Figure of Speech Dictionary
A figure of speech or a trope (the latter word has a more specific use) is a non-ordinary use of language employed to create an emphasis, amplify a meaning, draw a comparison or contrast, or to make a rhetorical point. The figure may be achieved by employing repetition of words or sounds in a specific pattern, making an interjection, stating or implying a comparison, using synonyms, or using a specific pattern of argument. This searchable dictionary collects some of the common forms (about half of all figures). Use the Contact Page to advise of corrections, additional examples or forms we have missed.
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Literally "toward, the man". Refers to a negative or scurrilous remark (often name calling) attacking the person of one's opponent rather than arguing the substance of the matter at hand.
Secondary Category: negative
e.g. You believe that (voted for.. etc.) You're an idiot, a fool.
Notes: The speaker cuts off real debate by calling the other person names. The more negative and perjorative the name calling, the less likely debate can resume. The most effective names are ethnic or political slurs. Calling a conservative a Nazi or a socialist a communist is typical. Once the opponent has been silenced, the name-caller need no longer hear the opinions of others, can even imagine the argument has been won.
A story, narrative, or fable in which a moral principle or truth is presented by means of fictional characters and events which stand symbolically for real persons or events.
e.g. Psalm 80:8 ff portrays God planting and tending Israel as a vineyard. Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress is an extended allegory of the Christian life. Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene is a well-known allegorical poem. Animal Farm is another example in prose.
Notes: In Biblical languages, allegory may be quite broad compared with modern ones.
An indirect reference to a person, place or event made by mentioning or quoting a characteristic or aspect of the thing alluded to. Often A reference in one literary work to a character or theme found in another literary work.
e.g. He had my head on a platter. (allusion to John the Baptist)
The expansion upon an idea in greater detail or depth.
e.g. So much for the definition. Now let me explain in detail.
Anabasis or Gradual Ascent
An increase of emphasis on some meaning in successive sentences.
e.g. Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. (Psalm 1:1)
Anadiplosis or Like Endings & Beginnings
A "doubling back" or repetition of the same word or words from the end of one sentence or clause at the beginning of another.
e.g. Men in great place are thrice servants: servants of the sovereign or state; servants of fame; and servants of business. -- Francis Bacon
Anaeresis or Detraction
A negative parenthetic addition that is complete in itself.
Secondary Category: negative
e.g. When I was last in Paris--but you wouldn't know what Paris is like, now would you dear--I stopped at the most divine restaurant.
Anaphora or Like-Beginnings
The repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses or sentences.
e.g. 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. (Winston Churchill)
An inversion of the natural order of words.
e.g. Long hours worked the men. instead of The men worked long hours.
Notes: Changes in word order like this cause subtle shifts in emphasis.
A repetition of the same word in the same sentence or in very close proximity but with two different meanings.
e.g. They cast lots to see which of the two lots they would be buying.
Notes: This may be done for humorous effect. Unless handled with great care, or used for a specific effect, repetition of the same word or derivatives thereof in close proximity catches the eye as amateurish or clumsy writing.
The use of a word of one class as though it were a member of another, typically the use of a noun as a verb.
e.g. The knight was unhorsed.
Anthropomorphism or Condescension
1. A person of higher rank reaches down to one of lower rank to communicate or establish a relationship. 2. The ascribing of human attributes to God.
e.g. God's eye was upon me, his hand was with me, his arm guided me.
Notes: May be used in a positive sense of God condescending to deal with humans, or in a negative sense where one human being condescends to speak to another but does so in a demeaning or belittling manner. See also anthropomorphism.
A seeming contradiction of ideas, words, clauses, or sentences creating a parallelism that serves to emphasize opposition of ideas.
e.g. The king proposes, parliament disposes.
Antonomasia or Name Change
Change of proper name for a common or other name or vice versa.
Secondary Category: names
e.g. Have you seen old sideburns lately?
Notes: This is often a descriptive nickname. The description takes place of the literal name.
A concise statement or popular saying that expresses a principle or truth in a terse manner. Usually shorter than a proverb, and may have an element of the trite.
e.g. People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.
The speaker expresses doubt about his or her position or asks rhetorically how to proceed.
e.g. How shall I put this?
A form of ellipsis, in which the speaker breaks off suddenly in the middle of speaking, giving the impression of being unwilling or unable to continue, perhaps portraying being overcome with emotion.
e.g. This outrage is beyond all...
A form of aside directed in an abstract direction.
e.g. 1. Ah, sword of the Lord! How long till you are quiet? (JeremiahJeremiah. 47:6). 2. O Death, where is thy sting? (1 Corinthians 15:55) 3. O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree...
Notes: The parenthesis is short, often sharp, and is intended to catch the attention of hearers and emphasize the point being made. It usually begins with "O" (a form of address)."
Turning from the immediate hearers or from the subject at hand to address an absent or imaginary person or thing.
e.g. See Iago in Shakespeare's Othello addressing the audience and informing them of his plans.
The repetition of vowel sounds within a short passage.
e.g. Moses supposes his toeses are roses.
Notes: Generally used in poetry, not prose."
Asyndeton or No-Ands
An enumeration of items without using conjunctions.
e.g. Veni, vidi, vincit.
Notes: One must view the group as a whole unit. There may be an emphasis on last item.
Magnifying the importance of something by giving it another name. It can be the opposite of Meiosis.
e.g. Two dollars for that piece of junk? That's highway robbery!
A self-evident truth, generally accepted idea, or undefined term upon which other knowledge rests, or is built up.
Secondary Category: logic
e.g. Two points determine a line.
A lessening of one thing, person, or idea in order to magnify a competing one.
e.g. His clothes were so yesterday.
Notes: This is closely related to and somewhat a combination of ad hominem and meiosis.
Catabasis or Gradual Descent
An decrease of emphasis on some meaning in successive sentences.
e.g. Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. (Philippians 2:6-8)
Notes: May be Used to emphasize humiliation, sorrow. The opposite of anabasis."
Catachresis or Incongruity
Two items compared or one standing for the other when the ideas they represent are radically different or perhaps contradictory, paradoxical or contradictory logic, or an illogical mixed metaphor.
e.g. To take arms against a sea of troubles. – William Shakespeare
Notes: The user may simply be employing one word incorrectly thinking it is another of perhaps similar spelling.
Cataploce or Exclamation
An emphatic parenthetic addition that is complete in itself.
e.g. God forbid!
Notes: Exclamation differs from interjection in that it usually involves an emotional response.
From the Greek letter chi, shaped like the Latin X, and meaning a crossing. Two entities are related to one another in a "crossing" structure.
e.g. 1. I love you as you love me. 2. "Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country." (John F. Kennedy)
Climax or Gradation
Continuous anadiplosis - repetition of endings and beginnings of a particular sentence or clause.
Secondary Category: logic
e.g. II Peter 1:5
Notes: Each of the repeated concepts is important in the sequence of argument.
Double (Multiple) Negation
Use of two or more negatives in close proximity. Formally, this would imply a positive, but the usual effect is to emphasize the negative.
e.g. He don't got no dough.
Notes: Can be the combination of a negative verb with a negative conjunction.
Pointing out that two words that normally mean the opposite can mean the same thing or be part of the same meaning, when used in the right context.
e.g. "Drink it up" and "Drink it down" illustrate that "up" and "down" can in a sense mean the same thing, or manner.
Eironeia or Irony
The expression of thought in a form that emphasizes or conveys the opposite meaning to the words used. A tone of voice may be necessary to convey irony if the words are not intended to be taken at face value.
e.g. 1. ...you are the people and wisdom will die with you (Job 12:1). 2. For Brutus is an honourable man; So are they all, honorable men. --Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
Notes: The surface meaning and the underlying meaning are not the same. Irony may be biting or sarcastic, and often has negative or pejorative overtones."
Words omitted from a sentence or phrase that would be necessary to complete the formal grammar (syntax) but are not needed for the meaning (semantics).
e.g. 1, 2, 3, ... 10
Notes: Indicated in written material with three dots.
One part of speech is used for another, or one grammatical form is substituted for another, such as present for past or singular for plural.
e.g. Think different.
A dark or obscure saying or puzzling statement or an obscure mystery not yet explained. It may be expressed of persons and events as well as of things.
Secondary Category: riddle
e.g. The riddle of the sphinx: What walks first on four legs, then on two, and later on three?
Notes: Once the riddle has been solved, it is, of course, no longer an enigma."
A syllogism with part of the argument assumed rather than stated.
e.g. Socrates is mortal because he is human. (The major premise is implicit, not stated.)
Epanadiplosis or Encircling
Repetition of the same word or words at the beginning and end of a sentence or sentence group.
e.g. Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, Rejoice. Philippians 4:4
Notes: Consider the encircled sentences as a unit of thought.
Epanados or Inversion
Repetition of different words in a sentence in an inverse order but with a similar meaning.
e.g. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed. (Isaiah 6:10)
Epanalepsis or Resumption
Repetition of a word, phrase, or idea following any kind of parenthesis in order to return to the original thought..
e.g. See 1Cor.10:29; Phil.1:24 for instances of this.
Notes: Marks return to a previous subject, possibly following a paranthetical remark."
Repetition of the same phrase at irregular intervals.
e.g. c.f. Psalm 29: 3-9
Notes: Differs from anaphora and repetition by being a phrase not just one word.
Epistrophe or Like Endings
Repetition of the same word or words at the end of successive clauses or sentences.
e.g. I yearn more to learn more that I may earn more.
Notes: Often creates a structural pattern for an argument, discussion, or description. If ending sounds rather than whole words or more are repeated, we call the epistrophe a rhyme."
Epitrechon or Remark (Running Along)
A parenthetic addition that is not complete in itself, but requires the context to be understood.
Secondary Category: explanation
e.g. And he said unto Abram, Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years. (Genesis 15:13)
Notes: The phrase "and shall serve them" is the epitrechon."
Epizeuxis or Duplication
Repetition of the same word in immediate succession.
e.g. Isaiah 26:3
Notes: The effect is to emphasize or establish the word duplicated.
Erotesis or Rhetorical question(s)
The asking of (perhaps multiple) questions without awaiting an answer.
Secondary Category: answer
e.g. If you prick us, do we not bleed? --Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice
Notes: The meaning must be gleaned by putting the question into a statement. The question always has an obvious answer.
A word or phrase commonly used in place of terms which are disagreeable or offensive.
e.g. My uncle passed away last fall.
Notes: These are often used in politics, where they may sometimes be termed "doublespeak". e.g. I misspoke myself. Or the John Diefenbaker favourite "[That statement was] a terminological inexactetude."
Hendiadys or Two for One
Two words with similar or identical meanings are used where one would be sufficient.
e.g. The Latin expression "cum amicitia atque pace", literally "with peace and friendship" might be rendered in English as "with friendly peace", changing one of the redundant nouns into an adjective.
Notes: The combination of concepts that more often are described with a different word combining the two ideas.
Hendiatris or Three for One
Three words used but one thing meant.
e.g. ...how can we know the way? Jesus said to him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man comes to the Father, but by me. (John 14: 5-6)
Notes: In this example, the question concerned the way, but it is answered threefold."
Heterosis or Exchange
Exchange of one accidence or part of speech for another.
e.g. 1. In many languages. Collectives such as mankind which are both male and female are deemed for grammatical purposes to be male. 2. She run all the way to the store.
Notes: Frequently used with the gender of nouns or with verb tenses.
Homeopropheron or Alliteration
Repetition of the same letter or syllable at the commencement of two or more successive words.
e.g. Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers
Notes: Tongue twisters are among the more common alliterations.
Words that are identical in spelling but different in origin and meaning
e.g. invalid, row, sewer, wound
Words that are identical with each other in pronunciation and spelling, but differing in origin and meaning.
e.g. age, reflect, arithmetic, high, report, rest
Words that are identical with each other in pronunciation, but differing in origin, spelling, and meaning.
e.g. 1. ant, aunt 2. leased, least 3. oh, owe
Hypallage or Interchange
The normal usage of two words is swapped to make a connection in meaning.
e.g. Open the day, and see if it be the window.--The Garden of Eloquence by Willard Espy
Hyperbaton or Transposition
The deliberate or accidental placing of a word out of its usual order in a sentence or dramatic departure from standard syntax (word order) for poetic effect.
Secondary Category: Grammar
e.g. Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore." (E. A. Poe)
Notes: Often used with an adjective or pronoun, or by reversing noun and verb.
An intentional and often considerable exaggeration or extravagant statement to make a much lesser point. The statement is not meant to be taken literally.
e.g. 1. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away... (Matt. 5:29). 2. I could eat an ox. 3. If I've told you once I've told you a thousand times. Don't exaggerate.
Notes: The opposite is understatement.
Hypocatastasis or Implication
A comparison that is suggested or hinted at by context without being explicitly stated.
e.g. But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees. (Matthew 6:11)
Notes: This is similar to a metaphor but without any use of the verb to be. In the example, it is doctrine that is at issue. The comparison is made by a substitution, which calls more attention to the implied comparison."
Hypotimesis or Under-Estimating
A minimizing parenthetic addition complete in itself. Usually used to express an apology for what might otherwise be taken amiss.
e.g. To my shame I admit that we were too weak for that! What anyone else dares to boast about--I am speaking as a fool-- I also dare to boast about. (2 Corinthians 11:21)
A word that logically comes first is placed last instead.
e.g. The prisoner was charged with murder and rape.
A use of words and phrases peculiar to a particular language, culture, or time period.
Secondary Category: unusual usage
e.g. 1. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. 2. I've got a frog in my throat. (In French it would be a cat.)
Notes: Because an idiom is particular to language or culture it may make no sense at all if translated literally.
Innuendo or Double entendre
An indirect and subtle implication in an expression in speech or writing, whereby a sentence has a double meaning.
e.g. When offered $40 per day strike pay to go out on an illegal strike, I said "You can keep your forty pieces of silver".
Notes: Innuendo is often sexually suggestive or has negative overtones. It may require intonation or context to trigger the association in the hearer. In the example, the innuendo is intended to suggest an association with Judas, that is, that the strike was a betrayal of students, and in a bad cause."
A parenthetic addition that may not share the surrounding grammatical structure, but is complete in itself.
e.g. Here they come now. Look out! The black is about to overtake for the lead.
A deliberate usage of understatement to enhance the quality of what was said. One might emphasize the magnitude of a statement by denying its opposite.
e.g. 1. One nuclear bomb could spoil your whole day. 2. The pastor was not ignorant of doctrine. 3. The winning book wasn't bad.
From Mrs. Malaprop, a character in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s Rivals, who was noted for her blunders in the use of words.
Meiosis or Diminution
Intentionally understating or belittling something or implying it is less in significance or size, than it really is.
e.g. 1. It's only a scratch. 2. He was a citizen of no mean city (Acts 21:39)
Merismos or Distribution
An enumeration or elaboration of the parts of some whole that has previously been mentioned.
e.g. morning and evening" means the whole day
Metalepsis or Double Metonymy
Two metonymies contained in one another but with only one explicitly expressed.
e.g. I've got a black thumb.
Notes: There are at least two steps to discover the meaning. In the example, the idea of a green thumb is associated with having the ability to make things grow, but black is associated with death, so in two stages we arrive at a would-be gardener whose efforts are usually fatal to the plants."
A comparison by making a statement that one thing is another.
e.g. Benjamin is a ravenous wolf... (Gen. 49:27).
Notes: The comparison is implied by the statement of equality, not explicitly stated as in a simile."
Metonymy or Denominatio
The the use of a single characteristic to identify a more complex entity.
Secondary Category: rhetoric
e.g. 1. "In an early morning press conference, Number 10 Downing Street today said…" 2. "The pen is mightier than the sword.
A word or group of words has a sound similar to the thing being described.
e.g. buzz, quack, miaow, squeak, bang
An expression or phrase (usually two words) that appears to be or is alleged to be self-contradictory.
e.g. 1. Hysterical rationalism 2. Military intelligence
A story told to illustrate a religious, moral or philosophical idea.
Secondary Category: illustration
e.g. The Biblical parable of the Prodigal son or of the Good Samaritan
Notes: Can be an extended simile. There may be multiple points of comparison. Parable is a broader term in Semitic thinking than in Greek.
Paradiastole or Neither-Nor
Repetition of the disjunctive pair "neither" and "nor".
Secondary Category: disjunctives
e.g. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God. (Romans 8:38-39)
A statement that seems to lead to an illogical contradiction, or to a situation that contradicts common intuition. The statement contains the seeds of its own negation or contradiction, though this may not be apparent on the surface.
Secondary Category: logic
e.g. 1. The barber shaves all the men who don't shave themselves, and no-one else. 2. Let A be the set of all sets that do not contain themselves.
An ending to a sentence or phrase that is unexpected given the prior construction. It can be used for levity or for dramatic effect.
e.g. It was a beautiful day in March when the building fell on me.
Parembole or Digression
A complete parenthetic addition that bears little if any overt relationship with the surrounding material.
e.g. And David took the head of the Philistine, and brought it to Jerusalem; but he put his armour in his tent. (1 Samuel 17:54).
Notes: Also called a rabbit trail. The context may not be required for a digression to be understood as the subject has been explicitly changed.
Parenthesis or Interpositio
An addition complete in itself, understandable only in its context, but without necessarily any grammatical connection to the surrounding text. The parenthesis may be an illustration of the context or a near-digression into a tangential topic.
e.g. So when you see standing in the holy place 'the abomination that causes desolation', spoken of through the prophet Daniel--let the reader understand--then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. (Matthew 24:15-16)
Notes: A parenthesis differs from a digression in that it provides an explanation of the material in the surrounding context. That is, the main subject has not been changed. The parenthesis may be an illustration."
Paroemia or Proverb
A succinct or pithy expression of what is commonly observed and believed to be true.
e.g. 1. The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline. (Proverbs 1:7) 2. Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body. (Ecclesiates 12:12)
Notes: A proverb is formed by observation, experimentation, and knowledge sharing and must endure the test of time, but is not an absolute statement of truth, only an observation about what is usually, generally, or normally true. For instance Biblical proverbs should not be regarded as unconditional promises."
Paronomasia or Pun
A play on words that rearranges the meanings of words with similar sounds, usually for humorous effect.
e.g. 1. O pun the door! 2. A door is not a door if it is ajar. 3. Very punny. 4. You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church. (Matt 16:18) 4. That was a foul tasting turkey.
Notes: These are language and culture specific and may depend on the way the speaker pronounces the pun. Note the last example, which is one of the best instances of a serious pun, playing between the two Greek words petros and petra."
Periphrasis or Circumlocution
Defining or explaining a single word or concept with many words, can also have the sense of talking around the subject and avoiding coming to the point.
e.g. The woman whom I married thirty years ago and to whom I am still happily married. (instead of "my wife")
Notes: Any definition of a word (which is generally in terms of several other words) is periphrastic. Circumlocution is also at times evasive, an attempt to avoid answering a question."
The use of more words than necessary.
e.g. 1. I know that he is here. 2. We hired him to head up the program.
Notes: The examples illustrate that these may be based on syntax (redundant words) or on semantics (overlapping meanings).
Polyptoton or Many Inflections
Repetition of the same noun in different inflections or the same verb in different conjugations.
e.g. ...had, having, and in quest to have, extreme... -- Shakespeare, Sonnet 129
Notes: This may be a verb with a related noun/adjective. Common in Semitic languages.
Polysyndeton or Many-Ands
The repetition of the word "and" at the beginning of successive clauses or sentences.
e.g. I went downstairs and out the door and got on my bike and cycled to town and bought a present.
Notes: Each thought or action in the sequence is meant to be considered separately. As the example illustrates, unless used with care for an effect, polysyndeton may appear clumsy and amateurish."
Praeteritio or Paralipsis
Emphasis is achieved by stating that the speaker is passing something by.
e.g. 1. Not to mention... 2. I won't dignify that with a response. 3. Pay no attention to that fellow over there.
Raising an objection and immediately answering it; strengthening an argument by dealing with possible objections before the audience can raise counter-arguments.
e.g. You may think programming difficult to understand, but if you bear with me I will show you how to break the discipline into steps.
An extreme form of paralipsis
e.g. I will not mention my opponents numerous criminal convictions. It would be unseemly to bring them up again.
Prosopopoeia or Personification
Things or ideas are loaned the qualities or attributes of persons.
Secondary Category: illustration
e.g. 1. The sea looked and fled...(Ps. 114:3, 4). 2. My old tin lizzy whined and limped up the hill, complaining against my foot on the accelerator.
Repetition of words similar in ending sound but not necessarily in sense or origin.
e.g. Little baby fast asleep, wishing you don't make a peep. Big brown eyes smile so sweet. Little baby fast asleep. (Roshina Sheppard)
An overt or formal declaration that one thing is "like" or "as" another, usually using one of those two words.
e.g. Even so, husbands should love their own wives as their own bodies... (Eph. 5:28).
A transposition of the beginning and endings of words in a sentence that has strange or humorous effects. After Reverend Spooner (1844 - 1930)
e.g. Spooner allegedly once praised Her Majesty with a toast to our queer old dean. Was this extremely mad banners on his part?
One word modifies two or more other words simultaneously but must be understood differently with respect to each modified word. This creates a possibly humorous semantic incongruity.
e.g. He emptied the whiskey bottle and his mind.
A three part logical argument consisting of a major premise or general rule followed by a minor premise or instance of the precondition in the rule, and then a conclusion based on applying the major premise to its instance.
e.g. Rule or major premise: All humans are mortal. Minor premise: Socrates is human. Conclusion: Socrates is mortal.
Synathroesmus or Enumeration
An enumeration or elaboration of the parts or qualities of a whole that has not necessarily been mentioned, but is at least implied.
e.g. He's a proud, haughty, consequential, turned-up-nosed peacock. - Charles Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby
Repeated similes in close proximity.
Secondary Category: simile
e.g. We rejoice in victory; they despair in defeat.
A type of metonymy in which a part is exchanged for the whole, an individual for an entire class or people, OR vice-versa (whole for part).
Secondary Category: exchange
e.g. 1. And we were in all 276 souls. (Acts 27:37) 2. Joe ranched nearly five hundred head. 3. All hands on deck
Refers to words that are usually different in sound and origin but are similar in meaning
e.g. Big, large, grand, tall, enormous, extended, humungous are all synonyms
The use of several synonyms in succession to add emotional force or clarity.
e.g. She was lovely, beautiful, gorgeous, a paragon of femininity.
Tapeinosis or Demeaning
An attempt to lessen the importance of a thing, person or idea. Also called a put-down, though with more negative, perhaps scornful overtones.
e.g. He was a pimple on the body of history.
Notes: Differs from meiosis in that the outcome is a person's humiliation.
The use of a word in other than its literal or normal form.
e.g. The four kinds of trope are: metonymy, irony, metaphor, and synecdoche.
A word, phrase, or portion thereof is inserted into another word.
e.g. 1. whatsoever 2. nitwidiot
A verb or other part of speech governs two or more words or phrases, even though it is usually applied to only one.
e.g. I raised my eyebrows and my expectations.
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