Figures of Speech

Figures of speech are literary devices which writers use to spice up their work. They add colour, heighten an effect, paint a picture more vividly, and – we hope – sometimes bring a smile to readers’ lips. Nearly all writers use similes and metaphors, but how many of us go beyond those two? How many are we even aware of? There are well over 100 in all, but only 20 or 30 in common use. It’s worth revisiting a few of the commonest, many of which should be on any decent school’s English Language syllabus.

I have deliberately kept explanations super-simple and in most cases have given only one example. I want to encourage, not discourage, use of these devices. For those figures of speech with dauntingly long names, I have added pronunciation guides in square brackets.


Anaphora [anNAFF-erer]: The first part of a sentence is repeated to achieve impact.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.


Antithesis [an-TITHersis]: Two opposing ideas are presented next to each other to heighten the contrast between them.

To err is human, to forgive divine.


Assonance [ASS-er-nernce]: Words with the same vowel sound are placed near each other. The effect becomes obvious when the sentence is read aloud.

How now, brown cow.


Simile: A comparison is made using like, as, or as…as.

He disappeared as quick as a flash.


Metaphor: This serves the same function as a simile, but the words like or as are omitted.

My husband is a rock.


Litotes [lie-TOE-tease]: An affirmative is expressed by negating its opposite.

That lady is not unattractive.


Chiasmus [ky-AS-mers]: Words or ideas are repeated in reverse order.

Eat to live; don’t live to eat.


Euphemism [YOU-fer-mism]: Something negative or unpleasant is referred to in a pleasant way.

My uncle is a rodent operative. (rat killer)


Hyperbole [high-PER-ber-lee]: Gross exaggeration.

His essay contained millions of mistakes.


Metonymy [mI-TONNER-me]: One expression is used as a stand-in for another.

As yet, there has been no reaction from Downing Street. (the government)


Onomatopoeia [on-a-matter-PEE-er]: A word or expression sounds like what it represents.

Twitter, buzz, murmur, cuckoo, rat-a-tat.


Oxymoron [oxee-MORE-ron]: The “bitter-sweet” figure of speech, where two apparently contradictory ideas are placed together.

A deafening silence, the living dead, seriously funny.


Personification Objects are given human qualities or abilities.

The leaves danced in the wind.


Synecdoche [sin-ECK-der-key]: Most commonly, this involves mentioning part of something to refer to the whole.

Music is my bread and butter. (= my main source of income)


Health warnings

(1) Ring the changes; don’t overuse any one type.

Some writers are extraordinarily inventive when it comes to devices like the simile, but cramming too many into one chapter, or even one page, diminishes their effect. Bombarding readers with comparisons blows the visualisation fuse box. Also, we don’t want readers to think, “Hey, this guy is trying too hard.”


(2) Avoid clichés.

I used as quick as a flash above for the sake of clarity, but it’s far better to come up with something of your own, like as quick as a scalded skunk.

This last, oft-quoted piece of advice has a sound basis but is hard to adhere to. The problem is: what counts as a cliché? Does that sound like an easy question? It’s actually so complex that it forms the subject of my next blog: When is a cliché not a cliché?


Choose three figures of speech from the list above that you like the look of. Aim to throw a few into your writing that you wouldn’t normally use. Experiment. Do it now. Make a cup of tea and then write three sentences. Well, what are you waiting for? Go and put the kettle on.


  1. john e. irby

    knowing the names of figures of speech, i believe, are not as important as using them to enliven the writing. some are commonly known and used, others not so much. i appreciate the review of the terms and examples. it helps to re-establish them in my mind as my school days are as distant as an undiscovered planet. thank you, velly, much.

    • Geoff Geoff

      Hi, John. Thanks for your comment. I agree that knowing how to use figures of speech is more important than remembering their names, but some people do like to have labels – and labels are the best, shorthand way of referring to them.

  2. steve barnett

    !) It can’t be done, it is impossible. 2)I raise my fist to hold you tightly. 3) Hot cows, not cows. 4) As strong as an oxo cube. 5) My girlfriend is a wet sock. 6) My wet sock is not unattractive. 7) Love to live and live to love. 8) She has cheeks like petals, bicycle petals. 9) It was so big she gained four inches on her waist when it went in. (A sandwich, of cause.) 10) She was a working girl. ( Prostitute. ) 11) Ka-plonk 12) Honest politician, lol. or hard rain. 13) The chair moaned at her weight. 14) The big bang. ( I know that’s wrong, this one’s hard.) The tip of the iceberg.

    • Geoff Geoff

      Hi, Steve. You’ve certainly been doing your homework! In the first one, I think you’d need to repeat more than just “it” to achieve an example of anaphora. On the whole, you’ve grasped all the main points – well done!

  3. Laurel Wingfield

    Hi, Geoff, and thanks for this. It’s been very educational! I know about similes and metaphors; ‘I feel like I have the ‘flu, and the sky is shades of burnt slate’. I know about assonance; ‘The sea breeze teases the leaves’. As for oxymorons, I love them! ‘Sky blue pink. Nutty as a fruit cake. One fine day, in the middle of the night’. I had never heard of lilotes or chiasmus before, though.

    • Geoff Geoff

      Thanks for the comment, Laurel. It’s clear you love language as much as I do.

  4. April Taylor

    This is fantastic. With a couple I had never heard of. Thank you for posting. Going to try to use synecdoche now!

    • Geoff Geoff

      Thanks so much, April. Hope you can use a few of these to enhance your already proficient writing. (I’ve read a few samples on Kindle.)


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