Figures of Speech: Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Figures of speech
"Language Is Not the Frosting, It's the Cake." - Tom Robbins, "What Is the Function of Metaphor?" (Wild Ducks Flying Backward. Bantam, 2005). See Examples and Observations below. Danita Delimont / Getty Images

The figures of speech are the various rhetorical uses of language that depart from customary construction, word order, or significance. "Figures of speech," Gleaves Whitney has observed, "are all of the ways in which human beings bend and stretch words to heighten meaning or create a desired effect" (American Presidents: Farewell Messages to the Nation, 2003).

Common figures of speech include metaphorsimile, metonymy, hyperbole, personification, and chiasmus, though there are countless others.

Figures of speech are also known as figures of rhetoric, figures of style, rhetorical figures, figurative languageand schemes.

Although the figures of speech are sometimes regarded as simply ornamental additions to a text (like candy sprinkles on a cake), in fact they serve as integral elements of style and thought (the cake itself, as Tom Robbins points out). In the Institutes of Oratory (95 AD), Quintilian says that the figures, used effectively, are "exciting to the emotions" and give "credibility to our arguments." 

For examples of the most common figures, follow the links at The Top 20 Figures of Speech. Also see Examples and Observations below.

For definitions of well over 100 figures, visit The Tool Kit for Rhetorical Analysis.

Examples and Observations

  • "An integral part of language, figures of speech are found in oral literatures, as well as in polished poetry and prose and in everyday speech. Greeting-card rhymes, advertising slogans, newspaper headlines, the captions of cartoons, and the mottoes of families and institutions often use figures of speech, generally for humorous, mnemonic, or eye-catching purposes. The argots of sports, jazz, business, politics, or any specialized groups abound in figurative language. Most figures in everyday speech are formed by extending the vocabulary of what is already familiar and better known to what is less well known."
    (Merriam-Webster's Reader's Handbook. Merriam-Webster, 1997)
     
  • The Figures as Ways of Seeing
    - "The vast pool of terms for verbal ornamentation has acted like a gene pool for the rhetorical imagination, stimulating us to look at language in another way. . . . The figures have worked historically to teach a way of seeing."
    (Richard Lanham, A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms, 2nd ed. University of California Press, 1991)
     
    - "The most excellent ornaments, exornations, lightes, flowers, and formes of speech, commonly called the figures of rhetorike. By which the singular partes of mans mind, are most aptly expressed, and the sundrie affections of his heart most effectuallie uttered."
    (Henry Peacham, The Garden of Eloquence, 1593)

     
  • "Language Is Not the Frosting, It's the Cake"
    "If, as Terence McKenna contended, the world is actually made of language, then metaphors and similes (puns, too, I might add) extend the dimensions and expand the possibilities of the world. When both innovative and relevant, they can wake up a reader, make him or her aware, through elasticity of verbiage, that reality—in our daily lives as well as in our stories—is less prescribed than tradition has led us to believe. . . .

    "Ultimately, I use figures of speech to deepen the reader's subliminal understanding of the person, place, or thing that's being described. That, above everything else, validates their role as a highly effective literary device. If nothing else, they remind reader and writer alike that language is not the frosting, it's the cake."
    (Tom Robbins, "What Is the Function of Metaphor?" Wild Ducks Flying Backward. Bantam, 2005)
     
  • The Plasticity of Language
    "The figurings of speech reveal to us the apparently limitless plasticity of language itself. We are confronted, inescapably, with the intoxicating possibility that we can make language do for us almost anything we want. Or at least a Shakespeare can."
    (Arthur Quinn, Figures of Speech: 60 Ways To Turn A Phrase. Routledge, 1995)
     
  • Schemes
    "The Greeks called them 'schemes,' a better word than 'figures,' because they serve as persuasive tricks and rules of thumb. While Shakespeare had to memorize more than 200 of them in grammar school, the basic ones aren't hard to learn. . . .

    "Figures of speech change ordinary language through repetition, substitution, sound, and wordplay. They mess around with words—skipping them, swapping them, and making them sound different."
    (Jay Heinrichs, Thank You for Arguing. Three Rivers Press, 2007)
     
  • Figures of Argument and Figures of Style
    "We consider a figure to be argumentative if it brings about a change of perspective, and its use seems normal in relation to this new situation. If, on the other hand, the speech does not bring about the adherence of the hearer to this argumentative form, the figure will be considered an embellishment, a figure of style. It can excite admiration, but this will be on the aesthetic plane, or in recognition of the speaker's originality."
    (Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca, The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation. Translated by J. Wilkinson and P. Weaver. University of Notre Dame Press, 1969)
     
  • Figures of Speech in Economics
    "Figures of speech are not mere frills. They think for us. Says Heidegger, 'Die Spracht spricht, nicht der Mensch': The language speaks, not the human speaker. Someone who thinks of a market as an 'invisible hand' and the organization of work as a 'production function' and her coefficients as being 'significant,' as an economist does, is giving the language a lot of responsibility. It seems a good idea to look hard at the language."
    (Deirdre N. McCloskey, The Rhetoric of Economics, 2nd ed. University of Wisconsin Press, 1998)
     
  • Figures of Speech and Thought
    "The real nature of the relation of figures to thought is very generally misunderstood. The majority of rhetoricians treat of them as mere ornaments, which render a discourse more pleasing, and which may be used or rejected at pleasure. Some writers—as, for example, Locke--condemn their employment in works intended to convey knowledge and truth; they are pronounced inventions, which serve only to insinuate wrong ideas, move the passions, and mislead the judgment.

    "But instead of being inventions of art, they are the natural, and therefore necessary and universal forms, in which excited imagination and passion manifest themselves. The young and the old, the barbarous and the civilized, all employ them unconsciously. Languages in their earlier state are highly figurative; as they grow older they lose their natural picturesqueness and become collections of lifeless symbols. These abstract forms are regarded by rhetoricians and grammarians as the natural and ordinary forms of speech, and so they describe figures as departures from the usual forms of expression."
    (Andrew D. Hepburn, Manual of English Rhetoric, 1875)

     
  • Figures of Speech as (Metaphorical) Dance Moves
    "[Figures of speech] are like the steps a ballet dancer might perform as part of a longer routine: for instance, pirouette (spinning on tiptoes), grand jeté (jumping horizontally with legs extended backward and forward), and chassé (sliding with legs bent). These dance moves, like the figures, are units of performance: we can point to them, describe how they are formed, and judge whether they are executed effectively or not. There are no rigid rules about how they might be combined or incorporated into a broader performance. Like dance moves, the figures of speech are vehicles for managing interactions between performer and audience while shaping the latter's perceptions of what they see or read. They are also already in circulation and thus part of a general repertoire for performance. For this reason, they carry meanings and values that exceed an individual performer's use of them. In other words, they come with baggage—most of it positive, but some negative."
    (Chris Holcomb and M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Performing Prose: The Study and Practice of Style in Composition. Southern Illinois University Press, 2010)

     
  • The Lighter Side of Figures of Speech

    Rocket: I have a plan! I have a plan!
    Drax: Cease your yammering, and relieve us from this irksome confinement.
    Peter Quill: Yeah, I’ll have to agree with the walking thesaurus on that one.
    Drax: Do not ever call me a thesaurus.
    Peter Quill: It's just a metaphor, Dude.
    Rocket: His people are completely literal. Metaphors are gonna go over his head.
    Drax: Nothing goes over my head. My reflexes are too fast. I would catch it.
    Gamora: I'm gonna die surrounded by the biggest idiots in the galaxy.
    (Guardians of the Galaxy, 2014)

Pronunciation: FIG-yurz uv SPEECH