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12 Figures of Speech

Figures of speech add interest and intrigue to our language.

Figures of speech add interest and intrigue to our language.

Figures of Speech

Hundreds of word devices embroider our language and go far beyond the ones we learned about in school, such as similes and metaphors. Here is an entirely whimsical and arbitrary selection of twelve such critters.

1. Apostrophe

Yes, it’s a punctuation mark that is frequently misused and, according to some, is on its way to wherever such things go when they die. It’s also a figure of speech in which remarks are made to an absent person or object as if they or it were able to understand.

William Shakespeare made frequent use of the device. At the end of Romeo and Juliet, the distraught young woman talks to the knife of her dead lover:

“Yea, noise? Then I’ll be brief. O happy dagger,
This is thy sheath. There rust and let me die.”

Who hasn’t cursed their car when it refuses to start at an inopportune moment? Of course, there’s never an opportune moment for that to happen.

2. Bowdlerize

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, Frank Loesser’s 1944 song, Baby, It’s Cold Outside, came under attack as condoning pressuring a woman to have sex. In 2019, a “cleaned up” version was released; it was bowdlerized.

Bowdlerization is a process in which words are removed or replaced with others that are considered less offensive. Similarly, Black Lives Matter activists are demanding that the movie Gone with the Wind be reworked for its depiction of slavery.

The word comes from English brother and sister Thomas and Henrietta Bowdler, who published a version of Shakespeare’s works in 1807 with the juicy bits chopped out.

3. Cadence

Cadence is the rhythm of a piece of writing that is dictated by the choice of words. One of the best examples of the use of cadence is the poem Night Mail by W.H. Auden. You can hear the train clattering over the joins in the track in the text.

4. Circumlocution

In a roundabout way, circumlocution means an “indirect way of speaking; the use of more words than necessary to express an idea” (Dictionary).

Circumlocution is the sworn enemy of good writing and is to be found in abundance in government bureaucracies. The following example was retrieved from the Government Equalities Office in Britain and quoted by John Preston in The Daily Telegraph on March 28, 2014:

“Finally, in pursuit of the above, it is also a shrewd moment to take advantage of a more open stance in shaping policy priorities and implementation mechanisms . . . Open policy-making, therefore, is a naturally structural corollary to behaviour change on the agenda of modernising government and driving effective ­public policy.”

Of course it is.

5. Dysphemism

You probably don’t want to run into a dysphemism; its aim is to shock and offend. A Twitter user of global renown until banned used multiple dysphemisms on a daily basis to belittle his many, many perceived enemies. Examples include:

  • “Terrible reporter”
  • “Most overrated general”
  • “Nut job”
  • “Totally dishonest”

These are examples, but they lack a certain literary elegance. Sir Winston Churchill, to which the Tweeter, whose name shall not be mentioned, has compared himself favourably, had the gift of eloquence when insulting a rival:

  • In describing Clement Atlee, the Labour Party prime minister who replaced him, he said, “He is a modest man, with much to be modest about.”
  • Of French president Charles de Gaulle, he said, “What can you do with a man who looks like a female llama surprised when bathing?”

6. Epigram

Epigrams are close cousins of proverbs and maxims but lean in the direction of humour. Wit and brevity are the hallmarks of an epigram. Oscar Wilde was a master of the genre, as in “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

We are still talking about you, Oscar.

We are still talking about you, Oscar.

7. Homograph

One reason English can be so difficult to learn is that it contains several words that are spelled the same but mean something entirely different; these are called homographs.

“I hope you are present (adjective) so I can present (verb) you with the present (noun).”

It’s the sort of thing that makes a complete mockery of spell-checking software.

8. Paraprosdokian

Comedians rely heavily on the element of surprise; they set you up to think one way and then hit you with a punch line that comes from another direction. The word paraprosdokian, which describes this effect, comes to us from ancient Greek and can be translated to “beyond expectation.”

There are many celebrated practitioners:

  • Henny Youngman: “Most women are attracted to simple things in life. Like men.”
  • Groucho Marx: “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.”
  • Tim Vine: “I said to the gym instructor: ‘Can you teach me to do the splits?’ He said: ‘How flexible are you?’ I said: ‘I can’t make Tuesdays’ ”
  • Milton Jones: “My grandfather is always saying that in the old days people could leave their back doors open. Which is probably why his submarine sank.

Ba dum tiss.

9. Pleonasm

“An unnecessary redundancy.” That’s one. Here’s another. “Free gift.” A pleonasm is the use of more words than are needed to describe something. “The subway cars arrive in succession, one after the other.” Or, New York Yankee Yogi Berra’s famous “It’s déjà vu all over again.” A similar construction is the tautology, in which an excessive number of words are used to define something.

10. Syllogism

In logic, a syllogism starts with a general statement and applies it to something specific. “All men are mortal. John is a man. Therefore, John is mortal.” points out that “It is a deductive approach to reason, and is based on deducing specific conclusions from general facts.” A syllogism fallacy is used to make the same logical progression look ridiculous. “All crows are black. My smartphone is black. Therefore, my smartphone is a crow.”

11. Synecdoche

This is a linguistic gadget that uses a part of something to refer to the whole. Or it can be used in the opposite direction. Examples please:

  • Hired hands refers to employees
  • Boots on the ground means soldiers
  • Using credit cards is often called paying with plastic

Or the whole can be used to represent a part:

  • The Oval Office is used to signify the U.S. presidency
  • Downing Street represents to head of the British government
  • The New York Times reported” means an individual journalist wrote an article

12. Verisimilitude

Writers of fiction love this device because it offers a semblance of truth that encourages the reader to suspend their disbelief. Through verisimilitude, characters are made to look real and authentic even though they are made up.

Novelist Neil Gaiman explains that “We’re using memorable lies. We are taking people who do not exist and things that did not happen to those people, in places that aren’t, and we are using those things to communicate true things.”

Verisimilitude refers to the way fiction conveys truth through things that do not really exist.

Verisimilitude refers to the way fiction conveys truth through things that do not really exist.

Bonus Factoids

Nonce words are those that are made up and have no known meaning, such as Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky poem.

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” —Ernest Hemingway.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor


Lorna Lamon on June 12, 2020:

Don't worry Rupert I just took it to mean write from the heart.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on June 11, 2020:

Lorna, by all means sit down at your keyboard but please, please don't open a vein.

Lorna Lamon on June 11, 2020:

A fascinating article and Hemingway's quote gives me hope. Thank you for sharing.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on June 11, 2020:

You are most welcome Ann.

Ann Carr from SW England on June 11, 2020:

Thank you for the education and the entertainment!