Figures of Speech by Name
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.
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.
Repetition of an initial, stressed consonant sound for two or more words. “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought…” Sonnet 30. Alliteration is different from Consonance, which is the repetition of a consonant sound on stressed and unstressed syllables that are not always at the beginnings of words. The repetition of “s” sounds, alliterative or consonant, is also called sibilance.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Portraying an animal with human abilities, e.g. speaking. Differs from Personification, which rhetorically portrays inanimate objects or abstractions with having human characteristics. “When in that moment, so it came to pass, / Titania waked and straightway loved an ass.” Midsummer Night’s Dream, 3.2.1
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 on the stressed syllable at the beginning of the word. “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles / And, by opposing, end them.” Hamlet, 3.1.64. The “s” sounds occur at the beginning, middle and ends of words, both stressed and unstressed. The repetition of an “s” sound in lines like this is also called sibilance.
Close repetition of words broken by one or two intervening words. “Done like a Frenchman: turn and turn again.” Henry VI Pt. 1, 3.3.17.
A contrast between two things that are represented as being opposed or opposite, e.g, good and evil, black and white, thought and action, etc. “So foul and fair a day I have not seen.” Macbeth,1.3.39
Omission of one or more words, which are assumed by the listener or reader. Omitting a word implied by the previous clause. “If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches, and poor men’s cottages princes’ palaces.” Merchant of Venice, 1.2.1
Intentionally using a different gender, person, case, number, or tense when another is expected to characterize a speaker or to create a memorable phrase. “This dream of mine— / Being now awake, I’ll queen it no inch farther, / But milk my ewes and weep.” Winter’s Tale, 4.4.490.
An argument in which a premise is omitted but implied, or which bases a conclusion on the truth of its contrary. “Marked you his words? He would not take the crown; / Therefore ’tis certain he was not ambitious.” Julius Caesar, 3.2.82
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.
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. “Romans, countrymen, and lovers, hear me for my cause, and be silent, that you may hear. Believe me for mine honor, and have respect to mine honor, that you may believe.” Julius Caesar, 3.2.14
Adding an extra syllable or letters in the middle of a word (also called Infixation). “I have but with a cursitory eye / O’erglanced the articles.” Henry V, 5.2.69
Repetition of a phrase or question; dwelling on a point. “Remember thee? / Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat / In this distracted globe. Remember thee?” Hamlet, 1.5.99.
Repetition of a single word without intervening words. “O horror, horror, horror! / Tongue nor heart cannot conceive nor name thee! Macbeth, 2.3.73.
Classical term for a Rhetorical Question.
Substitution of an inoffensive term for one considered offensively explicit.
Introduction to a speech to catch attention of the listeners. “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears! I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” Julius Caesar, 3.2.82
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.
The expression of a single idea by two nouns connected with “and” rather than a noun modified by an adjective. “And thy commandment all alone shall live / Within the book and volume of my brain.” Hamlet, 1.5.99.
Also called a Transferred Epithet.
Altering of normal or expected word order, or separation of words that belong together. “Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.” Measure for Measure, 2.1.41.
Exaggerated terms for the purpose of emphasis or heightened effect. “He is the bluntest wooer in Christendom.” Henry VI Pt 3, 3.2.36.
A type of Hyperbaton in which the disorder is chronological, i.e., something that should happen happen second, happens first. “Th’ Antoniad, the Egyptian admiral, / With all their sixty, fly and turn the rudder.” Antony and Cleopatra, 3.10.1. Using Anastrophe in a way that creates a Catachresis; an impossible ordering on the literal level.
Use of words to convey the opposite of their literal meaning. “Prodigious birth of love it is to me / That I must love a loathèd enemy.” Romeo and Juliet, 1.5.152
Isocolon is a generic term for two or more clauses of equal length and parallel syntax and rhythm. When there are more than two, the figure can be more specifically named (though they are not in the quotes on this website) tricolons, tetracolons, etc. “My gorgeous palace for a hermitage, / My gay apparel for an almsman’s gown, / My figured goblets for a dish of wood, / My scepter for a palmer’s walking-staff, / My subjects for a pair of carvèd saints.” Richard II, 3.3.148. This quote from Richard II strings five clauses of parallel syntax in sequence and, because the clauses all begin with he same word, this is also an example of Anaphora.
An understatement in which an affirmative is expressed by negating its opposite. “He hath not failed to pester us with message.” Hamlet, 1.2.1
A modern term for the classical rhetorical figure Acyrologia, a malapropism is confused use of words in which an appropriate word is replaced by a similar-sounding but often ludicrously inappropriate meaning. Malapropism is a neologismA new, deliberately invented word. inspired by the name of the character Mrs. Malaprop (which is an abbreviated portmanteauA neologism created by combining two words. for mal-appropriate) in Richard Sheridan’s The Rivals, 1775. For examples in Shakespeare, see Acyrologia.
Implied comparison between two unlike things. “Lo, in these windows that let forth thy life / I pour the helpless balm of my poor eyes.” Richard III, 1.2.1
Metaplasmus (or metaplasm) is a generic term for a number of figures of speech that change the spelling of words by either adding or deleting letters or syllables. Shakespeare often used these figures to accommodate the meter of his lines. Sometimes he creates dialect. See Prosthesis (adding to beginning), Epenthesis (adding to middle), Proparalepsis (adding to end), Aphaearesis (deleting from beginning), Syncope (deleting from middle), Apocope (deleting from end).
Metonymy is a 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 for the whole person of the king while “crown” is a metonymy for the responsibilities of the monarchy.
A neologism is a deliberately created new word. “…heaven and earth together demonstrated / Unto our climatures and countrymen.” Antony and Cleopatra, 1.1.124. Here Shakespeare created a portmanteau in which he merged “climate” with “temperature.” Sometimes Shakespeare used an existing word but gave it a new meaning, e.g. “bedroom” meaning the room in a bed, not the room with a bed in it. Shakespeare is credited with creating many neologisms, some obsolete and some still in use. However, scholarly research continues to reveal that many words previously attributed to him were already in use. See also Acyrologia and Malapropism, which are unintentionally misused words, and Metaplasmus, which is a generic term for different types of misspelled words.
Use of words to imitate natural sounds. “Bow-wow. / Hark, hark! I hear / The strain of strutting chanticleer / Cry cock-a-diddle-dow.” The Tempest, 1.2.452
Incongruous or contradictory terms appear side by side.
Statement that seems to contradict itself but is nevertheless true.
Emphasizing a point by seeming to pass over it.
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.
Grammatically and syntactically parallel sentences, clauses, phrases, etc. “Oh, cursed be the hand that made these holes; / Cursed the heart that had the heart to do it; / Cursed the blood that lets this blood from hence.” ~ King Richard III
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.
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.
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.
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.
Several questions spoken or written one after another.
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)
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.
Adjective which should properly modify one word is shifted to another word in the same sentence. “The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,” Romeo and Juliet, 1P.1
Intentionally breaking a word into two parts for emphasis.
Repetition of a verb but with different meanings or objects (part of speech).