Four More Figures of Speech

Expressive language brings literature (and story) to life, no matter what age level it’s written for. Eve Heidi Bine-Stock shows the truth of this in Volume 3 of her three-volume set on writing books for children. Specifically, she examines different figures of speech and gives examples of them from children’s literature.

Zeugma (ZOOG ma) might sound like something you don’t want to encounter in the dark, let alone in a children’s book. But you have encountered it: you just didn’t know its name. Zeugma is a figure of speech in which one word (usually a verb) is coupled to two different nouns in an intentionally humorous way. The example Bine-Stock gives is: “But, luckily, he kept his wits and his purple crayon,” from Harold and the Purple Crayon.

And for adults, Charles Dickens was using zeugma when he wrote: “She looked at the object with suspicion and a magnifying glass.”

Pleonasm (PLEE o nasm) is a figure of speech that, used consciously and with control, can result in intensified language. Used unconsciously and in an uncontrolled manner, it usually results in bad writing.

UnknownWherever you encounter the use of superfluous words, you are encountering pleonasms, which abound in English (and probably in other languages as well). “Tuna fish” and “puppy dog” are examples, as is “see with my own eyes.” In the first, “fish” is superflous; in the second, “dog” is superflous; and in the third “with my own eyes” is superflous, since you can’t see with anybody’s eyes but your own. Yet such pleonasms make those who speak them and even those who read them feel comfortable — something is, for some reason, being emphasized, and that feels good.

But then there’s unintentional use of pleonasm, as in government-speak and bureaucratic documents, which say the same thing in so many ways that one loses a sense of meaning. Even short two-word expressions of pleonasm can be irritating, as in “free gift” and “true fact.”

In an earlier blog on figures of speech, I said that a writer, or even somebody who doesn’t write, can easily use figures of speech without knowing what they are. But a writer, to paraphrase Samuel Taylor Coleridge, chooses the best words in the best order, and so, at one time or another, a writer is bound to use one of the figures I’ve talked about. Perhaps accidentally.

This happened to me once when I submitted a poem, “Ridge and Furrow,” for a critique. Toward the end of the first stanza I wrote: “Ridge and furrow, / furrow and ridge roll across the land.” The editor critiquing the poem pointed these lines out, calling them an example of chiasmus (ky AZ mus), which is the repetition of words in first one order, then their opposite order, as in “ridge and furrow, furrow and ridge.”

I have to say that what stayed with me from this critique was not the name of the figure of speech. When I want to know the name of this figure of speech, I have to look it up. What stayed with me was that it can be effective to repeat words in their opposite order now and then.

IMG_2246Just about everybody in the English-speaking world uses litotes (LIE toe teez), and just about nobody is aware of it. Litotes is a form of understatement in which meaning is conveyed by negating a positive, as in:

The ice cream was not bad.

Zack was not sorry the pub was closed.

It’s not rocket science.

Figures of speech are literary devices that intensify language and make it richer. When I rewrite a piece, I rephrase select sentences so that they contain figures of speech — even though I seldom remember the name of the figures of speech I employ.



Barbara Gregorich employed figures of speech in Jack and Larry: Jack Graney and Larry, the Cleveland Baseball Dog.


Five Figures of Speech

Rhetoric is effective and/or persuasive writing or speaking, and figures of speech are one of the components of rhetoric. Both readers of and speakers of the English language enjoy encountering figures of speech, which can be clever, humorous, biting, visual — intriguing or memorable in some way. Thus writers who can employ figures of speech are more likely to win over their audience.

Because the ancient Greeks valued and taught rhetoric, most figures of speech have names that come from the Greek. I have to confess that I can use a figure of speech, knowing I have used it, without being able to remember its name.


Some sources state that anaphora [a NAPH o ra] is probably the oldest literary device of all. Anaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses, and it has been used extensively by writers and speakers of all kinds. Walt Whitman used anaphora, as did Martin Luther King, Jr.

Here’s a well-known example, from Winston Churchill’s most famous World War II speech: “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.”

Then there’s antanaclasis [ANT an a CLASS is], in which a word is repeated in the same grammatical form (verb, for example, or adjective), but with two different meanings or senses. An example is the quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “We must, indeed, all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” In both cases hang is a verb, but in its first use it means to consort with, and in its second use it means to be suspended by the neck until dead.

UnknownYou can infer the importance of repetiton, both to the Greeks and to ourselves, when you consider how often repetition is part of a literary device. There’s anaphora, there’s antanaclasis, and there’s ploce [PLO see], which is the repetition of a word, often with intervening words between, and usually the second use of the word has a different meaning than does the first use of the word. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

game-of-thrones-longclaw-sword-of-jon-snow_1000Metonymy [meh TON eh me] replaces the name of something with a word that is closely associated with the first thing. For example, when Christina Rossetti wrote “Never on this side of the grave again,” she was replacing the word death with something associated with death: the grave. In “The pen is mightier than the sword,” pen is being used instead of written words, and sword is being used instead of military force.

Metonymy is so much a part of our spoken and written language that we’re often unaware that we’re using a figure of speech.

Synecdoche [sin EK do kee] is a special form of metonymy in which a part is used to represent the whole. An example of synecdoche from everyday usage is calling workers hands — the hand is just part of a human being, but it is used to stand for the whole person. Likewise, calling a very intelligent person a brain is an example of synecdoche.

And now, by your leave, I’ll leave you alone.


Barbara Gregorich employs figures of speech in her poems, published in Crossing the Skyway.