Figure of Speech used in Literature

Figure of Speech used in Literature

 Figure of Speech used in Literature : A figure of speech is a poetic device which consists in the use of words and phrases in such a manner as to make the meaning more pointed and clear and the language more graphic and vivid.

Figure of Speech used in Literature

Figures are also called images for in them one thing is represented in the image of another. According to Bain it is “a form of expression that intentionally deviates from the ordinary mode of speech for the sake of more powerful, pleasing or distinctive effect; it is pictorial or poetic language.”

But it is a mistake to think of figures of speech as simply ornaments of language. They are part and parcel of the human language in moments of emotional excitement. When his emotions are stirred, man instinctively tends to express himself through the use of figurative language. That figures are used naturally and instinctively to express powerful feeling is seen in the fact that children and primitive, uncultured people habitually use figures of speech.

The world of nature is an inexhaustible storehouse of figures of speech (or images as they are also called), and poets and writers have always drawn freely from this storehouse. Figures have been used by poets to decorate their language and to make it more vivid and pictorial, to increase its force and effectiveness, and to communicate their meaning more lucidly and clearly. By increasing the beauty of language, the use of figures provides great aesthetic satisfaction to the readers.

The most important figures of speech

The most important figures of speech are Simile; epic or Homeric Simile; Metaphor; Personification; Pathetic Fallacy; Apostrophe; Hyperbole; Metonymy; Synecdoche; Oxymoron; Antithesis; Onomatopaeia; Alliteration; and Transferred Epithet.


The word “Simile” comes from the Latin similis’ – ‘like’ and means ‘likeness’. A simile is an expression of likeness between different objects or events. It consists in placing two different things side by side and comparing them with regard to some quality common to them. In other words there are two essential elements in a simile. First, the two objects or events compared must be different in kind. Secondly, the point of resemblance between the two different objects or events compared must be clearly brought out. Such words of comparison as, like, as, so, etc., are always used. For example:

(a)             Errors like straws upon the surface flow.

(b)             The younger brother is as good as gold.

Epic or Homeric Simile

It is so called because it was first used by Homer, the great epic poet of ancient Greece, and ever since it has been made use of by epic poets all over the world. It is also called the long-tailed simile because in it the comparison is not confined to some one quality but a number of qualities are compared and the comparison is elaborated and spread over a number of lines. Homeric simile imparts variety to the narrative and helps the poets to lengthen it out. Milton in his Paradise Lost and Pope in his mock-epic The Rape of the Lock have made abundant use of such Homeric similes. For example:

The broad circumference (of the shield of Satan)
Hung on his shoulders like the Moon, whose orb
Through optic glass the Tuscan artist views, etc.


A metaphor is implied simile. The word “metaphor” comes from the Greek, ‘meta – over; ‘phero’ – carry. It means, literally, “a carrying over”; and by this figure of speech a word is transferred, or carried over, from the object to which it belongs to another in such a manner that a comparison is implied, though not clearly stated. Thus a metaphor is a compressed, or implied simile – simile with the word ‘like’, ‘as’ etc., omitted. For example:

(a) The camel is the ship of the desert.

(b) He is the pillar of the state.


Personification is really a special kind of metaphor. It is a figure of speech in which inanimate objects and abstract ideas or qualities are spoken of, as if they were persons or human beings. Examples of personification are:

(a)    Opportunity knocks at the door but once.

(b)    Death lays his Icy hands on kings.

(c)    “Peace hath her victories.

No less renowned than war”.

In all these instances, life and intelligence have been imparted to lifeless objects or abstract ideas.

Pathetic Fallacy

Pathetic Fallacy is a figure of speech in which human emotions are given to lifeless objects and abstract ideas. It is a special kind of personification in which the inanimate, the lifeless, and the abstract, are made to partake of human emotions. For example:

All Nature wept at his death, and the Flowers were filled with tears.

It is usual to begin the name of the personified object with a capital letter.


It is a figure of speech in which abstract ideas or inanimate objects are addressed as if they were alive. The word literally means a ‘turning aside’, for in this figure a writer ‘turns aside’ to address a person absent or dead, or an inanimate object, or an abstract idea, For example:

(a) “O wild west wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being.”

(b) “O Solitude, where are the charms

That sages have seen in they face?”


The word “hyperbole” (“Hyper” – beyond; “ballo” – throw) literally, “a throwing beyond”, means exaggeration. This figure of speech consists in representing things as much greater or smaller than they really are, with the intention of producing a more striking effect than a plain statement can. For example:

(a)      “Here is the smell of blood still; all perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand?”


The word “metonymy”, Greek, ‘meta’ – after; ‘onoma’ – a name, means literally, “substitution of name”, and the figure consists in “substituting the thing named for the thing meant”; for example, grey hair may be used for old age, throne for monarchy. Some other examples are:

(a)          The pen (author) is mightier than the sword (the soldier).

(b)          “Sceptre and crown.

Must tumble down,

And in the dust be equal made

With the poor crooked scythe and spade.”


This figures of speech is really a special form of metonymy. Its name ‘syn’ – with, ‘ekdoche’ – succession, means literally, “the understanding of one thing by another”. In the figure there is the substitution of a part for the whole or vice versa, or of an abstract noun for a concrete one or vice versa, of an individual for a class, or vice versa, or of the name of the material of which a thing is made for the name of the thing itself. For example:

(a) The rank and file streamed out of the city to see the      sight.

(b) There is a mixture of the tiger and the ape in his          character.

(c)  Kalidasa is the Shakespeare of India.

(d) He gave the beggar a few coppers.


An oxymoron is the association or bringing together of two words or phrases having opposite meanings. For example:

(a) “James I was the wisest fool in Christendom.”

(b) “That time is past

And all its aching joys are now no more,

And all its dizzy raptures.”


An antithesis, ‘anti’ – against; ‘thesis’ – placing, is a figure of speech in which one word or idea is set against another with the object of heightening the effect of what is said by contrast. For example:

(a) “God made the country but man made the town.”

(b) “United we stand divided we fall.”

(c)  “Speech is silvery, silence is golden.”


Onomatopaeia, ‘onoma’ – name; ‘poiea’ – make, is the use of a word or words whose sound itself conveys the sense of the author. Examples of onomatopaeia are:

(a) “It cracked and growled and roared and howled like    noises in a swound.”

(b) “The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.”


A brief pointed saying expressing antithetical ideas, or exciting surprise, is called Epigram. For example:

(a) The child is father of the man,

(b) Art lies on concealing art.


It is the figure of speech in which the real meaning is just the opposite of that which is literally conveyed by the language used. For example:

Here, under leave of Brutus, and the rest,

(For Brutus is an honourable man)

I come to speak in Caesar’s funeral.

Here the use of the word, “honourable” is ironical.


When we use the same word in two or more senses in order to make the people laugh, we employ the Figure of Speech called Pun.

An ambassador is a gentleman who lies abroad for the good of his country.

Here there is a pun on the word ‘lies’.


Alliteration consists in the repetition of the letters or syllable, or the same sound at the beginning of two or more words in a line. In this way language becomes musical. For example:

(a) How high His Honour holds his haughty head.

(b) “The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew, the furrow   followed free.”

Transferred Epithet

In this figure of speech an epithet or qualifying adjective is sometimes transferred from a person to an object or from one word to another. For example:

(a) “The ploughman homeward plods his weary way.”

(b) “He tossed from side to side on his sleepless bed.”

In the first case ‘weary’ has been transferred from ‘the ploughman’ to the ‘way’; in the second case ‘sleepless’ has been transferred from ‘He’ to ‘bed’.

Read it also:  Nature And Function Of Poetry

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