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Figures of Speech

Oh for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention 

Or, for a more pedestrian metaphor, Shakespeare acquired a well stocked tool chest of rhetorical devices we now call figures of speech. While some authors are happy to coin an occasional metaphor or simile, Shakespeare employed scores of figures of speech, probably learned at school studying Latin poetry and plays, and later enriched through a lifetime of reading and writing.

Types of figures of speech

  • Schemes deal with word order, patterns, sounds and syntax, e.g. alliteration, anastrophe, parallelism, etc.
  • Tropes deal with the meanings of words, e.g. metaphor, irony, synecdoche, etc.

Quick Links

A list of of the figures of speech referenced on this site follows, or use the “Quick Links” dropdown at right to jump directly to a figure of speech you're interested in.


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Assigning to a proper name its literal or homophonic meaning. Falstaff: Is thy name Mouldy? Mouldy: Yea, an't please you. Falstaff: ‘Tis the more time thou wert used. Shallow: Ha, ha, ha! most excellent, i' faith! Things that are mouldy lack use: very singular good! in faith, well said, Sir John, very well said.” Henry IV Pt2, 3.2.96. Related to Paronomasia and Polyptoton.


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An extreme form of hyperbole in which the comparison could not possibly happen in reality. “Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood Clean from my hand?” Macbeth, 2.2.78


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Alternatives or choices in a balanced and parallel structure. Such a structure may result in a false dichotomy but it can create a cleverly balanced and artistic sentence. “Better it were a brother died at once, / Than that a sister, by redeeming him, / Should die forever.” Measure for Measure, 2.4.95. Similar to Antithesis, which presents contrasting or opposite ideas but not as alternatives.


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Repetition of an initial consonant sound for two or more words. “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought…” Sonnet 30


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A brief and indirect reference to a person, place, thing or idea of historical, cultural, literary or political significance. “I'll drown more sailors than the mermaid shall; / I'll slay more gazers than the basilisk;  /I'll play the orator as well as Nestor…” Henry VI Pt 3, 3.2.126


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Excessive words are used in an ambiguous or indirect manner. “But be contented when that fell arrest / Without all bail shall carry me away, / My life hath in this line some interest, / Which for memorial still with thee shall stay.” Sonnet 74. Ambage is similar to Circumlocution, in that both use excessive words and are indirect — a Circumlocution circles around the meaning and an Ambage creates an ambiguity.  Also see Periphrasis.


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Expression that has more than one meaning. Puns usually draw on the ambiguity of the speaker's intent. “Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.” Romeo and Juliet, 3.1.93


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An elaborate decoration an argument to suggest copiousness or intensify emotional impact. “Ay, my good lord—“my lord,” I should say rather. / ’Tis sin to flatter; “good” was little better: / “Good Gloucester” and “good devil” were alike, / And both preposterous: therefore, not “good lord.” Henry VI Pt3, 5.6.1.


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The repetition of a word or phrase that ends one clause and begins the next. “Though Nature hath given us wit to flout at Fortune, hath not Fortune sent in this fool to cut off the argument?” As You Like It, 1.2.31. Extended Anadiplosis is called Gradatio.


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Comparison between two situations for the purpose of explanation or clarification. “What's in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other word would smell as sweet; / So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd.” Romeo and Juliet, 2.2.36.


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Repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses. “O, cursèd be the hand that made these holes; / Cursèd the heart that had the heart to do it; / Cursèd the blood that let this blood from hence.” Richard III, 1.2.1 Contrast with Epistrophe.


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Deliberate sentence fragment. “No, not an oath! If not the face of men, / The sufferance of our souls, the time's abuse— / If these be motives weak, break off betimes, / And every man hence to his idle bed;” Julius Caesar, 2.1.124


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Type of Hyperbaton in which usually only a single word is misplaced or reversed from it expected order. Most often the adjective appears after the noun when we expect to find it before the noun. “Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous, / By drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams, / To set my brother Clarence and the King / In deadly hate.” Richard III, 1.1.1.


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Repetition of a word with a shift of meaning. “In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, / From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, / Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.” Romeo and Juliet. 1.1.1


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Substitution of one part of speech for another. A word is used as a different part of speech than it usually is. “When the rain came to wet me once and the wind to make me chatter, when the thunder would not peace at my bidding,” King Lear, 4.6.114.


Portraying an animal with human abilities, e.g. speaking. Differs from Personification., which rhetorically portrays inanimate objects or abstractions with having human characteristics.


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Repetition of words or phrases in an inverted or reverse order in which the phrases suggest opposing meanings. “How / much better is it to weep at joy than to joy at weeping!” Much Ado About Nothing. 1.1.13. Antimetabole is a type of Chiasmus, which is a similar inversion but of actual words whose meanings are not necessarily opposite. Chiasmus is similar to Epanados, which also repeats the terms after presenting them.


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Juxtaposition of contrasting or opposite ideas or words in a balanced or parallel construction. “The evil that men do lives after them, / The good is oft interred with their bones;” Julius Caesar, 3.2.82. Similar to Alliosis, which presents contrasting ideas as alternatives or choices.


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Deletion a syllable or letter from the beginning of a word to create a new word. “O thou dull god, why liest thou with the vile / In loathsome beds, and leav'st the kingly couch / A watch-case or a common ‘larum-bell?” Henry IV Pt2, 3.1.3. Also see Syncope, the removal of a syllable or letter from the middle of a word, and Apocope, the deletion of a syllable or letter from the end of a word.


Loss of an unstressed initial vowel. See Apocope, in which the last syllable is dropped; and Syncope, in which the middle syllable is dropped.


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Deletion of a syllable or letter from the end of a word. “With Clifford and the haught Northumberland…” Henry VI Pt3, 2.1.153. See Aphaearesis, the deletion of an unstressed initial vowel, and Syncope, the deletion of a middle consonant or syllable.


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An expression of insincere doubt, in which the writer or speaker pretends not to know a key piece of information or not to understand a key connection. “They that have done this deed are honorable. / What private griefs they have, alas, I know not, / That made them do it.” Julius Caesar, 3.2.82.


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Sudden breaking off of an utterance before it is completed, usually in moments of emotion. “O judgment! Thou art fled to brutish beasts, / And men have lost their reason. Bear with me, / My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar, / And I must pause till it come back to me…” Julius Caesar, 3.2.82.


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Breaking off discourse to address an absent person, or to an inanimate object or abstraction, as if personified (not to be confused with the punctuation mark). “Age, thou art sham'd! / Rome, thou hast lost the breed of noble bloods! Julius Caesar. 1.2.142.


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Interrupting a sentence with a word or phrase to add descriptive content. “The winds did sing it to me, and the thunder, / That deep and dreadful organ pipe, pronounced / The name of Prosper.” The Tempest 3.3.114. Similar to a Preposition but Appositions are less interruptive, more like clauses providing clarifying or additional information.


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Repetition or similarity of the same internal vowel sound in words of close proximity. “Beauty’s ensign yet / Is crimson in thy lips and in thy cheeks.” Romeo and Juliet. 5.3.73


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Witty joke where a word or phrase is turned on the user. “Katherine: What is your crest? A coxcomb? Petruchio: A combless cock, so Kate will be my hen. Katherine: No cock of mine. You crow too like a craven.” Taming of the Shrew. 2.1.209.


Omission of conjunctions between coordinate phrases, clauses, or words. “Are all thy conquests, glories, triumphs, spoils, Shrunk to this little measure?” Julius Caesar, 3.1.164. See Polysyndeton, which repeats the same conjunction between words or phrases in a series.


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The least important item in a series appears anticlimactically in a place where the reader expects something grand or dramatic. It is usually used humorously. “I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be buried in thy eyes; and moreover I will go with thee to thy uncle's.” Much Ado About Nothing. 5.2.95. See Climax.


A break or pause in the rhythm of a line. The pause adds a dramatic effect. The pauses can be initial, medial or terminal, and may follow masculine or feminine stresses. “To be, || or not to be, || that is the question. ||Hamlet. 3.1.64


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An implied or mixed metaphor, in which usually a verb or adjective are misapplied to the noun they reference. “Lent him our terror, dressed him with our love,” Measure for Measure. 1.1.3. Related to Hyperbole and Synaesthesia.


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Repetition of two corresponding phrases arranged in a parallel inverse order. The second half is balanced against the first but with the parts reversed. “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” Macbeth 1.1.1.  Related to Antimetabole, in which the two pairs suggest opposing or opposite meanings. Also similar to Epanados, which also repeats the terms after presenting them.


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Using more words than necessary, or evasive words, in order to circle around a meaning and to avoid being direct. “Then weigh what loss your honor may sustain / If with too credent ear you list his songs / Or lose your heart or your chaste treasure open / To his unmastered importunity. / Fear it, Ophelia; fear it, my dear sister.” Hamlet. 1.3.33. See also Ambage, Amplification, Euphemism, and Periphrasis.


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Arrangement of items in order of increasing importance, (also called Auxesis and Crescendo). “If thou would have such a one, take me. And take me, take a soldier. Take a soldier, take a king. And what say’st thou then to my love?” Henry V, 5.2.138. A variation is Bathos, in which items in as series build to an anticlimax.


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An elaborate and extended figure of speech, involving metaphors, similes, imagery, etc. “Thou counterfeits a bark, a sea, a wind. / For still thy eyes, which I may call the sea, / Do ebb and flow with tears; the bark thy body is, / Sailing in this salt flood; the winds thy sighs, / Who, raging with thy tears and they with them, / Without a sudden calm, will overset / Thy tempest-tossèd body.” Romeo and Juliet, 3.5.117


Repetition of a consonant sound but unlike alliteration the consonant does not always occur at the beginning of the word.


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Close repetition of words broken by one or two intervening words.


A contrast between two things that are represented as being opposed or entirely different, e.g, good and evil, black and white, thought and action, etc.


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Omission of one or more words, which are assumed by the listener or reader. Omitting a word implied by the previous clause.


Intentionally using a different gender, person, case, number, or tense when another is expected to characterize a speaker or to create a memorable phrase.


An argument in which a premise is omitted but implied, or which bases a conclusion on the truth of its contrary.


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Repetition of the chief points in a discourse, especially in reverse order of that in which they were previously treated. “Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war / How to divide the conquest of thy sight. / Mine eye my heart thy picture’s sight would bar, / My heart mine eye the freedom of that right. / My heart doth plead that thou in him dost lie, ” Sonnet 46. It is a type of Chiasmus, which is the inversion of the verbal structure of phrases using the same words. Also similar to Antimetabole, in which the two phrases are not just inverted but suggest opposing meanings.


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Repetition at the end of a clause of the word that occurred at the beginning of the clause. Repetition of words after intervening words for emphasis, or the repetition of words at beginning and end of line, phrase, clause, or sentence.


Adding an extra syllable or letters in the middle of a word (also called Infixation).


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Frequent repetition of a phrase or question; dwelling on a point.


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Repetition of a word or phrase at the end of successive clauses, lines, or sentences.


Noun-adjective combo as a means for amplification; can be semantically redundant or unusual.


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Repetition of a single word without intervening words.


Asking a rhetorical question to the reader.


Substitution of an inoffensive term for one considered offensively explicit.


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Introduction to a speech to catch attention of the listeners.


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Gradatio is an extended form of Anadiplosis. Each clause or phrase ends with a word that starts the next clause or phrase in ascending order, leading to a climax. “My conscience hath a thousand several tongues, / And every tongue brings in a several tale, / And every tale condemns me for a villain.” Richard III, 5.3.189.


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The expression of a single idea by two words connected with “and.”


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Words are misplaced from their proper places of utterance.


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Altering word order, or separation of words that belong together, for emphasis.


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Exaggerated terms for the purpose of emphasis or heightened effect.


Using Anastrophe in a way that creates a Catachresis; An impossible ordering on the literal level.


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Use of words to convey the opposite of their literal meaning.


Clauses of equal length and parallel syntax and rhythm.


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An understatement in which an affirmative is expressed by negating its opposite.


A confused use of words in which an appropriate word is replaced by one with similar sound but often ludicrously inappropriate meaning.


Understatement (opposite of exaggeration).


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Implied comparison between two unlike things through the figurative use of words


A type of Neologism in which misspelling a word creates a rhetorical effect. To emphasize dialect, one might spell dog as “dawg.” To emphasize that something is unimportant, we might add -let or -ling at the end of the word, referring to a deity as a “godlet”, or a prince as a “princeling.” To emphasize the feminine nature of something normally considered masculine, try adding -ette to the end of the word, creating a smurfette or a corvette.


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This is a specific type of metaphor that substitutes a related attribute for what is meant. If someone asks how many plates there are going to be at dinner, they're asking about the number of guests. Plates are not parts of the guests, they're related to dinner guests. This is different from synecdoche, in which a part of a person or thing refers to the whole, or vice versa. In “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” “head” is a synecdoche and crown is a metonymy.


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Creating a new or imaginary word. Many neologisms result from Metaplasmus.


Use of words to imitate natural sounds.


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Incongruous or contradictory terms appear side by side.


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Statement that seems to contradict itself but is nevertheless true.


Emphasizing a point by seeming to pass over it.


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Similarity of structure in a pair or series of related words, phrases, or clauses.


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Insertion of a word or clause in a position that interrupts the normal syntactic flow of the sentence. “But he, his own affections' counsellor, / Is to himself—I will not say how true, / But to himself so secret and so close, / So far from sounding and discovery, / As is the bud bit with an envious worm.” Romeo and Juliet, 1.1.118. Similar to Apposition but a Parenthesis are more interruptive, less like a clause and more like speech.


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Word play, especially involving words with similar sounds but more than one meaning. “Now is the winter or our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York…” Richard III, 1.1.1. Related to Adnominatio and Polyptoton.


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Use of language, examples, diction, or images to create an emotional reaction in the reader. The most common types are anger at a social injustice, sympathy for another's misfortune, or laughter at a humorous or illogical state of affairs.


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The use of a somewhat elaborate description for what is normally a common word, phrase or proper name — or of a proper name, e.g., “Venus” for a description, i.e, “beautiful and seductive.” “Most sacrilegious murder hath broke ope / The Lord’s anointed temple and stole thence / The life o’ th’ building.” Macbeth, 2.3.73. A type of Circumlocution — excessive words are used in a roundabout manner; also see Ambage — excessive words used to create ambiguity or misdirection.


Repetition of a certain phrase in a speech or monologue for emphasis.


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An inanimate object or abstraction is endowed rhetorically with human qualities or abilities. “Nor shall Death brag thou wand'rest in his shade,” Sonnet 18. Differs from Anthropomorphism, which portrays animals as having human abilities such as speaking.


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Word play for words derived from the same root or cognate. Repeating words in different case forms. “Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds, / Or bends with the remover to remove.” Sonnet 116. Related to Adnominatio and Paronomasia.


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The repetition of conjunctions in a series of coordinate words, phrases, or clauses. “Nor stony tower, nor walls of beaten brass, / Nor airless dungeon, nor strong links of iron, / Can be retentive to the strength of spirit.” Julius Caesar, 1.3.92.  See Asyndeton, which omits all conjunctions between words or phrases in a series.


Adding an extra syllable or letters to the end of a word.


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Form of personification in which an inanimate object gains the ability to speak.


Adding an extra syllable or letters to the beginning of a word.


A play on words, sometimes on different senses of the same word and sometimes on the similar sense or sound of different words.


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Several questions spoken or written one after another.

Rhetorical Question

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A question whose answer is so obvious that an answer is not expected. (See Rogatio)


Rogatio occurs when a person asking a rhetorical question answers it.


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Explicit comparison between two things using “like” or “as”.


Formalized dialogue in short, alternating lines.


A single word governs or modifies two or more others and must be understood differently with respect to each of those words. A combination of grammatical parallelism and semantic incongruity, often with a witty or comical effect; type of Paronomasia where two or more of a word's meanings are invoked.


Sentence is basically repeated, with one or two words in the middle changed, e.g. Saint Paul wrote, “Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? So am I,” (2 Corinthians 11:22)


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Deleting a syllable or letter from the middle of a word. “Let's make us med'cines of our great revenge.” Macbeth, 4.3.252. See Aphaearsis, the deletion of an unstressed initial vowel at the end of a word. and Apocope, the deletion of a syllable or letter from the end of a word.


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This is a specific type of metaphor in which a part of an object or person is used for the whole, or conversely the whole for the part. For example, in “Who's got the wheels to get us to the movie?”, “wheels” refers to a car. Conversely, in “I'm going to get the car tuned up,” “car” refers to the engine. This is different from metonymy, which substitutes a related attribute rather than a part of a thing or person. In “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” “head” is a synecdoche and crown is a metonymy.


Mixing one type of sensory input with another in an impossible way, such as speaking of how a color sounds, or how a smell looks.


List of synonyms for emphasis.

Transferred Epithet

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Adjective which should properly modify one word is shifted to another word in the same sentence.

Tricolon Parallelism


Intentionally breaking a word into two parts for emphasis.


Deliberately makes a situation seem less important or serious than it is.


Repetition of a verb but with different meanings or objects (part of speech).