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What Is Figurative Speech?


Figurative speech refers to the use of non-literal wording or verbiage to communicate a point. Referred to alternately as figurative language, figurative speech often makes a comparison using verbal images to illustrate the speaker's intention, for effect, and to clarify meaning. "Rhetoric" is a related term that refers to the use of figures of speech, and the use of literary language and terms, such as simile and paradox. Read on for examples of some of the most widely used terms of figurative speech.

Metaphor, Simile and Personification

Metaphor makes a comparison by saying something is another thing. Simile, on the other hand, performs the same function, but says something is like another thing. An example of metaphor would be "Life is a bowl of cherries"; a simile would say that "Life is like a bowl of cherries." An example of personification would be, "The cherries smiled up from the bowl." Personification assigns human characteristics to animals, inanimate objects, or ideas.

Alliteration, Onomatopoeia, Consonance and Assonance

Alliteration, consonance, assonance and onomatopoeia have to do with the sounds of language. Alliteration is the use of a repeated sound or letter in words in close proximity, such as, "Limpid light illuminated the lustrous library." Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds, such as "The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain," and consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds in close proximity, as in the first example. Onomatopoeia is used often in comic books, and refers to the sound something makes, such as in words like "hum," "buzz" and "oink."

Hyperbole, Synecdoche, Metonymy and Euphemism

Hyperbole refers to extreme exaggeration, and is used often in everyday speech. An example would be, "I said it a million times." Synecdoche is the representation of a group or a whole by referring to its parts, such as "I just got a new set of wheels" to refer to an entire vehicle. Metonymy is similar to synecdoche, as it refers to something by singling out an attribute from a whole concept, like "I work with a bunch of suits" to refer to business people. Euphemism is a form of politeness, as it makes reference to something that is socially sensitive or pejorative by substituting another word, such as "to pass away" instead of "to die."

Understatement and Irony

Understatement, also known as litotes, is a form of expressing an idea by stating its opposite or downplaying its gravity or implications, such as this quote from "The Catcher in the Rye" by J. D. Salinger: "It isn't very serious. I have this tiny little tumor on the brain" (see Resources 1). Similarly, irony, when expressed verbally, often implies the opposite of what is actually said, or can refer to something said about the coincidence of events or a situation. Irony can be expressed through such rhetorical figures as antiphrasis (the use of a single, contradictory word), paralipsis (drawing attention to something by pretending to ignore it), or sarcasm.

Oxymoron, Paradox and Antithesis

Oxymoron is the practice of using two apparently opposite terms next to or near one another, such as with the title, "The Sounds of Silence" and Erasmus' "Festina lente," which translates as "Make haste slowly" (see Resources 2). Paradox is related to oxymoron, but is less condensed. For example, a paradox is often expressed in a phrase or statement, such as the Biblical paraphrase, "Whosoever loses his life shall find it." Antithesis uses words, often in parallel, that contrast each other. An example of antithesis is found in a quote from Abraham Lincoln, who said, "It has been my experience that folks who have no vices have very few virtues" (see Resources 3).

About the Author

Cynthia Reeser has been editing for three years and writing for 18. A former columnist and staff writer for a military newspaper, she is the editor of a literary journal. Her book on publishing for children is forthcoming in early 2010 from Atlantic Publishing, and she is currently writing a book on Kindle publishing. Reeser has a Bachelor of Arts in English literature.

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