figure of speech

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figure of speech,

intentional departure from straight-forward, literal use of language for the purpose of clarity, emphasis, or freshness of expression. See separate articles on antithesisantithesis
, a figure of speech involving a seeming contradiction of ideas, words, clauses, or sentences within a balanced grammatical structure. Parallelism of expression serves to emphasize opposition of ideas.
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; apostropheapostrophe,
figure of speech in which an absent person, a personified inanimate being, or an abstraction is addressed as though present. The term is derived from a Greek word meaning "a turning away," and this sense is maintained when a narrative or dramatic thread is broken in
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; conceitconceit,
in literature, fanciful or unusual image in which apparently dissimilar things are shown to have a relationship. The Elizabethan poets were fond of Petrarchan conceits, which were conventional comparisons, imitated from the love songs of Petrarch, in which the beloved
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; hyperbolehyperbole
, a figure of speech in which exceptional exaggeration is deliberately used for emphasis rather than deception. Andrew Marvell employed hyperbole throughout "To His Coy Mistress":

An hundred years should go to praise

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; ironyirony,
figure of speech in which what is stated is not what is meant. The user of irony assumes that his reader or listener understands the concealed meaning of his statement.
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; litoteslitotes
, figure of speech in which a statement is made by indicating the negative of its opposite, e.g., "not many" meaning "a few." A form of irony, litotes is meant to emphasize by understating. Its opposite is hyperbole.
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; metaphormetaphor
[Gr.,=transfer], in rhetoric, a figure of speech in which one class of things is referred to as if it belonged to another class. Whereas a simile states that A is like B, a metaphor states that A is B or substitutes B for A.
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; metonymymetonymy
, figure of speech in which an attribute of a thing or something closely related to it is substituted for the thing itself. Thus, "sweat" can mean "hard labor," and "Capitol Hill" represents the U.S. Congress.
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; paradoxparadox,
statement that appears self-contradictory but actually has a basis in truth, e.g., Oscar Wilde's "Ignorance is like a delicate fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone.
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; personificationpersonification,
figure of speech in which inanimate objects or abstract ideas are endowed with human qualities, e.g., allegorical morality plays where characters include Good Deeds, Beauty, and Death.
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; similesimile
[Lat.,=likeness], in rhetoric, a figure of speech in which an object is explicitly compared to another object. Robert Burns's poem "A Red Red Rose" contains two straightforward similes:

My love is like a red, red rose

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; and synecdochesynecdoche
, figure of speech, a species of metaphor, in which a part of a person or thing is used to designate the whole—thus, "The house was built by 40 hands" for "The house was built by 20 people." See metonymy.
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Figure of Speech


a means of arranging the syntax of language in order to intensify the emotional expressiveness or the imperative force of an utterance. Figures of speech are used in everyday conversation, in journalism, and in literary language, particularly in poetry.

Figures of speech have been studied since ancient times. Until recently they were mainly a subject of academic study: manuals of rhetoric, stylistics, and poetics gave examples of figures of speech, generally drawn from the Greek and Roman classics. Figures of speech were classified into various types, ranging from 20 to 70 in number. The classification method was based on the assumption that figures of speech were merely artificial and superficial methods of embellishing language that could be assimilated by imitation. Today, figures of speech are regarded as normal and natural means of exploiting the expressive resources of a language, and they are used in speech or in writing as an important component of individualized style.

Figures of speech may be divided into three major types, each with two contrasting variants. These three types express extent, connectedness, and meaning.

Figures of speech expressing extent indicate either contraction or prolongation. A figure of speech indicating contraction is ellipsis, or the omission of the beginning, middle, or end of a phrase or sentence. An example is “The raven to the raven [speaks] in answer” (A. S. Pushkin). In a figure of speech indicating prolongation, the same word is used more than once in the same form. This may occur as an exact repetition, as in the riddle “I travel, I travel, there is no trace.” Repetition may be found at the beginning of a sentence (anaphora) or at its end (epistrophe). Repetition may also occur at the end of one phrase and at the beginning of the next phrase (epanastrophe), thus linking the two phrases, as in “O springtime with no end and no limit—no end and no limit to the dream!” (A. A. Blok).

Repetition is generally not exact: the word repeated may have the same meaning but occur in different grammatical cases (polyptoton), for example, “Man to man is a friend, comrade, and brother.” Here the noun “man” is in both the nominative and dative cases. A word may also be repeated with different meanings (antanaclasis), as in the maxim “He who values nothing higher than life cannot lead an honorable life.” A definition may duplicate the meaning of the word it defines (tautology), as in “the murky darkness.” Words with similar meanings may be enumerated (amplification), as in the folk song “In the Garden, in the Garden Plot” (Vo sadu li, v ogorode). Finally, a word may be followed by another word with an opposite meaning (antithesis), for example, “I am a tsar and a slave, I am a worm and a god” (G. R. Derzhavin).

Figures of speech expressing connectedness are used for purposes of separation or unification. Those figures of speech indicating separation are found in sentences whose component parts are not closely connected. One such figure of speech involves the use of words that are widely separated within a sentence but that are closely connected by meaning, for example, “Where the glance of people stops suddenly abrupt” (V. V. Mayakovsky); here the adjective “abrupt” modifies the noun “glance.” Another such figure of speech is parceling, or the separation of a single syntactic construction into more than one sentence, as in “I shall complain. To the governor” (M. Gorky). A figure of speech used in folklore is attraction, or nongrammatical agreement, as in “A great struggle-fight began among them” (Nachalas’ u nikh draka-boi velikaia). Here the feminine adjectival form velikaia modifies not boi, the immediately preceding masculine noun, but the feminine noun draka. the word before boi.

The use of introductory elements constitutes another figure of speech, as in “And then there appears—who do you think?—she.” A further figure of speech involves the transposition of the parts of an utterance, as in “We shall die and rush into battle” (Vergil).

Other figures of speech connect the component parts of a sentence: they include gradation, syntactic parallelism, and the repetition of conjunctions. A single word may be related simultaneously to two parts of a sentence, as in “Both the mountain beasts and birds . . . Harkened to the sound of its [the river’s] waters” (M. Iu. Lermontov).

Figures of speech involving meaning include those that equalize linguistic items. This type of figure of speech is found in constructions with relatively equivalent component parts. Such constructions are marked by regular word order, juxtaposition of words directly related in meaning, even distribution of subordinate parts of the sentence, and relatively uniform length of sentences and paragraphs.

Other figures of speech involving meaning are used for purposes of emphasis and are found in constructions with nonequivalent component parts. One such figure of speech is inversion, in which a word is placed in an unusual and therefore striking position, either at a sentence’s beginning or at its end. An example is “And long of dear Mariula I the gentle name repeated” (Pushkin). Gradation, particularly that which intensifies, is another figure of speech used for emphasis. An example is the beginning of F. I. Tiutchev’s poem “The east was pale . . . The east was aglow . . . The east was aflame.”

Some figures of speech intensify and emphasize a single sentence against the background of the surrounding sentences. Examples are the rhetorical address to an inanimate object, for example, “O wine, thou friend of autumn frost” (Pushkin), the rhetorical question, for example, “Do you know the Ukrainian night?” (N. V. Gogol), and the rhetorical exclamation, for example, “What an expanse!” The importance of a sentence is also emphasized when the sentence constitutes a paragraph, as in “The sea—was laughing” (Gorky). All these simple figures of speech may be combined in a text to form complex figures of speech.

The use of both tropes and figures of speech is only one aspect of the writer’s art, and the mere presence or absence of figures of speech does not determine a work’s stylistic value. A thorough study of figures of speech demands the combined efforts of specialists in many fields, primarily linguists, literary scholars, and psychologists.


Antichnye teorii iazyka i stilia. Moscow-Leningrad, 1936.
Bain, A. Stilistika i teoriia ustnoi i pis’mennoi rechi. Moscow, 1886. (Translated from English.)
Bally, C. Frantsuzskaia stilistika. Moscow, 1961. (Translated from French.)
Gornfel’d, A. G. “Figura v poetike i ritorike.” In the collection Voprosy teorii i psikhologii tvorchestva, 2nd ed., vol. 1. Kharkov, 1911.
Zhirmunskii, V. M. “Kompozitsiia liricheskikh stikhotvorenii.” In his collection Teorii stikha. Moscow, 1975.
Rybnikova, M. A. Vvedenie v stilistiku. Moscow, 1937.
Kviatkovskii, A. Poeticheskii slovar’. Moscow, 1966.
Korol’kov, V. I. “K teorii figur.” In Sbornik nauchnykh trudov Mosk. gos. ped. in-ta inostrannykh iazykov im. M. Toreza, fasc. 78. Moscow, 1974.
Staiger, E. Die Kunst der Interpretation. Zürich, 1957.
Staiger, E. Grundbegriffe der Poetik, 8th ed. Zürich-Freiburg im Breisgau, 1968.
Lausberg, H. Handbuch der literarischen Rhetorik: Eine Grundle-gung der Literaturwissenschaft, [vols. 1–2]. Munich, 1960.
Todorov, T. “Tropes et figures.” In the collection To Honor Roman Jakobson: Essays on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday, vol. 3. The Hague-Paris, 1967.


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