A trope is a figure of speech in which words are used in a way that changes their meaning. Their use is common in a wide range of forms, including fiction, film, and poetry. One of the most well known examples is a metaphor; for example, a beautiful woman in a novel might be described as having hair that is the golden shining of the sun. There are many other types of tropes and, when used well, they can be powerful tools. They are also used extensively in advertising and propaganda, and many rely on cultural or social norms that can make their translation into other languages or cultures very difficult.
The word "trope" comes from the Greek word tropos, which means "to turn or twist," and these figures of speech do indeed twist the meaning of words or phrases. They are so common that many have become cliches, and these overused terms are an important thing for writers to avoid.
Some other examples include irony, metonymy, antanaclasis, and synecdoche. Many people already know what irony means: it refers to a statement in which words are used to express the opposite of their conventional meaning. For example, someone might say that she had a “good time” getting a filling at the dentist in an ironic way, when she really means that she had a terrible time.
Metonymy refers to replacing a word or phrase in a statement with a concept that is closely related. For example, pens are associated with writers, and when Thomas Paine wrote that “The pen is mightier than the sword,” he really meant that the power of words and writers was greater than that of military power. Many examples of metonymy rely on the expectation that people will understand the reference, which is why foreign examples of metonymy sometimes seem utterly mysterious or even laughable.
Synecdoche is related to metonymy. It involves referring to a whole by one of its parts. For example, in love poetry a woman's eyes could be used to evoke her entire body. Synecdoche can also work in reverse; for example, someone may say “France recently enacted a new law” when they really mean “The French government enacted a new law.”
In antanaclasis, a word is repeated several times with differing meanings. This trope is often used in advertising, or to create puns. A classic example is Benjamin Franklin's quote, “We must hang together, or assuredly we will all hang separately.” In this quote, the word “hang” is used in two different ways for rhetorical effect.
Tropes greatly add to the natural richness of language by playing with words and meanings, sometimes in novel ways. They are valuable tools for both writers and speakers, and learning to recognize them can be useful for people who want to evaluate spoken or written material.