Figure of speech

A figure of speech, sometimes termed a rhetorical figure or device, or elocution, is a word or phrase that departs from straightforward, literal language. Figures of speech are often used and crafted for emphasis, freshness of expression, or clarity. However, clarity may also suffer from their use.

Note that not all theories of meaning necessarily have a concept of "literal language" (see literal and figurative language). Under theories that do not, figure of speech is not an entirely coherent concept.

As an example of the figurative use of a word, consider the sentence, I am going to crown you. It may mean:

  • I am going to place a literal crown on your head.
  • I am going to symbolically exalt you to the place of kingship.
  • I am going to punch you in the head with my clenched fist.


Figures of speech have been classified into a number of different categories. Most figures originated out of centuries of philological commentary on ancient texts, and so most are named from Greek or Latin, as they originally were meant to classify grammatical peculiarities of those languages.

Scholars of classical Western rhetoric have divided figures of speech into two main categories: schemes and tropes. Schemes (from the Greek schēma, form or shape) are figures of speech in which there is a deviation from the ordinary or expected pattern of words. For example, the phrase, "John, my best friend" uses the scheme known as apposition. Tropes (from the Greek tropein, to turn) involve changing or modifying the general meaning of a term. An example of a trope is the use of irony, which is the use of word in a way that conveys a meaning opposite to its usual meaning ("For Brutus is an honorable man; / So, are they all, honorable men").

During the Renaissance, a time when scholars in every discipline had a passion for classifying all things, writers spent a great deal of energy divising all manner of classes and sub-classes of figures of speech. Henry Peacham, for example, in his The Garden of Eloquence (1577) enumerated 184 different figures of speech.

For the sake of simplicity, this article divides the figures between schemes and tropes, but does not attempt further sub-classification (e.g., "Figures of Disorder"). Within each category, words are listed alphabetically. Each figure links to a page that provides greater detail and relevant examples, but a short definition is placed here for convenience.


  • accumulatio: Summarization of previous arguments in a forceful manner
  • alliteration: Repetition of consonants in nearby words
  • anacoluthon: A change in the syntax within a sentence
  • anadiplosis: Repetition of a word at the end of a clause at the beginning of another
  • anaphora: The repetition of the same word or group of words at the beginning of successive clauses
  • anastrophe: Inversion of the usual word order
  • antimetabole: Repetition of words in successive clauses, in reverse order
  • antithesis: The juxtaposition of opposing or contrasting ideas
  • aposiopesis: Breaking off or pausing speech for dramatic or emotional effect
  • apposition: The placing of two elements side by side, in which the second defines the first
  • assonance: Alliteration on the first sound in words
  • asyndeton: Omission of conjunctions between related clauses
  • chiasmus: Reversal of grammatical structures in successive clauses
  • climax: The arrangement of words in order of increasing importance
  • dystmesis: A synonym for tmesis
  • ellipsis: Omission of words
  • enallage: The substitition of forms that are grammatically different, but have the same meaning
  • enthymeme: Informal method of presenting a syllogism
  • epanalepsis: Repetition of a word at the end of a clause at the beginning of another
  • epistrophe: Repetition of a word at the beginning and end of a clause
  • hendiadys: Use of two nouns to express an idea when the normal structure would be a noun and a modifier
  • hendiatris: Use of three nouns to express one idea
  • hyperbaton: Schemes featuring unusual or inverted word order
  • hypallage: Changing the order of words so that they are associated with words normally associated with others
  • isocolon: Use of parallel structures of the same length in successive clauses
  • parallelism: The use of similar structures in two or more clauses
  • paraprosdokian: Unexpected ending or truncation of a clause
  • parenthesis: Insertion of a clause or sentence in a place where it interrupts the natural flow of the sentence
  • perissologia: The fault of wordiness
  • pleonasm: The use of superfluous or redundant words
  • polyptoton: Repetition of words derived from the same root
  • polysyndeton: Repetition of conjunctions
  • synonymia: The use of two or more synonyms in the same clause or sentence
  • tmesis: Insertion of one word between the syllables of a word or between the elements of a compound word


  • allegory: An extended metaphor in which a story is told to illustrate an important attribute of the subject
  • anacoenosis: Posing a question to an audience, often with the implication that it shares a common interest with the speaker
  • antanaclasis: A form of pun in which a word is repeated in two different senses
  • anthimeria: The substitution of one part of speech for another, often turning a noun into a verb
  • antonomasia: The substitution of a phrase for a proper name or vice versa
  • aphorismus: Calling into question the meaning of a term
  • aporia: Deliberating with oneself, often with the use of rhetorical questions
  • apostrophe: Addressing a thing, an abstraction or a person not present
  • auxesis: A form of hyperbole, in which a more important sounding word is used in place of a more descriptive term
  • catachresis: A mixed metaphor (sometimes used by design and sometimes a rhetorical fault)
  • circumlocution: "Talking around" a topic by substituting or adding words, as in euphemism or periphrasis
  • denominatio: Another word for metonymy
  • erotema: Synonym for rhetorical question
  • euphemism: Substitution of a less offensive or more agreeable term for another
  • hysteron proteron: Reversal of anticipated order of events
  • hyperbole: Use of exaggerated terms for emphasis
  • innuendo
  • irony: Use of word in a way that conveys a meaning opposite to its usual meaning
  • litotes: Ephasizing the magnitude of a statement by denying its opposite
  • meiosis: Use of understatement, usually to diminish the importance of something
  • metalepsis: Referring to something through reference to another thing to which it is remotely related
  • metaphor: An implied comparison of two things
  • metonymy: Substitution of a word to suggest what is really meant
  • onomatopoeia: Using words whose sounds echo or suggest their sense
  • oxymoron: Using two terms that normally contradict each other together
  • parable: An extended metaphor told as an anecdote to illustrate or teach a moral lesson
  • paradox: Use of apparently contradictory ideas to point out some underlying truth
  • paralipsis: Drawing attention to something while pretending to pass it over
  • paronomasia: A form of pun, in which words similar in sound but with different meanings are used
  • periphrasis: Substitution of a word or phrase for a proper name
  • personification: Attributing a personality to some impersonal object
  • praeteritio: Another word for paralipsis
  • procatalepsis: Refuting anticipated objections as part of the main argument
  • prolepsis: Another word for procatalepsis
  • proslepsis: An extreme form of paralipsis in which the speaker provides great detail while feigning to pass over a topic
  • pun: A generic term for figures of speech that make a play on words
  • rhetorical question: Asking a question as a way of asserting something
  • simile: An explicit comparison between two things
  • syllepsis: A form of pun, in which a single word is used to modify two other words, with which it normally would have differing meanings
  • synecdoche: A form of metonymy, in which a part stands for the whole
  • transferred epithet: The placing of an adjective with what appears to be the incorrect noun
  • zeugma: a figure of speech related to syllepsis, but different in that the word used as a modifier is not compatible with with one of the two words it modifies

See also


  • Aristotle. The Art of Rhetoric. (Translated by J. H. Freese) Loeb Classical Library.
  • Baldwin, Charles Sears. Ancient Rhetoric and Poetic: Interpreted from Representative Works. Peter Smith, Gloucester, 1959 (reprint).
  • Rhetorica ad Herennium. (Translated by Henry Caplan) Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1954.
  • Corbett, Edward P.J. Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student Oxford University Press, New York, 1971.
  • Kennedy, George. Art of Persuasion in Greece. Princeton Univ Press, 1969 (4th printing).
  • Mackin, John H. Classical Rhetoric for Modern Discourse. Free Press, New York, 1969.
  • Quintilian. Institutio oratoria. (In five volumes, trans. Donald A. Russell) Loeb Classical Library, 2002.

External links

es:Figura retórica it:Figura retorica nl:Stijlfiguur no:Figur fr:Figure de style tl:Tayutay


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