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What Is a Figure of Speech?

By T. Carrier
Updated May 23, 2024
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A figure of speech creates a figurative rather than a literal meaning for a word or phrase via adding, deleting, or changing words and ideas in a phrase. In other words, the typical definition or popularly assumed meaning or structure of the word or phrase does not apply. Some languages — such as the English language — contain more elements of figurative speech than others. In such languages, examples of figures of speech might include the following: simile, metaphor, irony, and hyperbole. These methods may be used for creatively drawing attention to a subject, for helping to clarify a subject, or even for confusing a subject.

Figurative language deals with implications rather than realities. In other words, what an individual says or writes may not correlate with what an individual actually means. Such techniques are commonplace in certain dialects and languages. Therefore, figures of speech may be nonexistent in some regions or have limited use. Different structures and methods may be implemented in regions that do use them.

In general, four methods can be applied in creating a figure of speech. An individual might add material to a phrase, like extra words or letters. Likewise, material may be taken away. These figures of speech are called addition and omission, respectively. The third structural type is transposition, which involves moving material in a phrase from one location to another location. A fourth category — permutation — does not address structural change, rather it deals with transforming the meaning of a word or phrase.

Specific figure of speech types are numerous, but some of the most abundant varieties involve comparison and contrasts. In the English language, for example, simile, metaphor, idiom, and allegory are just a few of the methods used to mentally forge a connection between different persons, places, or objects. If one compares time to an old man, the comparison is not intended to take place on a physical, overt level but rather on an abstract level. Conversely, methods like oxymorons and irony can highlight the differences between ideas in an abstract way.

As a form of communication, a figure of speech can be employed in a number of ways. Creative writers may use the various techniques to add voice and color to their works. Humorists often use methods like puns and hyperbole to exaggerate or put a new perspective on a subject in a funny way. Even everyday spoken language in some regions is populated with various figures of speech.

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Discussion Comments
By RoyalSpyder — On May 26, 2014

As the last paragraph (indirectly) states, figures of speech and the like, are often added to creative writing.

In fact, I think you'd be hard pressed to find any writing that doesn't have that sort of speech. After all, when we're reading (adult) books, there are no pictures to help with the story.

What better way to engage the reader than trying to be as descriptive as possible?

By Chmander — On May 25, 2014

Based on my experience, I think that using figurative language can help you describe what you're trying to say better, especially if you can't put it into words. For example, if someone finds a girl to be very attractive, but they don't know how to describe her, they could use a simple metaphor. As an example, "her face is like one thousand shining stars".

By Euroxati — On May 24, 2014

When it comes to figures of speech, I think one thing that some people fail to realize (myself included) is when people are being serious, or when they're using figurative language. For those who aren't quite familiar with idioms and the like, it's definitely a good idea to brush up on your terms, as you may end up quite confused.

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