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Figures of Speech

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

Shakespeare acquired a well-stocked tool chest of rhetorical devices now called figures of speech. While some authors are happy to coin an occasional metaphor, like “well-stocked tool chest,” Shakespeare employed scores of figures of speech, probably learned in school while studying Latin poetry and plays, and later enriched through a lifetime of reading and writing.

Greeks developed rhetoric to enhance an orator's ability to inform, persuade, inspire and hold the attention of audiences. The craft was especially useful in the politics of their new democracy, which lacked television, radio, newspapers and the internet. They discovered it was also effective in writing poetry and plays. Romans continued to build on the Greeks' work. Centuries later, during the English Renaissance, fueled by the invention of movable type and the mass publication of classical texts, scholars resurrected the art of rhetoric, which inspired new generations of politicians, poets and playwrights.

Figures of speech are sometimes divided into categories and types to help students better understand, remember and use these devices. These classifications are not definitive, nor are they universally accepted among scholars. Even the definitions of many individual figures of speech are subject to debate. What all rhetorical devices have in common is that they are departures from normal, natural or simple language. But, of course, that requires consensus on the definitions of normal, natural and simple.

Categories of figures of speech
  • Schemes deal with patterns, sounds and syntax, e.g. alliteration, meter, parallelism, rhyme, etc.
  • Tropes deal with meanings and ideas, e.g. analogy, metaphor, irony, paradox, personification, etc.
Types of figures of speech

In addition to the two categories that distinguish between the mechanics (schemes) and the meanings (tropes), figures of speech can also be divided into various types, which help to clarify their functions, e.g., figures of comparison, repetition, substitution, word play, etc.

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