Different Figures of Speech in English

What are Figures of Speech in English?

different-figures-of-speech-in-english Let us discuss some of the more commonly used figures of speech in English. This will help you identify them when you are analysing a particular passage. Is it enough to identify different figures of speech? No. We must also be able to say why the writer has used them and to what effect.

Let us consider this scenario. Deeply in love, a young man tells his friend: 'My girlfriend is very beautiful'.Without going into the question of whether the young lady in question was indeed beautiful or not, let us consider the sentence. It is clearly a straightforward statement. On the other hand, Robert Burns (1759-96), a Scottish poet, says the same thing but in more poetic words: 'My love is like a red rose'. This is what we would call the figurative use of language. In other words, the poet is making use of a figure of speech, a simile in this case, which we shall discuss a little later. First, let us be clear about what figurative language is. By comparing the above sentences, you must have got an idea of what a figure of speech is. The first statement gives us the literal meaning whereas, in the second, words are used in a way that is different from their literal meaning.

Why do writers use figurative language?

In order to draw attention to the language and to communicate the experience more effectively. For example, when we read 'My love is like a red rose', the sentence evokes images of a beautiful red rose and a very young rosy-cheeked girl who is as beautiful as this exquisite flower. Do poets alone use figures of speech? No.Different figures of speech are used in all types of writing: prose, poetry, drama. In fact, we too use figurative language in our daily conversation. When we say, 'He drinks like a fish' or 'It's raining cats and dogs', we are using figurative language.

Different Figures of Speech in English

We shall now briefly discuss some of the more common figures of speech: simile; metaphor; image; personification; metonymy; synecdoche; apostrophe; hyperbole; understatement; antonomasia; eulogy; irony.


When two dissimilar objects are compared, it is called a simile. The comparison is made between the two with respect to the common features that they share. So simile is a comparison between different terms belonging to different classes for the purpose of describing one of them. The comparison is usually made by the use of connectives such as 'like' or 'as'. For example, when we say 'as sweet as honey' or 'white like snow', we are using similes. But if we say 'Ram is like Shyam', is this a simile? No. Because Ram and Shyam belong to the same class.

He is as brave as a lion.
Her skin shines like the moon.


Broadly speaking, a metaphor is also a comparison made between dissimilar things, but the likeness between the two is not clearly stated. It is only suggested. Here there is no direct comparison as in a simile. Nor are any connectives such as 'like' and 'as' used. the writer uses an expression which describes one thing by stating another. For example, we can say 'The road snaked its way up the mountain'. Here the word 'snaked' is used metaphorically. The word snaked suggests a winding path. You must have noticed that there is no direct comparison between the snake and the course of the road, The comparison with the snake is indirect and implied.

When we say "He fought like a lion", we are using a simile,  but when the same idea is expressed as "He was a lion in the fight", we are using a metaphor.

Comparing the simile and metaphor, it is said that a simile is an expanded metaphor and a metaphor is a contracted simile. That is if we say  "The camel in a desert is like a ship in an ocean", we are using a simile; but when we say "The camel is the ship of the desert", we are using a metaphor.


An image is a visual picture evoked by the use of either a word or phrase. Writers use imagery to make descriptive writing more effective; Does an image only refer to the visual? No, an image can also refer to the sense of taste, smell, touch, and hearing. An image is usually written in the form of a simile or metaphor. For example:

               There is a garden in her face,
          Where roses and white lilies grow.

What a beautiful and vivid word-picture is evoked by these lines! Do you think this is a simile or metaphor? It is a metaphor, isn't it?


An image is a description that enhances the significance of a literary work. A symbol is something that stands for something else. A dove is a symbol of peace. It is a concrete expression of an abstract concept such as peace. A literary symbol is not simply descriptive like an image. It usually has a range of meanings. In Bleak House, a novel by Charles Dickens, we have 'Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, fog down the river....' Fog here is the symbol of confusion, obscurity and the endless delays caused by outdated legal practices.


This involves giving human characteristics, powers or feelings to objects or to abstract qualities. As in a metaphor, a comparison is implied. the purpose is to make the description more vivid and concrete. The writer speaks of something which is non-human as it were human. For example, 'The sun traced his footsteps across the sky' is a more poetic way of expressing the passing of a day. Joseph Conrad has personified the West Wind in The Mirror of the Sea, 'The West Wind reigns over the seas surrounding the coasts of these kingdoms....' Conrad then goes on to conceive of the West Wind as a despotic ruler with the capacity for doing good as well as evil.


In metonymy, an object or idea is referred to by the name of something with which it is generally associated. For example, the Crown or the Throne refers to a king or queen, or to a monarchy. A very common example of metonymy is -The pen is mightier than the sworda saying that refers to the influence in society of writers or intellectuals as against soldiers or warriors.

Let us look at this sentence; 'I enjoy listening to Ravi Shankar'. What does this mean? Ravi Shankar is the name of a great musician and when we say 'I enjoy listening to Ravi Shankar', we mean that we enjoy listening to his music. Here the person's name is substituted for that of his music. In short, metonymy means 'change of name'.

I have been reading Shakespear these days. (i.e. the works of Shakespear)


You may have heard the expression 'Doctor on wheels'. What does this mean? Wheels here stands for transport and the doctor in question certainly has this facility. Synecdoche then is a figure of speech in which we use a word referring only to a part of something instead of the whole ('wheels' instead of a vehicle)

He has the ear of the Prime Minister. (The Prime Minister takes his advice.)

Many hands make light work. (many people working together)

They all live under the same roof. (in the same house)


This is an address to a person or thing that is absent and not listening. As Charles Lamb says; 'Waters of Sir Hugh Middleton - what a spark you were like to have extinguished forever!'


Hyperbole is a Greek word which means 'overstatement'. It refers to our tendency to exaggerate. We use this figure of speech to show our extreme feelings on the subject. For example,

I am so hungry I could eat a hundred samosas!

He sleeps 25 hours a day!

A deliberate exaggeration for the sake of effect. For example, we often say 'I nearly died of laughing'. We often use hyperbolic expressions without realizing it. Here is another example from Thoreau: 'The bluebird carries the sky on his back'.

In literature, this figure of speech is used quite frequently. For example in Shakespeare's play Hamlet, in which Hamlet compares his love for Ophelia with that of her brother for her.

I loved Ophelia: forty thousand  brothers
Could not, with their quantity of love, 
Make up my sum.

Meiosis and Litotes (Understatement) 

This is the opposite of hyperbole. Instead of exaggeration, the author expresses him/herself with restraint. The British are known for their habit of understatement. If someone is looking extremely ill, the Englishman may just say 'You do look a bit under the weather!' Or for a person who died of a bullet shot 'He stopped a bullet last night, poor chap'.

'Wasn't very pleased' to mean they were angry.

'Wasn't very useful' (it was totally useless)

'They don't usually start on time' (they are always very late)

This is a very useful politeness strategy for conveying displeasure, disapproval and so on. This figure of speech is called meiosis.

One particular form of meiosis is the litotes, in which a double negative is used instead of the positive.

'She is not unwilling to marry him' (she is very eager indeed)

'My cooking skills are not bad' (I am a good cook)

Like meiosis, the litotes is a useful politeness strategy in speaking of one's own skills.

'Oh, I'm not a bad driver, I can cope up with this traffic', 'I can sing a little', sounds more modest than boasting about your skills.


The substitution of an epithet or title in place of a proper noun. Use of a proper name to suggest its most obvious quality or aspect. The use of famous person's name, or a place name, as a description leads to the figure of speech known as antonomasia. Examples:

'The governor finally met his Waterloo in the last election.'
'to meet one's Waterloo' (To encounter one's ultimate obstacle and to be defeated by it. From the Battle of Waterloo, where Napoleon Bonaparte was finally defeated.)  

'Shakespear is known as 'the Bard of Avon'
(A title given to Shakespear, who was born and buried in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. A bard is a poet.)

The Eulogy

A Eulogy is a laudatory speech or written tribute. It is especially a speech or article in praise of someone who has died. But the word is also more generally used for any high praise or commendation. 

One of the most memorable eulogies in history was Sir Elton John's tribute to Diana, the Princess of Wales, during her funeral September 6, 1997. Elton John sang "Candle in the wind" a song in honour of the late Princess.

Another example is Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru's speech when Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated. It is among one of the most well-known speeches in the world today.


This is one of the most important figures of speech in English. The irony is saying one thing while meaning another. In short, irony occurs when a word or phrase has one surface meaning and another different meaning beneath this surface. The reader must be able to understand the hidden meaning. Charles Dickens describes Mr. Squeers in his novel Nicholas Nickleby: 'He had but one eye, and the popular prejudice runs in favour of two. The eye he had was unquestionably useful, but decidedly not ornamental....' Irony usually gives pleasure or relief and must not be confused with sarcasm which deliberately inflicts pain.

The above different figures of speech list are by no means exhaustive. However, I hope it will help you with your reading.

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