Figures of speech

Figures of speech

What are rhetorical figures? How are they used?

A figure of speech, or rhetorical figure, is a way of using language in a way that is different from the ordinary, to produce certain effects.

We can distinguish three groups of rhetorical figures:

  • Figures of sound
  • Figures based on construction
  • Figures based on a change in the meaning of words

Figures of sound

The figures of sound are linked to the phonetic aspects of words. Here we analyze some of them.


Is the repetition of a sound. For instance, if we say “Stockings, slippers, camisoles and stays”, we are repeating the sound of the s.
We can also distinguish assonance and consonance. Assonance is the repetition of the same vowel sound, with different consonants. For instance, eyes and like have the same sound of the vowels, but different consonants, s and k. A consonance is the opposite, we have the same consonants, but we change the vowels. An example is found in the words mistress and eyes, both of which repeat the s, but have different vowels.


This figure is made repeating one or multiple invariable words, which reproduce and evoke the sound of something, such as the noise of an object or the sound of an animal. For instance, jingle bells is an onomatopoeia.

Figures based on construction

They are linked to the order of words in a sentence


It is the repetition, in the beginning of a verse or of a phrase, of one or more words, to emphasize them. For instance: it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.


It is the combination of two similar concepts, displaying the elements of the second part in the opposite order of the elements of the first part. The construction is the same, it is just in a different order. For instance, let’s consider the line: so long lives this, and this gives life to thee. Here we have in the first part a verb, lives, followed by “this”, and in the second part we have “this”, followed by “gives life”, which has the same meaning of “lives” in the first part.


Here we have a break in the unity of the verse. The sentence, instead of beginning and ending in the same verse, continues in the following. Let’s look at this example:

 Let me not to the marriage of true minds
admit impediments. Love is not love
that alters when it alteration finds
Or bends with the remover to remove.

Shakespeare, Sonnet 116

These are the first four lines of a Shakespeare’s sonnet, and we have an enjambement for each line. Moreover, the sentence that begins in the first line, ends in the fourth one, so it extends for three lines.

Figures based on a change in the meaning of words


It is a figure where a concept is expressed with an exaggeration. The exaggeration can be both in excess, for instance in “I’ve been waiting for you for ages!” or in defect, such as in “She’s as skinny as a toothpick


In this figure we create an implicit analogy between two images. For instance, if we say “the human engine” to define the human body, we are linking the image of the human being with the image of a machine, giving the idea of something robotic. Several metaphors are now used in ordinary language, such as “the legs of the table”.


We explain a concept by combining it to another one, creating an explicit analogy. For instance, saying that the human body we were talking about “waits/ Like a taxi throbbing waiting”, explains the idea of being anxious while waiting.


In this figure we substitute a word with another of a meaning that is more or less ample. Common examples are

  • using a part instead of the whole, as when we say here come the sails instead of the ship;
  • the container instead of the content, as in she drank a cup, instead of she drank some coffee
  • the material instead of the object, as when we say plastic instead of credit card.

It is similar to a synecdoche, but the word used is linked to the concept of the other, it is not a part of it. For instance, we say let me give you a hand, meaning help, or lend me your ears, meaning attention.


In this figure, we associate characteristics and behaviors that are typically human, to objects or non-human entities. We can observe an example in the first lines of The Waste Land: “April is the cruelest month, breeding / lilacs out of the dead land”. Here we associate the month of April with being cruel, which is a typically human characteristic.


It is the combination of two opposite images. For instance: “I fear and hope, I burn and freeze like ice”. Here we find oxymorons, associating fear and hope, two opposite feelings, and the actions of burning and freezing, which are linked to two opposite temperatures.

These were the figures of speech! 😉

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