Types of Figures of Speech with Examples from Literature and Cinema
We all use different figures of speech in our day to day lives, often without knowing the proper term for them. While this is fine if we get the essential meaning, when reading poetry and prose, understanding figurative language can help break down complex themes and intimations. These literary devices and rhetorical devices serve an important purpose, mainly as a way to express feelings and emotions. Many of the terms used to described a certain figure of speech originate in a poem, book or performance. oneHOWTO presents these types of figures of speech with examples from literature and cinema so that you can see how effective the use of language can be. In doing so, you might be able to use them yourself for creative ends.
The first of the figures of speech mentioned is used to imitate the sounds of nature or the environment, a phonetic or written imitation of a non-human sound. This explains why dogs do not bark the same in all languages, as in English their onomatopoeic word is "woof" and in Spanish it's "guau".
- "Hark, hark! Bow-wow. The watch-dogs bark!" from the tragicomic play The Tempest by William Shakespeare.
Other, less literary examples of onomatopoeia can be:
- The cock-a-doodle-doo of the rooster woke me up.
- Zip! My ruck sack was fully packed and I was ready to set off.
- The only sound coming from that room was the drip, drip, drip from a broken pipe.
Another of the most common figures of speech is personification. It is used to give the characteristics or actions of human beings to inanimate objects.
Let's take a look at the following examples:
- "Where bashful flowers blow, and blushing birds go down to drink..." from Have You Got a Brook in Your Little Heart by Emily Dickinson.
Other examples of personification can be:
- The stones were touched by my weeping.
- The stars were dancing above my head, as happy as I was.
- The clock sprang to life, indicating it was time for me to set off.
Anthropomorphism is a closely related artistic device which gives non-human entities the characteristics of humans. This is the main artistic device for many folkloric allegories as well as more contemporary stories in the shape of animated films like those of the Walt Disney Corporation. It is often used to tell a tale or moral, but is also often used to comedic effect (although the two are not mutually exclusive).
Hyperbole is a common figure of speech in poetry; which is defined as an exaggeration or overstatement. In terms of literary or rhetorical devices, it is a figure of speech used for effect or emphasis, often if trying to convey feeling or convince someone of something. It is rare that a hyperbole is to be taken literally.
- "I'll love you, dear, I'll love you 'till China and Africa meet..." from As I Walked One Evening by W. H. Auden.
Other examples of hyperbole include:
- He was so hungry he could eat a horse.
- She ran faster than lightning.
An antithesis is the contrast caused by putting two opposing ideas together. Often, these figures of speech are usually repeated several times in order to enhance the contrast. It is similar to juxtaposition (comparing two elements by placing them together) except that the two elements need to be contrary to each other. The contrary elements can be, but are not always, the opposite of the other. It is often used as a rhetorical figure of speech because it emphasizes a point, making it more memorable.
- "Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav'n." from the epic poem Paradise Lost by John Milton.
Other examples of antithesis include:
- Even though the sun is shining I can feel the rain.
- Folks who have no vices have very few virtues.
Do some sentences sound like they are missing something? This is what we use ellipsis for, to remove words and omit elements that are not necessary for the reader to correctly understand the sentence. Using these types of figures of speech, verbs, for example, can be removed and replaced by commas.
- Prosperity is a great teacher; adversity a greater.
- Her hair was silver-tipped, her eyes large and bright.
- Some people go to priests; others to poetry; I to my friends.
Ellipses are a figure of speech which can be used for a variety of purposes. There is also a punctuation mark named after it called an elipsis. It is easy to type as it is simply three periods written one after another like this "...".
This is a form of reading between the lines. Except, instead of reading between the lines, you are reading words which are not there. This is a form of linguistic trickery. By making you think of the word yourself, it makes it more memorable and increases the impact. It also can add emotional impact to what people are doing or saying (or not saying).
This type of figure of speech involves altering the grammatical order of sentences. Instead of writing the subject followed by the predicate or the rest of the sentence, the writer prefers to write the predicate first followed by the noun.
- "Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall." from Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare.
Other examples of hyperbaton can be:
- You cannot say, or guess, for you know only.
- He sang his didn't, he danced his did.
One of the most famous cinematic characters to use this figure of speech is everyone's favorite little green alien; Yoda from the Star Wars series of films. When discussing the dark side of "The Force" he says "forever will it dominate your destiny". This use of hyperbaton has many mimics, often used for comic effect. This is because it is something which should be used sparingly to make a point, whereas Yoda seems to be making points with everything he says.
Have you ever described one object by relating it to another due to its similarity? If the answer is yes, then you have made a metaphor. There are different types of metaphor and we have already used one specific type here in the form of antithesis and hyperbole. This is because they make their statements through resemblance or comparison. The two main types of metaphor are the standard general metaphor.
A good example of metaphor is the phrase "crystal water". This makes a comparison between the water's clarity and the appearance of crystal, but we are skipping the comparative "like" which would appear in "this water is clear like crystal". If we use the words "like" or "as" in oour comparison then we are making a simile. A simile is a metaphor, it is just a more specific type of metaphor.
- "The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet, black bough." from In a Station of the Metro by Ezra Pound.
- "All those moments will be lost in time..." from the film Blade Runner; the next phrase, "like tears in rain", is a comparison or a simile.
Repetition or anaphora
As its name suggests, these types of figures of speech involves repeating words or grammatical structures in sentences or at the beginning of a verse, as you can see in the following examples from Charles Dickens's novel A Tale of Two Cities:
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair."
It is common to find the use of anaphora in religious texts like The Bible. This is because it can be used for emphasis to really hammer a message home. Epistrophe is the repetition of words or phrases at the end of a sentence or clause. Here is an example taken from 1 Corinthians 13:11 (KJV):
"When I was a child, I spoke a a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child."
This is common particularly in rhetoric as it helps drive messages into the brain.
Asyndeton and polysyndeton
Both figures of speech have separate meanings, but they can be explained together. While asyndeton refers to the absence of conjunctions and the constant presence of commas in their place, polysyndeton is a figure of speech characterised by using more conjunctions than necessary to give the sentence a slower pace and make it more dramatic.
Thus, asyndeton and polysyndeton are opposite literary devices.
Examples of asyndeton figure of speech:
- "An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was thick, warm, heavy, sluggish." from Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.
- "Cold; tempest; wild beasts in the forest." from The Werewolf by Angela Carter.
Examples of polysyndeton figure of speech:
- "There were frowzy filelds, and cow-houses, and dunghills, and dustheaps, and ditches, and gardens, and summer-houses, and carpet-beating grounds, at the very door of the Railway." from Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens.
This figure of speech involves uniting two conflicting ideas. It is much more than an antithesis, as the two opposing ideas are contradictory in nature but appear involved in the same thought.
Examples of paradox include:
- "I must be cruel to be kind." from Hamlet by William Shakespeare.
- "I can resist anything but temptation", a well-known aphorism by Oscar Wilde.
Paradoxes are common in philosophy and in logic. The are statements often showing something which, although involving two contradictory concepts or ideas, make sense due their their sound logistical predicates. They are often impactful figures of speech because they reveal the cognitive dissonance we often experience as human beings. We often feel two contradictory emotions at the same time, e.g. "can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em".
Alliteration is the repetition of the same letter sound in series of words and is often as much to do with style as it is emphasis or impact. It can set a certain tone or evoke a certain image such as this example in William Golding's Lord of the Flies:
"The pigs lay, bloated bags of fat, sensuously enjoying the shadows under the trees" (ch. 8)
It can be used for emphasis, but is also often used for humor or to convey a certain sense of playfulness. When overused, it can be a great contributor to something called "purple prose". This is when the language used is so flowery and stylized, it takes away from its meaning.
Sibilance is a similar use of repetitive sounds, except more specifically they are "hiss" sound made by passing air through the lips and tongue. "S" sounds are common, but "CH" and "Z" sounds are also found in sibilant figures of speech.
In terms of figures of speech, tautology refers to when words are repeated needlessly either inadvertently or to make a point. It is often used in popular music as the repetition helps us remember. However, it can also be used to make important artistic and social points such as this example from Gertrude Stein's 1913 poem Sacred Emily, "Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose".
What the exact artistic meaning of this line is has been written about in numerous academic studies which we will not go into here. However, its use in many other works by admirers (and critics) of Stein proves that tautology can often provide great resonance in readers.
An oxymoron is something many people read about at school. An oxymoron is essentially a contradiction in terms and is commonly used with just two words (although not limited to it). This is similar to a paradox in that it contains two opposing ideas or descriptions which have been placed together.
While there are many examples in literature (most notably in Shakespeare's Romero and Juliet where the bard strings 13 together in a row), they are commonly found in movie titles. Examples include:
- True Lies
- Day of the Living Dead
- Practical Magic
- 50 First Dates
- Back to the Future
Bathos can be simply described as anticlimax for effect. It is closely linked to the concept of pathos whereby a writer or speaker tries to appeal to emotions inside the audience or reader. In literature pathos is often used to make us relate to a character, even if they are ostensibly very different from us.
Bathos plays with these feelings by giving us a certain expectation and then providing an anticlimactic end. It is often used for humor, especially in terms of comic relief, but can have a greater emotional impact. However, unlike some of the figures of speech and literary devices in this article, bathos is employed often unintentionally. This often involves the creator trying to provide a lofty idea, but the execution or denouement is lacking.
A good example of intentional bathos is in the Quentin Tarrantino fil Pulp Fiction (1994). When Uma Thurman's character Mia Wallace is revived after a near fatal drug overdose, one of her rescuers tells her to "Say something!". Wallace replies, "Something."
This is a common figure of speech which is related to groups. Essentially, a synecdoche is when a part of something is used to refer to the whole. Perhaps the most famous example is use of the term "America". We often use this to refer to the country known as The United States of America. However, America is also a lands mass which makes up the continents of North and South America, so technically a Costa Rican is just as much an American as a Floridian.
In literature and films, it is often used to help reinforce an idea. In Percy Bysshe Shelley's famous sonnet Ozymandias, "The hand that mocked them" is used as a metaphor (like similes, synecdoche is one type of metaphor).
These have been our examples from literature and cinema of the main types of literary devices, figures of speech and rhetorical figures. Do you know any more? Tell us in the comments!
If you want to learn more about literature, take a look at what are the characteristics of Young Adult Literature and what are free verse poems.
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