What Is Personification?

Examples of Personification in Prose, Poetry, and Advertising

Yellow bus
People love to assign human traits to objects. Stan Wakefield / FOAP / Getty Images

As a basic definition, personification is a figure of speech in which an inanimate object or abstraction is given human qualities or abilities. At times, as with this personification of the social-networking service Twitter, a writer may call attention to her use of the figurative device:

Look, some of my best friends are tweeting. . . .

But at the risk of unilaterally offending 14 million people, I need to say this: If Twitter were a person, it would be an emotionally unstable person. It would be that person we avoid at parties and whose calls we don't pick up. It would be the person whose willingness to confide in us at first seems intriguing and flattering but eventually makes us feel kind of gross because the friendship is unearned and the confidence is unjustified. The human incarnation of Twitter, in other words, is the person we all feel sorry for, the person we suspect might be a bit mentally ill, the tragic oversharer.
(Meghan Daum, "Tweeting: Inane or Insane?" Times Union of Albany, New York, April 23, 2009)

Often, however, personification is used less directly--in essays and advertisements, poems and stories--to convey an attitude, promote a product, or illustrate an idea.

Personification As a Type of Simile or Metaphor

Because personification involves making a comparison, it can be viewed as a special kind of simile (a direct or explicit comparison) or metaphor (an implicit comparison). In Robert Frost's poem "Birches," for example, the personification of the trees as girls (introduced by the word "like") is a type of simile:

You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground,
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.

In the next two lines of the poem, Frost again uses personification, but this time in a metaphor comparing "Truth" to a plain-speaking woman:

But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm

Because people have a tendency to look at the world in human terms, it's not surprising that we often rely on personification (also known as prosopopoeia) to bring inanimate things to life.

Personification in Advertising

Have any of these "people" ever appeared in your kitchen: Mr. Clean (a household cleaner), Chore Boy (a scouring pad), or Mr. Muscle (an oven cleaner)?

How about Aunt Jemima (pancakes), Cap'n Crunch (cereal), Little Debbie (snack cakes), the Jolly Green Giant (vegetables), Poppin' Fresh (also known as the Pillsbury Doughboy), or Uncle Ben (rice)?

For over a century, companies have relied heavily on personification to create memorable images of their products--images that often appear in print advertisements and TV commercials for those "brands." Iain MacRury, a professor of consumer and advertising studies at the University of East London, has discussed the role played by one of the world's oldest trademarks, Bibendum, the Michelin Man:

The familiar Michelin logo is a celebrated instance of the art of "advertising personification." A person or cartoon character becomes the embodiment of a product or brand--here Michelin, manufacturers of rubber products and, notably, tires. The figure is familiar in itself and audiences routinely read this logo--depicting a cartoon "man" made of tires--as a friendly character; he personifies the product range (in particular Michelin tires) and animates both product and brand, representing a culturally recognized, practical and commercial presence--reliably there, friendly and trusted. The movement of personification is close to the heart of what all good advertising tends to try to achieve."
(Iain MacRury, Advertising. Routledge, 2009)

In fact, it's hard to imagine what advertising would be like without the figure of personification. Here's just a small sample of the countless popular slogans (or "taglines") that rely on personification to market products ranging from toilet paper to life insurance.

  • Kleenex says bless you.
    (Kleenex facial tissues)
  • Nothing hugs like Huggies.
    (Huggies Supreme diapers)
  • Unwrap a smile.
    (Little Debbie snack cakes)
  • Goldfish. The snack that smiles back.
    (Goldfish snack crackers)
  • Carvel. It's what happy tastes like.
    (Carvel ice cream)
  • Cottonelle. Looking out for the family.
    (Cottonelle toilet paper)
  • The toilet tissue that really cares for Downunder.
    (Bouquets toilet paper, Australia)
  • You're in good hands with Allstate.
    (Allstate Insurance Company)
  • Taste me! Taste me! Come on and taste me!
    (Doral cigarettes)
  • What do you feed a machine with an appetite this big?
    (Indesit washing machine and Ariel Liquitabs, laundry detergent, UK)
  • The heartbeat of America.
    (Chevrolet cars)
  • The car that cares
    (Kia cars)
  • Acer. We hear you.
    (Acer computers)
  • How will you use us today?
    (Avery Labels)
  • Baldwin Cooke. Products that say "Thank You" 365 days a year.
    (Baldwin Cooke calendars and business planners)

Personification in Prose and Poetry

Like other types of metaphors, personification is much more than an ornamental device added to a text to keep readers amused. Used effectively, personification encourages us to view our surroundings from a fresh perspective. As Zoltan Kovecses notes in Metaphor: A Practical Introduction (2002), "Personification permits us to use knowledge about ourselves to comprehend other aspects of the world, such as time, death, natural forces, inanimate objects, etc."

Consider how John Steinbeck uses personification in his short story "Flight" (1938) to describe "the wild coast" south of Monterey, California:

The farm buildings huddled like the clinging aphids on the mountain skirts, crouched low to the ground as though the wind might blow them into the sea. . . .

Five-fingered ferns hung over the water and dropped spray from their fingertips. . . .

The high mountain wind coasted sighing through the pass and whistled on the edges of the big blocks of broken granite. . . .

A scar of green grass cut across the flat. And behind the flat another mountain rose, desolate with dead rocks and starving little black bushes. . . .

Gradually the sharp snaggled edge of the ridge stood out above them, rotten granite tortured and eaten by the winds of time. Pepe had dropped his reins on the horn, leaving direction to the horse. The brush grabbed at his legs in the dark until one knee of his jeans was ripped.

As Steinbeck demonstrates, an important function of personification in literature is to bring the inanimate world to life--and in this story in particular, to show how characters may be in conflict with a hostile environment.

Now let's look at some other ways in which personification has been used to dramatize ideas and communicate experiences in prose and poetry.

  • The Lake Is a Mouth
    These are the lips of the lake, on which no beard grows. It licks its chops from time to time.
    (Henry David Thoreau, Walden)
  • A Snickering, Flickering Piano
    My stick fingers click with a snicker
    And, chuckling, they knuckle the keys;
    Light-footed, my steel feelers flicker
    And pluck from these keys melodies.
    (John Updike, "Player Piano")
  • Fingers of Sunshine
    Hadn't she known that something good was going to happen to her that morning--hadn't she felt it in every touch of the sunshine, as its golden finger-tips pressed her lids open and wound their way through her hair?
    (Edith Wharton, The Mother's Recompense, 1925)
  • The Wind Is a Playful Child
    Pearl Button swung on the little gate in front of the House of Boxes. It was the early afternoon of a sunshiny day with little winds playing hide-and-seek in it.
    (Katherine Mansfield, "How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped," 1912)
  • The Gentleman Caller
    Because I could not stop for Death--
    He kindly stopped for me--
    The Carriage held but just Ourselves--
    And Immortality.

    We slowly drove--He knew no haste
    And I had put away
    My labor and my leisure too,
    For His Civility--

    We passed the School, where Children strove
    At Recess--in the Ring--
    We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain--
    We passed the Setting Sun--

    Or rather--He passed us--
    The Dews drew quivering and chill--
    For only Gossamer, my Gown--
    My Tippet--only Tulle--

    We paused before a House that seemed
    A Swelling of the Ground--
    The Roof was scarcely visible--
    The Cornice--in the Ground

    Since then--'tis Centuries--and yet
    Feels shorter than the Day
    I first surmised the Horses' Heads
    Were toward Eternity--
    (Emily Dickinson, "Because I could not stop for death")
  • Pink
    Pink is what red looks like when it kicks off its shoes and lets its hair down. Pink is the boudoir color, the cherubic color, the color of Heaven's gates. . . . Pink is as laid back as beige, but while beige is dull and bland, pink is laid back with attitude.
    (Tom Robbins, "The Eight-Story Kiss." Wild Ducks Flying Backward. Random House, 2005)
  • Love Is a Brute
    Passion's a good, stupid horse that will pull the plough six days a week if you give him the run of his heels on Sundays. But love's a nervous, awkward, over-mastering brute; if you can't rein him, it's best to have no truck with him.
    (Lord Peter Wimsey in Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers)
  • A Mirror and a Lake
    I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
    Whatever I see I swallow immediately
    Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
    I am not cruel, only truthful--
    The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
    Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
    It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
    I think it is part of my heart. But it flickers.
    Faces and darkness separate us over and over.

    Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
    Searching my reaches for what she really is.
    Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
    I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
    She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
    I am important to her. She comes and goes.
    Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
    In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
    Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.
    (Sylvia Plath, "Mirror")
  • Knocks and Sighs
    The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
    The desert sighs in the bed,
    And the crack in the tea-cup opens
    A lane to the land of the dead.
    (W.H. Auden, "As I Walked Out One Evening")
  • Devouring, Swift-Footed Time
    Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion's paws,
    And make the earth devour her own sweet brood;
    Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger's jaws,
    And burn the long-lived phoenix in her blood;
    Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleets,
    And do whate'er thou wilt, swift-footed Time,
    To the wide world and all her fading sweets;
    But I forbid thee one most heinous crime:
    O, carve not with thy hours my love's fair brow,
    Nor draw no lines there with thine antique pen;
    Him in thy course untainted do allow
    For beauty's pattern to succeeding men.
    Yet, do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong,
    My love shall in my verse ever live young.
    (William Shakespeare, Sonnet 19)

It's your turn now. Without feeling that you're in competition with Shakespeare or Emily Dickinson, try your hand at creating a fresh example of personification. Simply take any inanimate object or abstraction and help us see or understand it in a new way by giving it human qualities or abilities.

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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Personification?" ThoughtCo, May. 1, 2017, thoughtco.com/what-is-personification-1691766. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, May 1). What Is Personification? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-personification-1691766 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Personification?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-personification-1691766 (accessed November 23, 2017).