Do you have a way with words? Ever been told you can “turn a phrase”? Realize it or not you might be naturally adept at using figures of speech. You’re in good company. Shakespeare, Winston Churchill, Homer Simpson: All masters of figures of speech. Join Twitter right now.
Broadly speaking a figure of speech is a word or phrase that, in context, is used metaphorically or non-literally. They can add flavor and memorability to your rhetoric and make you sound like Abe Lincoln in his prime. Invest in a top hat. Master figures and you master style.
Ancient rhetoricians and modern linguists have extensively cataloged these poetic flourishes. There are hundreds! But don’t start packing your Tweets, Facebook posts, or YouTube videos with all manners of lexical twists and turns. True, using figures can make you sound like a rhetorical genius, but the overuse of figures can make you sound like a pretentious jerk.
Let’s take a look at these stylistic gems:
There are two kinds of figures of speech: schemes and tropes. Schemes refer to figures that change the structure or grammar of a sentence or phrase. Tropes refer to figures that alter content, usage, or definitions of words.
If you’re inverting the normal order of words or playing around with grammar, you’re likely using a scheme (skeem) figure. Schemes can be particularly powerful ways to grab the attention of your audience since they subvert expectations in a clever way (hopefully). One of the most famous schemes in history is this unforgettable utterance:
“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
– John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961.
This is an example of antimetabole (anti-muh-TAB-uh-lee), the repeating of the same words in successive phrases but in reverse order. This is can be a rhetorically effective figure if used infrequently and in the right place. It’s best, of course, for one-liners and “zingers”—especially in media interviews, short speeches, or tweets. It can also be a lot of fun! Give it a try in the comment section below. Here are a few of my favorites to inspire you:
“I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.”
– Winston Churchill
“A government that seizes control of the economy for the good of the people ends up seizing control of the people for the good of the economy.”
– Bob Dole
Let’s move on to some other cool schemes:
Chiasmus (ki-AZ-muss) – Similar to antimetabole except that the words used in the second phrase or sentence do not need to be the same. They can be similar, have a similar sound, or even just reverse the grammatical structure. Antimetabole can demonstrate your wit, but chiasmus can demonstrate your brilliance. Tread carefully, but use one if you’re clever enough:
I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.
“I find Paul appealing and Peale appalling.”
– Adlai Stevenson.
Anaphora (an-AFF-or-uh) – Using the same word or words at the beginning of successive sentences. You can really ramp up the appeal to pathos with anaphora. As you’re repeating the words you can feel the emotion building, intensifying with each utterance, until a final sentence, different from the rest, with extra emphasis and a little sweat forming on your brow!
We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.
— Winston Churchill
Epistrophe – (eh-PIS-troh-fee) Basically the opposite of anaphora: repeating the same word or phrase at the end of phrases or sentences. Epistrophe can also be strongly pathetic but more so on the somber side:
“… this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”
– Abraham Lincoln
Zeugma – (ZOOG-muh) Using a word or phrase to mean two different things in the same sentence. This is one of my favorite figures and one that can make you sound either beautifully poetic or remarkably pompous.
“And at the end of it all, when you reflect the moonlight and I the day…” [Two uses of reflect.]
“The farmers in the valley grew potatoes, peanuts, and bored.” [Two uses of grew.]
– Kevin Flynn
Polyptoton (po-LIP-tu-tun) Repeating words with the same root but using different endings or forms. I think this figure works best for humorous quips, like this great line from a master rhetor:
“Marge, what’s wrong? Are you hungry? Sleepy? Gassy? Gassy? Is it gas? It’s gas, isn’t it?”
– Homer Simpson
Think Homer Simpson isn’t a brilliant rhetorician? He managed to keep Marge in his arms for 25 seasons. Beat that.
There are other, more serious, ways to use polyptoton, too:
I love, loved, will always love you.
There are MANY schematic figures (that I’ll explore in future posts), but that’s plenty for now. Let’s move on to tropes.
Very generally speaking a trope is a literary motif, sometimes a cliche. In rhetorical terms, it’s a device that subverts the normal usage of words in terms of their definition and not their grammar. A zeugma is not a trope, for instance, because it messes with the usage of a word and not it’s meanings. (Even though the word is used for two meanings, the definitions are not subverted.)
Synecdoche (sih-NEK-duh-key) on the other hand, one of the most famous tropes, changes the meaning of a word by using part of a whole to refer to the whole. In other words, it uses one part of something to discuss the entire thing. For example:
You drive a Prius? I wouldn’t be caught dead in those wheels.
Here “wheels,” one part of the car, is used to represent the entire vehicle. Wheels doesn’t mean car. But the meaning is clear in the context. Synecdoche is everywhere. You can’t escape it:
*Ding* I just received a text. [Instant message]
Drew Carey has nice glasses. [Spectacles]
That’s some sweet ink on your ankle, mom. [Tattoo]
Does Adam Carolla drink pop? [Carbonated beverage]
“All hands on deck!” [Sailors]
Synecdoche is especially useful when you share a common vernacular with your audience. Any profession that has a lot of “jargon” is bound to have a lot of synecdoche. But other tropes are just as prevalent:
Metonymy (meh-TAH-nuh-mee) – A very close relative to synecdoche but the word used to represent the whole doesn’t have to be a part of it. It can just be related or associated. Using metonymy is a lot like using synecdoche but, IMHO, you can be a bit more clever about the associations:
Washington no longer understands ordinary Americans. [U.S. Government]
I’m tired. I want to go to bed. [Sleep]
I bet Biebs has a nice crib. [Home]
Paralipsis (pear-uh-LIP-siss) – One of my favorite tropes, paralipsis means bringing up a point by denying that you will or should bring it up. It’s often used as an ad hominem fallacy:
“We will not speak of all Queequeg’s peculiarities here; how he eschewed coffee and hot rolls, and applied his undivided attention to beefsteaks, done rare.”
– Moby Dick
It’s completely irrelevant that Barack Obama once ate a dog. I won’t even mention it.
But paralipsis can be used for good! And it should be. It’s a crowd favorite that makes you seem humble when referring to your achievements or admirable when referring to your opponent’s flaws:
“I’m not saying I’m responsible for this country’s longest run of uninterrupted peace in 35 years! I’m not saying that from the ashes of captivity, never has a Phoenix metaphor been more personified! I’m not saying Uncle Sam can kick back on a lawn chair, sipping on an iced tea, because I haven’t come across anyone man enough to go toe to toe with me on my best day!”
– Tony Stark, Iron Man 2
Neologism (knee-oh-LOW-jizm) – Using or coining a word that isn’t commonly accepted in mainstream language. These are great to use when you’re using two primary concepts in your argument. Combining them can be both memorable and profound. You can simply combine words like spork (spoon & fork, which is a portmanteau), or you can create brand new words! A few of my favorite:
E-loquence: A combination of electronic and eloquence. (Personal fav.)
Grok: Total intuitive understanding. (Robert Heinlein)
Slacktivist: Someone willing to promote a cause if it takes no effort—such as clicking “Like” or retweeting.
Urban Dictionary is flush with neologisms.
Let’s rapid fire the last few since they’re very common but worthy of mention:
Pun – Wordplay on two or more meanings of a word. For example, “A good pun is like a good steak; a rare medium well done.”
Irony – Wordplay that suggests a difference between reality and your perception of it. For example, “Nothing is written in stone” on a tombstone.
Metaphor – Claiming that a concept is the same as an unrelated concept. Saying something is something else. For example, “A good conscience is a continual Christmas.” – Benjamin Franklin
Simile – Claiming that a concept shares similarities to an unrelated concept. Saying something is like something else. For example, “He had a face like a bucket of smashed crabs.”
Again, there are a LOT of tropes—far too many to cover in this post. Watch out for future posts where I examine individual figures more in-depth.
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Using figures of speech is a matter of style. I don’t suggest starting your rhetorical process by coining a witty neologism or antimetabolizing until your tongue is twisted in knots. Start applying style after you’ve built a solid base for your rhetoric. Then apply figures sparingly and as needed in the rhetorical situation. Before you know it you’ll be a better rhetor.