Figure of speech

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Figure of speech

Figure of speech: A literary device involving unusual use of language, often to associate or compare distinct things. Figures of speech typically depart from the usual order of words or from their literal meaning to create an image in the reader’s mind. Language that uses figures of speech is called figurative language.

Numerous figures of speech exist, and they are commonly divided into two general categories: rhetorical figures and tropes. Rhetorical figures, also called schemes, use words in some special way to create an unexpected effect without significantly altering their meanings. When a friend says “Shoot me an e-mail” — and when the narrator of Paula Hawkins’s novel The Girl on the Train (2015) speaks of “a MacBook, paper-thin” — the meanings of the words “shoot” and “paper” are not radically changed. Tropes, also called figures of thought, fundamentally change meanings, as happens to the word “plow” when someone says “I plowed through The Girl on the Train in a single sitting.”

Figures of speech have also been categorized in other ways, for instance by dividing them into three classes, depending on whether they foreground imagined similarities (e.g., conceit, simile), associations (e.g., metonymy, synecdoche), or appeals to the ear and eye (e.g., alliteration, onomatopoeia). Most critics, however, do not recognize devices in the third category as figures of speech, instead referring to them as figures of sound.

Perhaps the best-known and therefore most readily recognizable figures of speech are the five principal tropes: metaphor, metonymy, personification, simile, and synecdoche. Major rhetorical figures include antithesis, apostrophe, chiasmus, parallelism, syllepsis, and zeugma. Deconstructive critic Paul de Man also viewed irony as a figure of speech.

FURTHER EXAMPLES: In her novel God Help the Child (2015), Toni Morrison used striking examples of simile and personification, respectively, in suggesting that anything free “comes with strings tough as fishing line” and that “The sun and the moon shared the horizon in a distant friendship, each unfazed by the other.”