Top 20 Figures of Speech

By Richard Nordquist,

A figure of speech is a rhetorical device that achieves a special effect by using words in distinctive ways. Though there are hundreds of figures of speech (many of them included in our Tool Kit for Rhetorical Analysis), here we'll focus on just 20 of the most common figures.

You will probably remember many of these terms from your English classes. Figurative language is often associated with literature--and with poetry in particular. But the fact is, whether we're conscious of it or not, we use figures of speech every day in our own writing and conversations.

For example, common expressions such as "falling in love," "racking our brains," "hitting a sales target," and "climbing the ladder of success" are all metaphors--the most pervasive figure of all. Likewise, we rely on similes when making explicit comparisons ("light as a feather") and hyperbole to emphasize a point ("I'm starving!").

Using original figures of speech in our writing is a way to convey meanings in fresh, unexpected ways. Figures can help our readers understand and stay interested in what we have to say. For advice on creating figures of speech, see Using Similes and Metaphors to Enrich Our Writing.

How to Review the Top 20 Figures of Speech
Click on each of the following terms to visit a glossary page. There you will find the definition and several examples of the figure as well as its etymology (which shows where the term came from) and a sound file (so that you'll know how to pronounce the term). For each figure of speech, try to come up with an example of your own.

The Top 20 Figures

1. Alliteration
Repetition of an initial consonant sound.

2. Anaphora
Repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses or verses.

3. Antithesis
The juxtaposition of contrasting ideas in balanced phrases.

4. Apostrophe
Breaking off discourse to address some absent person or thing, some abstract quality, an inanimate object, or a nonexistent character.

5. Assonance
Identity or similarity in sound between internal vowels in neighboring words.

6. Chiasmus
A verbal pattern in which the second half of an expression is balanced against the first but with the parts reversed.

7. Euphemism
The substitution of an inoffensive term for one considered offensively explicit.

8. Hyperbole
An extravagant statement; the use of exaggerated terms for the purpose of emphasis or heightened effect.

9. Irony
The use of words to convey the opposite of their literal meaning. A statement or situation where the meaning is contradicted by the appearance or presentation of the idea.

10. Litotes
A figure of speech consisting of an understatement in which an affirmative is expressed by negating its opposite.

11. Metaphor
An implied comparison between two unlike things that actually have something important in common.

12. Metonymy
A figure of speech in which one word or phrase is substituted for another with which it is closely associated; also, the rhetorical strategy of describing something indirectly by referring to things around it.

13. Onomatopoeia
The formation or use of words that imitate the sounds associated with the objects or actions they refer to.

14. Oxymoron
A figure of speech in which incongruous or contradictory terms appear side by side.

15. Paradox
A statement that appears to contradict itself.

16. Personification
A figure of speech in which an inanimate object or abstraction is endowed with human qualities or abilities.

17. Pun
A play on words, sometimes on different senses of the same word and sometimes on the similar sense or sound of different words.

18. Simile
A stated comparison (usually formed with "like" or "as") between two fundamentally dissimilar things that have certain qualities in common.

19. Synechdoche
A figure of speech is which a part is used to represent the whole, the whole for a part, the specific for the general, the general for the specific, or the material for the thing made from it.

20. Understatement
A figure of speech in which a writer or a speaker deliberately makes a situation seem less important or serious than it is.


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