Understanding figurative language is helpful in mastering proper grammar and other essential grammar concepts. This page will quickly give you a foundation in figurative language. Figures of Speech—Definitions and Examples —Use of Figures.
In Figurative Language we employ words in such a way that they differ somewhat from their ordinary signification in commonplace speech and convey our meaning in a more vivid and impressive manner than when we use them in their every-day sense. Figures make speech more effective, they beautify and emphasize it and give to it a relish and piquancy as salt does to food; besides they add energy and force to expression so that it irresistibly compels attention and interest. There are four kinds of figures, viz.: (1) Figures of Orthography which change the spelling of a word; (2) Figures of Etymology which change the form of words; (3) Figures of Syntax which change the construction of sentences; (4) Figures of Rhetoric or the art of speaking and writing effectively which change the mode of thought.
We shall only consider the last mentioned here as they are the most important, really giving to language the construction and style which make it a fitting medium for the intercommunication of ideas.
Figures of Rhetoric have been variously classified, some authorities extending the list to a useless length. The fact is that any form of expression which conveys thought may be classified as a Figure.
The principal figures as well as the most important and those oftenest used are, Simile, Metaphor, Personification, Allegory, Synechdoche, Metonymy, Exclamation, Hyperbole, Apostrophe, Vision, Antithesis, Climax, Epigram, Interrogation and Irony.
The first four are founded on resemblance, the second six on contiguity and the third five, on contrast.
A Simile (from the Latin similis, like), is the likening of one thing to another, a statement of the resemblance of objects, acts, or relations; as "In his awful anger he was like the storm-driven waves dashing against the rock." A simile makes the principal object plainer and impresses it more forcibly on the mind. "His memory is like wax to receive impressions and like marble to retain them." This brings out the leading idea as to the man's memory in a very forceful manner. Contrast it with the simple statement—"His memory is good." Sometimes Simile is prostituted to a low and degrading use; as "His face was like a danger signal in a fog storm." "Her hair was like a furze-bush in bloom." "He was to his lady love as a poodle to its mistress." Such burlesque is never permissible. Mere likeness, it should be remembered, does not constitute a simile. For instance there is no simile when one city is compared to another. In order that there may be a rhetorical simile, the objects compared must be of different classes. Avoid the old trite similes such as comparing a hero to a lion. Such were played out long ago. And don't hunt for farfetched similes. Don't say—"Her head was glowing as the glorious god of day when he sets in a flambeau of splendor behind the purple-tinted hills of the West." It is much better to do without such a simile and simply say—"She had fiery red hair."
A Metaphor (from the Greek metapherein, to carry over or transfer), is a word used to imply a resemblance but instead of likening one object to another as in the simile we directly substitute the action or operation of one for another. If, of a religious man we say,—"He is as a great pillar upholding the church," the expression is a simile, but if we say—"He is a great pillar upholding the church" it is a metaphor. The metaphor is a bolder and more lively figure than the simile. It is more like a picture and hence, the graphic use of metaphor is called "word-painting." It enables us to give to the most abstract ideas form, color and life. Our language is full of metaphors, and we very often use them quite unconsciously. For instance, when we speak of the bed of a river, the shoulder of a hill, the foot of a mountain, the hands of a clock, the key of a situation, we are using metaphors.
Don't use mixed metaphors, that is, different metaphors in relation to the same subject: "Since it was launched our project has met with much opposition, but while its flight has not reached the heights ambitioned, we are yet sanguine we shall drive it to success." Here our project begins as a ship, then becomes a bird and finally winds up as a horse.
Personification (from the Latin persona, person, and facere, to make) is the treating of an inanimate object as if it were animate and is probably the most beautiful and effective of all the figures.
"The mountains sing together, the hills rejoice and clap their hands."
"Earth felt the wound; and Nature from her seat,
Sighing, through all her works, gave signs of woe."
Personification depends much on a vivid imagination and is adapted especially to poetical composition. It has two distinguishable forms: (1) when personality is ascribed to the inanimate as in the foregoing examples, and (2) when some quality of life is attributed to the inanimate; as, a raging storm; an angry sea; a whistling wind, etc.
An Allegory (from the Greek allos, other, and agoreuein, to speak), is a form of expression in which the words are symbolical of something. It is very closely allied to the metaphor, in fact is a continued metaphor.
Allegory, metaphor and simile have three points in common,—they are all founded on resemblance. "Ireland is like a thorn in the side of England;" this is simile. "Ireland is a thorn in the side of England;" this is metaphor. "Once a great giant sprang up out of the sea and lived on an island all by himself. On looking around he discovered a little girl on another small island near by. He thought the little girl could be useful to him in many ways so he determined to make her subservient to his will. He commanded her, but she refused to obey, then he resorted to very harsh measures with the little girl, but she still remained obstinate and obdurate. He continued to oppress her until finally she rebelled and became as a thorn in his side to prick him for his evil attitude towards her;" this is an allegory in which the giant plainly represents England and the little girl, Ireland; the implication is manifest though no mention is made of either country. Strange to say the most perfect allegory in the English language was written by an almost illiterate and ignorant man, and written too, in a dungeon cell. In the "Pilgrim's Progress," Bunyan, the itinerant tinker, has given us by far the best allegory ever penned. Another good one is "The Faerie Queen" by Edmund Spenser.
Synecdoche (from the Greek, sun with, and ekdexesthai, to receive), is a figure of speech which expresses either more or less than it literally denotes. By it we give to an object a name which literally expresses something more or something less than we intend. Thus: we speak of the world when we mean only a very limited number of the people who compose the world: as, "The world treated him badly." Here we use the whole for a part. But the most common form of this figure is that in which a part is used for the whole; as, "I have twenty head of cattle," "One of his hands was assassinated," meaning one of his men. "Twenty sail came into the harbor," meaning twenty ships. "This is a fine marble," meaning a marble statue.
Metonymy (from the Greek meta, change, and onyma, a name) is the designation of an object by one of its accompaniments, in other words, it is a figure by which the name of one object is put for another when the two are so related that the mention of one readily suggests the other. Thus when we say of a drunkard—"He loves the bottle" we do not mean that he loves the glass receptacle, but the liquor that it is supposed to contain. Metonymy, generally speaking, has, three subdivisions: (1) when an effect is put for cause or vice versa: as "Gray hairs should be respected," meaning old age. "He writes a fine hand," that is, handwriting. (2) when the sign is put for the thing signified; as, "The pen is mightier than the sword," meaning literary power is superior to military force. (3) When the container is put for the thing contained; as "The House was called to order," meaning the members in the House.
Exclamation (from the Latin ex, out, and clamare, to cry), is a figure by which the speaker instead of stating a fact, simply utters an expression of surprise or emotion. For instance when he hears some harrowing tale of woe or misfortune instead of saying,—"It is a sad story" he exclaims "What a sad story!"
Exclamation may be defined as the vocal expression of feeling, though it is also applied to written forms which are intended to express emotion. Thus in describing a towering mountain we can write "Heavens, what a piece of Nature's handiwork! how majestic! how sublime! how awe-inspiring in its colossal impressiveness!" This figure rather belongs to poetry and animated oratory than to the cold prose of every-day conversation and writing.
Hyperbole (from the Greek hyper, beyond, and ballein, to throw), is an exaggerated form of statement and simply consists in representing things to be either greater or less, better or worse than they really are. Its object is to make the thought more effective by overstating it. Here are some examples:—"He was so tall his head touched the clouds." "He was as thin as a poker." "He was so light that a breath might have blown him away." Most people are liable to overwork this figure. We are all more or less given to exaggeration and some of us do not stop there, but proceed onward to falsehood and downright lying. There should be a limit to hyperbole, and in ordinary speech and writing it should be well qualified and kept within reasonable bounds.
An Apostrophe (from the Greek apo, from, and strephein, to turn), is a direct address to the absent as present, to the inanimate as living, or to the abstract as personal. Thus: "O, illustrious Washington! Father of our Country! Could you visit us now!"
"My Country tis of thee— Sweet land of liberty, Of thee I sing."
"O! Grave, where is thy Victory, O! Death where is thy sting!" This figure is very closely allied to Personification.
Vision (from the Latin videre, to see) consists in treating the past, the future, or the remote as if present in time or place. It is appropriate to animated description, as it produces the effect of an ideal presence. "The old warrior looks down from the canvas and tells us to be men worthy of our sires."
This figure is much exemplified in the Bible. The book of Revelation is a vision of the future. The author who uses the figure most is Carlyle.
An Antithesis (from the Greek anti, against, and tithenai, to set) is founded on contrast; it consists in putting two unlike things in such a position that each will appear more striking by the contrast.
"Ring out the old, ring in the new, Ring out the false, ring in the true."
"Let us be friends in peace, but enemies in war."
Here is a fine antithesis in the description of a steam engine—"It can engrave a seal and crush masses of obdurate metal before it; draw out, without breaking, a thread as fine as a gossamer; and lift up a ship of war like a bauble in the air; it can embroider muslin and forge anchors; cut steel into ribands, and impel loaded vessels against the fury of winds and waves."
Climax (from the Greek, klimax, a ladder), is an arrangement of thoughts and ideas in a series, each part of which gets stronger and more impressive until the last one, which emphasizes the force of all the preceding ones. "He risked truth, he risked honor, he risked fame, he risked all that men hold dear,—yea, he risked life itself, and for what?—for a creature who was not worthy to tie his shoe-latchets when he was his better self."
Epigram (from the Greek epi, upon, and graphein, to write), originally meant an inscription on a monument, hence it came to signify any pointed expression. It now means a statement or any brief saying in prose or poetry in which there is an apparent contradiction; as, "Conspicuous for his absence." "Beauty when unadorned is most adorned." "He was too foolish to commit folly." "He was so wealthy that he could not spare the money."
Interrogation (from the Latin interrogatio, a question), is a figure of speech in which an assertion is made by asking a question; as, "Does God not show justice to all?" "Is he not doing right in his course?" "What can a man do under the circumstances?"
Irony (from the Greek eironcia, dissimulation) is a form of expression in which the opposite is substituted for what is intended, with the end in view, that the falsity or absurdity may be apparent; as, "Benedict Arnold was an honorable man." "A Judas Iscariot never betrays a friend." "You can always depend upon the word of a liar."
Irony is cousin germain to ridicule, derision, mockery, satire and sarcasm. Ridicule implies laughter mingled with contempt; derision is ridicule from a personal feeling of hostility; mockery is insulting derision; satire is witty mockery; sarcasm is bitter satire and irony is disguised satire.
There are many other figures of speech which give piquancy to language and play upon words in such a way as to convey a meaning different from their ordinary signification in common every-day speech and writing. The golden rule for all is to keep them in harmony with the character and purpose of speech and composition.