Definitions: Figures of Speech

athoose your rhetorical poison or start with isocolon (why not).

Adianoeta Adynaton Alliteration
Anadiplosis Anaphora   Anastrophe
Antanaclasis Antithesis Aposiopesis
Assonance Asteismus Asyndeton
Auxesis Chiasmus Circumlocution
Congeries Consonance Diacope
Ekphrasis Enallage Epistrophe
Epanalepsis Epizeuxis Erotesis
Hendiadys Hyperbaton Irony
Hyperbole Isocolon Litotes
Meiosis Merism Metalepsis
Metaplasm Metaphor Metonymy
Onomatopoeia Oxymoron Paradox
Paralipsis (occultatio) Parenthesis Paronomasia (or pun)
Periodic sentence Personification Pleonasm
Polyptoton Polysyndeton Prolepsis
Scesis onomaton Simile Syllepsis
Synaesthesia  Synecdoche Synonymia
Testimony Transferred epithet Tricolon
Vices of Style (error) Vices of Style (repetition) Zeugma

The aim of each definition:

  1. to be non-technical enough that most readers can understand and apply it,
  2. to be specific enough to carry the essence of the figure,
  3. to be broad enough to encompass, or hint at, extended usage and variations.

Inevitably, I’ll have failed on some account.

The definitions are my own interpretations.

They are based on entires in the Oxford English Dictionary, with an eye towards other sources like the online Silva Rhetoricae, The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase by Mark Forsyth, and A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms by Richard Lanham.  For more references, see the References Menu.

Pronunciations and etymology are taken from the OED.

Unless otherwise stated, the examples and any mistakes are my own. (This sentence is deliberately an example of a syllepsis.)

But what is A Figure of Speech, and why do you keep referring to it only as figure in the definitions?

NB: To precisely delineate the different figures of speech is impossible, as they overlap and blend in so many ways. Therefore, I do not try.


Adianoeta

Etymology: Greek, unintelligible.

An expression that has two interpretations: one obvious, one subtle. When the subtle meaning is risqué, then it’s a double entendre. A related term is cacemphaton, which is Greek for ill-sounding, and means either lewd double entendre or harsh combination of sounds. A type of irony.

  • Of a wife’s feelings for her husband: She felt nothing but respect for him. (Either she respected him a lot, or she only respected him but didn’t love him, didn’t cherish him etc)
  • Of a man wearing a red shirt and blushing with anger: Red suits him.
  • On a terrace with a grand view of the ocean, man stands next to pretty woman in a skimpy dress and says: “What a beautiful view.”

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Adynaton

/adᵻˈnɑːtɒn/

Etymology: Latin and Greek, impossibility.

A figure in which an impossible or unlikely situation is used for emphasis.

  • I’ll get a good grade, as soon as humans sprout butterfly wings!
  • He’ll agree to come with us the day the Sun rises in the west!

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Alliteration

/əˌlɪtəˈreɪʃn/

Etymology: Latin, addition of letters.

Beginning adjacent words, or closely positioned words, with the same sound or letter. A type of, or reverse of, consonance.

  • Numbed, she listened to the noises of the night: leaves that blathered nonsense in the wind, nuts that dropped from trees, nightingales that sang — all of nature sighed and heaved, waiting for dawn. (repeating ‘n’)
  • Peter parted the puzzled pieces into provisional piles. (example of a paroemion, an extreme form of alliteration where most words in a sentence or phrase start with the same letter)

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Anadiplosis

/ˌænədɪˈpləʊsɪs/

Etymology: Greek, to be doubled back.

Beginning a sentence or clause with the final word, or any other significant word, from the preceding sentence or clause. 

  • The clouds floated like dark velvet on the surface of the sky, a sky as pale as the alabaster skin of a sculpture. (poetic)
  • Go home. Home is where you can heal best. (transitional glue between two sentences)

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Anaphora

/əˈnæfərə/

Etymology: Greek, carrying back.

A figure in which the same word begins consecutive clauses or sentences. 

  • Why call her? Why tell her? Why betray me?
  • Come home to live, come home to be free, come home to die where you lived free.

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Anastrophe

/əˈnæstrəfiː/

Etymology: Greek, a turning back.

The inversion of the natural order or words or clauses. Also called hyperbaton, or considered a type of hyperbaton.

  • There goes a hunting, red, sly fox. (cringeworthy, because the ear expects “sly, red, hunting fox”, in conformance with the usual rule: quantity-opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose of noun, however it can work nicely with more subtle examples)
  • The tomcat swash-swished his tail. (the English ear wants to hear swish-swash, because of ablaut reduplication that expects vowel gradation in similar words to go: i, a, u, o)
  • Gaudily shone the happy little sun as it traversed the sky in a quick run. (in English the usual word order is subject-verb-object, therefore starting with “gaudily shone” draws attention to itself and gives a poetic twist)
  • Cold I am. (subject complement before subject)
  • Clockwise ran the children, until dizzy they became. (advert also before verb and subject)
  • He looked for a flower, shiny and red, like her lips. (adjectives before noun that they modify)

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Antanaclasis

/ˌantənəˈkleɪsɪs/

Etymology: Greek, reflect, bend back.

A figure in which a word is repeated in a different sense, or a word can be understood in two different ways depending on the context. Or the word in question is a homograph, homophone, homonym of the another. Can be seen as a rigid type of paronomasia or a reduced case of polyptoton.

  • A windy road. (is it bendy or breezy?)
  • It can’t be easy to bear a bear on your bare back while you climb back up.

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Antithesis

/ænˈtɪθɪsɪs/

Etymology: Greek, set against.

Juxtaposition of opposing ideas or words, often expressed in parallel structures.

  • “I will leave.” “You will stay.”
  • He can neither imprison you, nor set you free.

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Aposiopesis

/ˌapəʊsʌɪəʊˈpiːsɪs/

Etymology: Greek, to keep silent.

A figure where the speaker or writer stops mid-sentence as if unwilling or unable to continue. In writing often marked by an ellipses.

  • I could tell him why I loved him, but …
  • You shall help me, or else …

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Assonance

/ˈasənəns/

Etymology: Latin, to sound to, respond to.

The resemblance or correspondence of vowel-sounds between nearby words. Consonance is the consonant equivalent.

  • His crew aimed a blue harpoon at the moon. (the pairs ‘harpoon’ and ‘moon’, ‘crew’ and ‘blue’, rhyme, however there is also an assonance between all four underlined vowels — in the current, standard English pronunciation) 
  • Few curlicues of her letters were skewed right.  (assonance between the underlined syllables)

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Asteismus

Etymology: Greek, of the city.

Gentle, urbane mockery or badinage that plays on words, a type of pun. Usually mistaking another speaker’s word, deliberately misunderstanding it or replying using the same word with a twist. Also known as “civil jest” and “merry scoff”. Should not be sarcastic or rude.

  • “Did you take her out to dinner, to celebrate?” “No, but I took out the trash while she cooked dinner.”
  • “What’s the best way to train for a marathon?” “Um, run lots?”

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Asyndeton

/əˈsɪndɪtən/

Etymology: Greek, unconnected.

A figure which omits conjunctions. Compare to polysyndeton, which used a lot of conjunctions.

  • Silvery, shiny, sun-shamed the moon cried every night.
  • The girls ran for the shelter, bedraggled as they were, limping, desperate, hoping to find food there.

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Auxesis

/ɔːkˈsiːsɪs/

Etymology: Greek, to increase, amplification.

A climactic ordering; an arrangement of clauses intended to achieve a gradual increase in intensity of meaning.

  • That day, I ate a hearty breakfast, passed an exam in school, and saved a man’s life.
  • I saw a snowflake, a snowman, then a snowbank covering my neighbours’ house.
  • The war couldn’t be stopped: not by International treaties, not by national protests, not even by the twelve-year-old girl next door who planted flowers on her balcony and declared, “Soon it will be Spring.” (an example of reversed ordering for ironic effect)

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Congeries

/kənˈdʒɪərɪiːz/

Etymology: Latin, heap, pile, collected mass.

Heaping up of disparate words to achieve an emotional impact. Accumulatio is a heaping of praise or accusation in summary; systrophe is a heaping of figurative descriptions without giving a literal one.

  • Proud and tall and a century old, the building stood in the distance, clearly marked against the blue of the sky, block-shaped, concrete-coloured, with stepped terraces the size of giant’s feet, overgrown with vegetation that looked like moss clinging to the northern side, the side of shadows, the side the criminals live on. (heap it on!)
  • The building was a breeding box for mystery and magic, diseases and death, and yet it evaded the public eye, the police force, and the pressure to change, to evolve, to become civilised; it was anything but civilised.  (example of systrophe; am I referring to the same building as the one described above? Hard to tell because I didn’t give you any literal descriptions. As it happens I am; see next bullet point)
  • As I have made clear above, this giant building is evil, is the source of evil in the neighbourhood, and will continue to spread evil like the overgrown vegetation from its terraces jumps the gaps to the nearby buildings, suffocating them. We must tear it down! (example of accumulatio, a heaping of accusation, in a trial for example, assuming you have already hear arguments that are now being summarised)

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Consonance

/ˈkɒnsənəns/

Etymology: Latin, to sound together.

The resemblance or correspondence of consonant-sounds between nearby words. Alliteration is sometimes considered a type of consonance, sometimes its reverse. Assonance is the vowel equivalent. 

  • It must have been best not to jest just then.
  • Bric-à-brac. (could be considered both as consonance and alliteration, by some)
  • Since you swore, you must rinse your mouth with some good consonance.

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Chiasmus

/kʌɪˈazməs/

Etymology: Greek, crossing, diagonal arrangement, especially of clauses of a sentence.

A figure that repeats two ideas or grammatical structures in inverted order. Antimetabole repeats the words of a clause in reverse order and is sometimes considered a type of chiasmus.

  • He dreams of success, and of success he dreams. (mirrored repetition)
  • Loving is a celebration of life, just as living is a celebration of love. (uses loving-love and life-living as parallel word pairs)
  • The novel must be written, but also the writing must be novel. (uses two different meanings of ‘novel’)
  • I dream to be free, and I am free to dream. (is this person only free to dream after they’re already dreaming? A paradox perhaps)

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Circumlocution

A roundabout expression where fewer apter words could be used.

Related concepts:

  • periphrasis /pᵻˈrɪfrəsɪs/ (sometimes considered synonymous with circumlocution): a figure where a descriptive word or phrase is used instead of a proper noun, or where a proper noun stands in for the qualities associated with it. In the latter case, could be considered a type of metonymy. E.g. Eros was busy elsewhere when the two of them met. (meaning, they didn’t fall in love; also an example of metalepsis)
  • kenning: using a compound descriptor instead of an existing noun; associated to Old Norse, Iclandic, and Old English poetry. E.g. saying rain-shield for umbrella. Kennings of kennings of kennings are possible, up to seven degrees. 
  • systrophe: also type of congeries where something is described using many figurative descriptions.
  • euphemism: replacing harsher and more distasteful words with palliative and more palatable words. E.g. saying kitten for man-eating tiger. (Not always necessarily a circumlocution.)
  • innuendo, irony, paralipsis: can all employ circumlocution. 
  • pleonasm is grammatical redundancy.

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Diacope

/dʌɪˈakəʊpiː/

Etymology: Greek, cleft, gash, to cut through.

A figure by which a word or a phrase is repeated after a brief interruption. Compare to epanalepsis in which an opening phrase is repeated at the end.

  • Brilliant, truly brilliant!
  • Question: “Did you eat the cake?” Answer: “Cake? What cake?”

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Ekphrasis

/ˈɛkfrəsɪs/

Etymology: Greek, to recount, to describe.

A self-contained vivid description (a type of enargeia), with the goal of presenting a place, person, object, etc in such a way that the reader can envision it. More recently, and outside of rhetoric: a vivid description of a work of art, real or imaginary.

  • Famous examples: Homer’s description of Achilles’s shield in the Iliad, Shakespeare’s description of the Greek army coming to Troy in  The Rape of Lucrece, Spenser’s description of decorations and masque in the House of Busirane in The Faerie Queene.

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Enallage

/ɛˈnalədʒiː/

Etymology: Greek, to change

A figure in which one grammatical form is replaced by another, such as replacing an grammatically correct case, gender, number, person, tense, mood, part of speech, by another.

Since an enallage is a grammatical mistake, it’s unlikely to to work as well when taken out of context or made up spontaneously. Therefore, I present my favourite example written by T. S. Eliot in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:  “Let us go then, you and I”.

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Epanalepsis

Etymology: Greek, taking up again

A figure in which the opening word or phrase is repeating at the end. Or, less strictly, in which a word or phrase is repeated after intervening matter. Compare to diacope, where a word is repeated after a short interruption. 

  • Life, such as it is, is better than no life.
  • To die young would be a shame, and it would be shameless never to die.

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Epistrophe

/ᵻˈpɪstrəfi/

Etymology: Greek, act of turning about, returning to the source.

A figure in which the same word is repeated at the end of consecutive clauses or sentences. 

  • It sounds like the truth, it smells like the truth, but it ain’t the truth. (It’s just an elaborate, well-crafted lie.)
  • I’ll go to work, spend eight hours at work, come back from work, and he won’t even have gotten out of bed yet.

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Epizeuxis

/ɛpɪˈzjuːksɪs/

Etymology: Greek, a fastening upon, to yoke.

Emphatic repetition of a word or phrase without interruption. 

  • There are three basic rules of life: You live, you live, you live. (Then you die, but no one likes to think about that one.)
  • She hopes he wouldn’t betray her. No, he wouldn’t, he wouldn’t ever do that.

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Erotesis (rhetorical question)

/ɛrəʊˈtiːsɪs/

Etymology: Latin, to question.

A question which implies an answer but does not expect one. 

  • Look, he’s wearing his trousers on his head. Who does that?
  • Why bother buying ice cream if you let it melt every time? (unless there’s a very good reason, and this was a genuine question, like the person prefers cold sugar syrup to froze sugary syrup)

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Hyperbaton

/hʌɪˈpəːbət(ə)n/

Etymology: Greek, overstepping.

A general names for figures in which the customary word order is altered, usually for emphasis.

  • Anastrophe
  • Apposition: placing of co-ordinate elements side by side, the second of which clarifies the first.
  • etc (to be added)

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Hendiadys

/hɛnˈdʌɪədɪs/

Etymology: Greek, “one by means of two”.

A figure of speech in which two nouns are used instead of a noun and its qualifier.

  • He sunk his hand into the fluff and velvet of the fur pile. (instead of “into the fluffy velvet of the fur pile”)
  • She let the sadness and the thoughts drag her down. (instead of  “the sad thoughts”) 

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Hyperbaton

/hʌɪˈpəːbət(ə)n/

Etymology: Greek, overstepping.

A figure in which the customary word order is altered, usually for emphasis.

  • There goes a hunting, red, sly fox. (cringeworthy, because the ear expects “sly, red, hunting fox”, in conformance with the usual rule: quantity-opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose of noun, however it can work nicely with more subtle examples)
  • The tomcat swash-swished his tail. (the English ear wants to hear swish-swash, because of ablaut reduplication that expects vowel gradation in similar words to go: i, a, u, o)
  • Gaudily shone the happy little sun as it traversed the sky in a quick run. (in English the usual word order is subject-verb-object, therefore starting with “gaudily shone” draws attention to itself and gives a poetic twist)

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Hyperbole

/hʌɪˈpəːbəliː/

Etymology: Greek, excess, exaggeration.

A figure in which exaggeration is used for emphasis and not meant to be understood literally. Often achieved using similes and metaphors.

  • His shouting could be heard in the next town over.
  • My grandma is so old she’s overtaken Methuselah.

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Irony

/ʌɪsəʊˈkəʊlən/

Etymology: Greek, dissimulation, pretended ignorance.

Using words in such way as to convey a meaning contrary to the literal interpretation of the words. Used for humour, emphasis, condemnation, contempt, derision, jest. Some figures of irony:

  • Sarcasm is bitter irony, mocking or taunting language.
  • Occultatio or paralipsis emphasise something in the very act of pretending to pass over it.
  • Litotes intensifies through understatement, most often emphasising an affirmative by denying its contrary. 
  • Adianoeta carries two meanings, one obvious, one subtle. When risqué it is a double entendre. A lewd double entendre is a cacemphaton.
  • Meiosis deliberately belittle, often by applying a disparaging epithet.
  • Antiphrasis is irony of one word (e.g. calling a facial scar a facial upgrade).   
  • Charientismus mockery intended to mollify a disagreeable situation.

Some general examples:

  • Bully crushes kid’s toy, kid asks: “Why’d you do that?”, bully answers: “Because I had nothing better to do.”
  • All the employees get an equal salary. The men get a bonus ever six months.
  • “I love animals,” she said and she bit into her bloody steak.

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Isocolon

/ʌɪsəʊˈkəʊlən/

Etymology: Greek, of equal clauses or members.

A figure in which consecutive clauses or sentences are grammatically or structurally parallel. Depending on the number of such elements, it can be a bicolon, a tricolon, a tetracolon.

  • I did the cleaning, she did the shopping, and the children did the gardening.
  • Fly like a leaf on the wind, land like a leaf on water.
  • I came, he left.

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Litotes

/ˈlʌɪtəʊtiːz/

Etymology: Greek, smooth, plain, small.

An understatement intended to intensify the meaning, most often by expressing an affirmative by a denial of the contrary. Meiosis is sometimes considered a type of litotes. Litotes is a type of irony.

  • He didn’t exactly cross the finish line last. (he won the race)
  • A small raise would not be unwelcome. (I’d like that raise, please, yes, thank you)

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Meiosis

/mʌɪˈəʊsɪs/,

Etymology: Greek, to lessen.

A figure of speech by which something is deliberately belittled, often by applying a disparaging epithet. Sometimes considered a type of litotes. A form of irony.

  • Of a pedestrian who was run over by a car: he bumped into a moving car.
  • A couple greets guests to their castle-home and says: “Welcome to our humble abode.”
  • Of the Moon: that rock in the sky.

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Merism (merismus)

/ˈmɛrɪz(ə)m/

Etymology: Greek, division.

A figure in which two contrasting or complementary parts are made to represent a whole. 

  • Ladies and gentlemen. (possibly old-fashioned, meaning people)
  • You’re gone breakfast, lunch, and dinner. (meaning at every meal, or all the time)
  • Could you please take out the knives and forks and spoons. (meaning cutlery)

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Metalepsis

/ˌmɛtəˈlɛpsɪs/

Etymology: Ancient Greek, to substitute.

A figure in which a word or phrase refers to something remotely related, either via a tenuous causal relationship, or via a nested sequence of two or more substitutions (most often metonymies).  A figure of substitution. 

  • The pain he felt during the operation made him hate the day he was born. (his birthday is a farfetched cause of his pain)
  • The long arm of the law doesn’t wear kid gloves. (nesting of metonymical substitution of ‘long arm of the law’ for police, within context of  delicate and careful treatment)

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Metaplasm

/ˈmɛtəplaz(ə)m/

Etymology: Latin, to model differently.

Changing a word by adding or subtracting syllables, transposing letters or altering their sounds. Denotes the so-called schemes of words or orthographic schemes.  

Adding:

  • Prosthesis (apposito): adding syllable in front of a word (e.g. befriend for friend).
  • Epenthesis (interpositio): adding a syllable in the middle of a word (e.g. visitating for visiting, not my example, favourite in books about rhetoric)
  • Proparalepsis (paragoge): adding a syllable at the end of a word (e.g. blacken for black).

Subtracting:

  • Aphaeresis (ablation): subtracting a syllable from the beginning of a word (e.g. ’til for until).
  • Syncope: subtracting a syllable from the middle of the word (e.g. ne’er for never).
  • Apocope (abscissio): subtracting a syllable from the end of the word (e.g. oft for often).

Transposition and change of sound:

  • Metathesis: transposition of letters in a word
  • Antisthecon: change of sound (e.g. “A pun is its own reword”, achieved by changing ‘a’ to ‘o’, taken from Silva Rhetoricae).

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Metaphor

Etymology: ancient Greek, change+carrying, transfer.

A figure in which a description or word is not applied in the literal sense, but in an analogous sense. A simile asserts likeness.

  • The sky was our ceiling and the trees our walls.
  • He vaulted over her excuses and went straight to the core of the problem.
  • She was happy, then she was happiness itself.

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Metonymy

/mᵻˈtɒnəmi/

Etymology: Greek, change of name.

A figure in which an object or action is referred to by an associated property, object or action. Similar to synecdoche.

  • As a writer, you need to keep the ink flowing. (“ink flows” stands in for writing)
  • Give me a hand. (“hand” stands in for the act of helping in which it will participate)
  • I need to leaf through this material quickly. (“to leaf through” is necessary if you want to read a hardcopy, but it’s not the whole process)

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Onomatopoeia

/ˌɒnəmatəˈpiːə/

Etymology: Greek, the making of words.

Forming words that imitate sounds.

  • The humming, buzzing, whizzing of the dentists tools. (the three -ings imitate the sounds)
  • Clip-clop, clip-clop. I hear her walking down the stairs.

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Oxymoron

/ˌɒksɪˈmɔːrɒn/

Etymology: Greek, from oxy meaning acute, sensitive, and moron meaning dull, foolish.

A figure of speech in which two seemingly contradictory terms are placed together for emphasis. A compressed paradox. Generally, a contradiction in terms. 

  • The word oxymoron is an oxymoron. (oxymoron is therefore an autological word, that is, a word which expresses a property it also possesses)
  • A living death.
  • A square circle.
  • A peaceful war.

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Paradox

/ˈparədɒks/

Etymology: Greek, contrary to received opinion or expectation.

A seemingly self-contradictory statement which may upon analysis prove to be true.

  • First I was carefree, then I was born.
  • I will do the impossible.
  • Everything I write is a lie.

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Paralipsis (or occultatio)

/ˌparəˈlɪpsɪs/

Etymology: Greek, to leave to one side, pass by. Occultatio means concealment, insinuation, suggestion.

A figure which emphasises a fact or a statement by explicitly claiming to pass over it. It can be used to introduce people or characters or pointed remarks. Or to put the reader in a particular frame of mind.

  • She’s all grown up and chatty and flirty, not to mention, pretty.
  • I won’t ask about your embarrassing meeting today, instead why don’t you tell me how the kids are doing.
  • Today’s speaker is Tony. He’s an upstanding member of our community (except when it comes to his late-night parties, but we won’t go into that), he volunteers at the local animal shelter, helps distribute our newsletter, and is responsible for our lovely website.

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Paronomasia (Pun)

/ˌparənə(ʊ)ˈmeɪzɪə/,

Etymology: Greek, to slightly alter the naming.

A figure which plays on the sound, spelling, or meaning of a word, by substituting it with one which is similar in one or more of those aspects. Usually achieved by using approximate homophones, homographs, or homonyms. Similar to, but less rigid then, antanaclasis. (Sometimes called adnominatio.)

  • I had to knead the doughty mixture for an hour before I could bake it. (doughy, doughty)
  • “Manhandle with care.” (instead of handle with care)

The following can be used to form basic puns:

  • Malapropisms — inappropriate application of similar-sounding warts (an invigorate drinker, instead of inveterate drinker).
  • Spoonerisms — inversion of word-parts, often a punning mechanism or slip of the tongue (it was pouring with rain, becomes it was roaring with pain).
  • Malaphor — a modern word, not yet included in the OED. A portmanteau of metaphor and malapropism, which means the blending of two phrase or idioms (between the devil and a hard place, or between a rock and the deep blue sea).

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Parenthesis

Etymology: Greek, put in beside

A figure in which one or more words interrupt the syntactic flow of an otherwise complete sentence. It is marked off by commas, dashes, or round brackets.

  • The candle, a perfectly straight sick of black wax, burned steadily before my eyes.
  • I’d like to bring my dog to the party—please says yes!—otherwise he might make a mess at home.
  • The spray keeps all the bugs away (and all my guests).

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Personification (or prosopopoeia)

In modern interpretation, a figure by which an animal or inanimate object or idea is given human characteristics. (Can be thought of as a type of metaphor.)

  • Feelings of antipathy jostled within him. (feelings don’t have elbows)
  • The clouds were competing for the privilege of blocking the sun. (clouds don’t have volition)
  • The night galloped in through the windows.

Traditionally, prosopopoeia (pronounced /ˌprɒsə(ʊ)pəˈpiːə/) comes from the Greek, to make faces or masks or persons. It was part of the progymnasmata, a set of basic rhetorical exercises, and involved giving a speech that impersonated someone else. I take prosopopoeia to be an umbrella term both for modern personification, and for impersonating those who exist or existed but aren’t present, those who are known fictional figures, and those who are completely invented by the author. Most generally, authors engage in prosopopoeia every time they create fictional characters, and even when they are just writing in their own ‘voices’. Their ‘voices’ are their masks.

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Pleonasm

Grammatical or semantical redundancy as fault or as stylistic choice.

  • He looked down at his feet. (if the person is standing, the ‘down’ is redundant, other than for emphasis)
  • She promised me a free present. (presents are free by default)
  • Stop looking for him, he’s gone, disappeared, poof! (one of ‘gone’, ‘disappeared’, ‘poof’ would have sufficed, but together they’re achieve emphasis)

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Polyptoton

/ˌpɒlᵻpˈtəʊtɒn/

Etymology: Greek, having many cases.

Repeating the same word or similar-sounding words, usually intended as wordplay or a pun. (Sometimes called adnominatio.)

  • I’d like to like him. (direct repetition)
  • Like he’s ever going to like her. (different grammatical function)
  • The baker bakes. (same stem)
  • Rows of people rose. (homophones, meaning they sound the same, have a different spelling and meaning)
  • She rose from her seat, to pick up the rose he’d thrown to her. (homonyms: homophones and homographs, meaning they have the same sound and spelling, but different meaning)
  • It is important to bow when some draws their bow at you. (homographs, but not homophones)
  • I was unable to book an appointment, even though their appointment book was empty. (homonyms, also cognates or polysemes, meaning they descend from the same word)
  • Please hear my pleas. (homophones, but not cognates)

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Polysyndeton

/ˌpɒlɪˈsɪndᵻt(ə)n/

Etymology: Greek, having many cases.

A figure which uses in quick succession multiple conjunctions (that could be omitted). Compare to asyndeton which omits conjunctions. 

  • The wolf ran and skipped and jumped and finally fell, exhausted.
  • Should I be worried that you’ll forget to close the fridge or turn off the hob or take the dog out, or that you’ll sleep in and miss the tram and be late for school?

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Prolepsis

/prə(ʊ)ˈlɛpsɪs/

Etymology: Greek, anticipation, prefigurement.

A figure in which a pronoun is used to refer to a as of yet unstated noun. (This is a narrow meaning of an otherwise rich figure of anticipation: it can mean refutation of anticipated objections, outlining before discussing in full, referring to a future state. In this interpretation I follow Forsyth’s Elements of Eloquence.)

  • That’s got to be the solution! Let me explain … (the exclamation is referring to a solution that will be explained next)
  • Nobody saw him, the thief, as he snuck up the stairs. (the ‘him’ in such a sentence, is used in anticipation of the noun; it can be used to add a soupçon of mystery, and it sounds more like natural speech)

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Scesis onomaton

Etymology: The relation of words.

Sentence(s) without a main verb.

  • The moon. A sky full of stars. The surface of the pond, untouched, unmoving.

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Syllepsis

/sɪˈlɛpsɪs/

Etymology: Greek, to take alike

A figure by which a word is made to refer to more than one other word in the same sentence, either by being applied in different senses, or by being applied incorrectly in some instances. A type of zeugma.

  • She took the pill and his life. (literal and metaphorical meaning)
  • He staggered through the night and the task. (literal and metaphorical)
  • My dog and my brother is going for a walk. (grammatical incongruity)

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Synaesthesia

/sɪnɪsˈθiːsɪə/

Etymology: Greek, to feel, to perceive alike

A figure in which a metaphor, simile or word uses terms associated to one sense to describe another sense. In its purest form, it allows physical senses to perceive the abstract. 

  • The apple smelled green. (a colour used to describe a smell)
  • The shades of blue tinkled like small bells of brass. (colours described as creating sound)
  • The touch of waves on my bare feet was the touch of freedom. (touch allowed to perceive the abstract concept of freedom)

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Synecdoche

/sᵻˈnɛkdəki/

Etymology: Greek, understanding one thing with another

A figure in which a whole is referred to by one of its parts (pars pro toto), or a part is referred to as a whole (totum pro parte). Similar to, and sometimes considered a type of, metonymy.

  • Drop me a line. (a line stands in for letter, email)
  • Saying in Europe when you mean in the European Union. (can be very confusing to people who are from non-EU, European countries.)

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Synonymia

A figure in which (a reader feels) a similar meaning is repeated using different words. Depending on the form, it may also be a congeries, a heaping of words.

  • I promised there’d be lots of food, freshly baked goods and sweets and cakes, so much that if everyone ate to bursting point we’d still have leftovers for them to take home.
  • Her poems expressed the essence of prison life, the dull, grim reality of confinement, the way there was nowhere to go, no one descent to turn to, the way the walls closed in on her every night, grey and unmovable.

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Testimony

An umbrella term for those figures that quote, paraphrase, or invoke some form of knowledge (common, personal, experiential) for the purposes inducing plausible belief in other matters that are being said. Not a figure of speech, but a form of argument.

  • Sententia: a figure in which a pithy saying (proverb, maxim, adage, apothegm, gnome) is quoted, although it doesn’t have to always be for the purpose of testimony. 
  • Martyria: a figure in which the speaker cites own experience as proof.
  • Apodixis: citing common experience or knowledge.
  • Related to: Prosopopoeia: especially as seen as a figure which feigns speech from a person that is not present (following and mimicking their known values).  See personification

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Transferred epithet (hypallage)

A figure in which two segments of sentence are transposed in an unexpected way.

  • I wandered through the lonely woods. (it’s the person that’s lonely, not the woods)
  • She spoke in a series of excited monosyllables. (she was excited not the monosyllables) 
  • That was a happy coincidence. (the people to which the coincidence happened were happy; their presence is implied, as is the transposition)

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Tricolon

/trʌɪˈkəʊlɪk/

Etymology: Greek, three limbs, three clauses

A figure in which three parallel sentence fragments occur consecutively. Works best with alliteration, rhyme, and the extender which adds spice to the third fragment. A type of isocolon.

  • Bad, worse, and the devil. (extender)
  • A moment, a long moment, a minute. (also an example of a diacope)
  • Be kind, be free, be you. (sounds like a commercial, and indeed many are built on this principle)
  • He smiled, he smirked, he slapped me in the face. (a facial expression is expected in the third phrase, instead, in a twist, we get violence upon the narrator’s face; alliteration helps)
  • There’s the bicolon, the tricolon, and then there’s Churchill. (for this one to make you smile you need to know that he said “nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”, a tetracolon that is often misremembered as the tricolon: “blood, sweat and tears”)

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Vices of Style: Error and Ignorance

A number of vices arise through linguistic ignorance, overcompensation, mischance, or error. Here are a few:

  • malapropisms: inappropriate application of similar-sounding warts (an invigorate drinker, instead of an inveterate drinker),
  • acyrology: misapplication of similar sounding or similar-meaning words in inappropriate ways (buckle your shirt, instead of button your shirt; the commercial has been sexualised, instead of the commercial has been desexualised), malapropism is a type of acarology,
  • catachresis: misapplication of a word (my roomscape is a ugly, were landscape of the room is meant; there’s the switch—please push the light on, instead of switch the light on), acyrology is a type of catachresis,
  • cacozelia: unsuccessfully affecting a style, for example by throwing in foreign words or being deliberately rude (vis-à-vis schadenfreude, I have little to say, other than de gustibus non est disputandum: if you wish to expend your mental energy on negative karma, I shall not stop you),
  • solecisms: traditionally a misuse of gender, case, or tenses in Ancient Greek; in English, it implies incorrect grammar or syntax, or a breach of etiquette (whom is at the door, when it should be who),
  • spoonerisms: inversion of word-parts, often a punning mechanism or slip of the tongue (it was roaring with pain, instead of, it was pouring with rain),
  • malaphor: a modern word, not yet included in the OED, a portmanteau of metaphor and malapropism, which means the blending of two phrases or idioms (between the devil and a hard place, or, between a rock and the deep blue sea),
  • cacamphaton: ill sounding (a niggling fear of jiggling, jangling gyroscopes), 
  • aschematiston: the use of plain, non-metaphorical language (he stood tall and spread his wings—in a context where he is an eagle), classed as a vice although obviously has its place in most types of writing.

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Vices of Style: Repetition

Repetition often occurs in figures of speech, and when used in moderation, it effectively conveys emphasis, irony, parallel structure, or sound patterns (e.g. alliteration, anaphora, isocolon, epizeuxis, diacope, etc). However, taken to an extreme, repetition grates the ear or clouds the message. It is then considered a vice of style. Here are a few examples:

  • tautologia: wearisome repetition of an idea in different words (I learn best by reading slowly, so when I study for my exams I spend hours thoroughly going through the textbooks. Could have been written as: I study best for my exams by reading the textbooks slowly and thoroughly),
  • pleonasm: using grammatically superfluous words (I heard him with my ears; small speck of sand; light feather),
  • synonymia: where (a reader feels) a similar meaning is repeated using different words too many times.
  • circumlocution or periphrasis (or related terms): substituting descriptions for proper names, or using euphemisms (There goes the neighbour who owns more than a few cats; the natural mechanisms people use for making children),
  • paroemiton (also called homeoprophoron, cacamphaton): extreme alliteration (pea pods parade proudly poolside).

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Zeugma

/ˈzjuːɡmə/

Etymology: Greek, to yoke

A figure by which a word is made to refer to more than one other word in the same sentence. A syllepsis is a type of zeugma, where the governing word is applied in different senses. 

  • I drank beer; he juice. (a zeugma that is not a syllepsis, because “drank” applies both to “I” and “he” in the same way)
  • We danced through the night, they through the day. (a prozeugma, where the governing verb is given in the first clause.)
  • As she to him, I belong to you. (a hypozeugma, where the governing verb is given in the last clause; hard to pull off sensibly)

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