What's the Value of the Figures of Speech?

"Their power may be perceived in the common language of everyday life"

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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. Though we might word them a bit differently today, the points he made in 1878 still hold true.


Figures of speech are of such importance that they must always occupy a prominent place in every treatise on style or criticism.

  1. Though differing in special character or effects, they all have one thing in common, and that is, they contribute beyond anything else to the embellishment of style. Some create a picture before the mind; others gratify the sense of proportion; others adorn the subject by contrasting it with some other which is like or unlike; and thus in various ways they appeal to the aesthetical sensibilities.
  2. They contribute to perspicuity, by the power which many of them have of throwing fresh light upon a subject by presenting it in a new and unexpected form. This is especially the case with comparison, metaphor, and example, and many others of the figures of relativity, which are used by writers who would never adopt them merely for ornament. They are used to illustrate a subject, which thus gains a clearness that could be given in no other way.
  1. They add to the persuasiveness of style. They give variety to it, by enabling the author to change his form of expression at will. Thus a perpetual freshness and vivacity is the result, together with an attractive brilliancy. Old thoughts, which have lost their force through familiarity, may thus be rendered striking by assuming a novel shape, under which they have all the force of an original statement.
  1. In the whole world of literature, both ancient and modern, figures of speech occupy a foremost place. The Sacred Scriptures abound in them, because the Hebrew mind delighted in Oriental imagery. Nowhere can be found such an immense number of figures so effectively presented. Antithesis and parallel embrace all the poetry and no little of the prose of both the Old and New Testament. A place only less prominent is held by figures in the literature of Greece and Rome. The most famous passages of poetry--epic, lyric, and dramatic--the noblest strains of eloquence, the most vivid descriptions, all exhibit their presence and effective force.

Not the least sign of their power may be perceived in the common language of everyday life. Every one uses exclamation, interrogation, comparison, metaphor, hyperbole, climax, vision; the figures of amplification and extenuation are indispensable in eager, animated conversation; so also are iteration, emphasis, periphrasis, litotes. All these and many more are incessantly used; and always indicate vivacity or energy. This fact shows that while art and elaboration can make the highest use of figurative language, nature also resorts to it; and as nature has invented it, so she prompts its use and shows its effectiveness.

(James De Mille, The Elements of Rhetoric. Harper & Brothers, 1878)