between true and false wit in the time of Pope.) That the placing of a word in a highly artificial pattern--a scheme--usually involves some change of its meaning is a point theorists have more often ignored than quarreled over.. . . .
    • "[I]t is by no means clear that such a predetermined division will do justice to any particular text, especially to a literary one. Take a simple example. Hyperbaton, a generic term for departure from ordinary word order, is a trope. Yet, under it we must group several of the figures of words (anaphora, conduplicatio, isocolon, ploce), since they clearly depend on an 'unnatural' word order . . .. The distinction immediately breaks down, of course, because 'natural' is impossible to define." (Richard Lanham, Analyzing Prose, 2nd ed. Continuum, 2003)


    • "I like that the Greek word trope literally means 'turn,' a definition picked up in our common expression 'turn of phrase' and 'turn of thought,' not to mention 'twist of plot.'

      "The idea of troping, or turning a phrase, captures a truth about rhetorical appeals that we are liable to forget. They always involve swerves, indirections, substitutions, twists, and turns of meaning. Love is not a rose after all, so what do we gain rhetorically by identifying the one thing with the other? What's the appeal?

      " . . . [A]ppeals do more than please and plead. Tropes help us to classify and to study other functions of appeals. They suggest how one position (author, audience, or value) can relate to another. An appeal may
      - identify one position with another (metaphor)
      - associate one position with another (metonymy)
      - represent one position by another (synecdoche)
      - close the distance between two positions and increase the distance of both from a third (irony)"
      (M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Appeals in Modern Rhetoric: An Ordinary-Language Approach. Southern Illinois University Press, 2005)

      Trope as a Buzzword

      • "The new word-that-must-be-used is trope,' meaning metaphor, example, literary device, picture--and maybe whatever else the writer wants it to mean.

        "The main meaning of 'trope' is 'figure of speech.' . . .

        "But as I’ve noted before, the sense has been extended to something vaguer and less effective, like 'theme,' 'motif' or 'image.'

        "One interesting point: according to our article archive, 'trope' has appeared 91 times in articles in the past year. A search of NYTimes.com, however, shows a staggering 4,100 uses in the past year--which suggests that blogs and reader comments may be the biggest sources of 'trope' inflation."
        (Philip B. Corbett, "More Weary Words." The New York Times, Nov. 10, 2009)

      Tropes in Pragmatics and Rhetoric

      • "The Sperber-Wilson theory [in pragmatics] bears on rhetoric at almost every point, but nowhere more strikingly than in the taxonomy of trope. Traditionally, rhetoric has represented figures (especially tropes) as involving translatio, a 'wresting,' distortion, or strangeness, different from ordinary speech: 'Figurative speech . . . is estranged from the ordinary habit and manner of our daily talk and writing' [George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie]. But this idea of figures as interruptions of a normal grammaticality is no longer tenable. For ordinary speech is itself full of schemes and tropes. As the poet Samuel Butler wrote of Hudibras, 'For rhetoric, he could not ope / His mouth but out there flew a trope.' Rhetoricians have come to terms with Sperber and Wilson's demonstration that figures are taken up in just the same way as so-called 'literal' utterances--that is, by inferences of relevance, from shared domains of assumption. These ideas will not be repugnant to those rhetoricians who have liked to think of figurative discourse as logically based. And they have many valuable applications in interpretation."
        (Alastair Fowler, "Apology for Rhetoric." Rhetorica, Spring 1990)