The English language is full of figures of speech – where words are used in special ways to achieve a special effect. Figurative language – where figures of speech are used a lot – is often associated with novels and literature, and poetry in particular. But the truth is, we all use figures of speech every day, in our everyday conversations, texts, and emails – much of the time without even realizing it.
This guide will take you through all of the most common types of figures of speech in English. They all give you wonderful ways to play with words, phrases and sounds – so don’t be afraid to try them out in your own writing and conversations to really experience their effects. Your language skills will grow – and your love of the English language will too!
Here’s a figure of speech that really does get used in poetry a lot. Alliteration is the term given to the repetition of the same sound or letter at the beginning of words in a phrase. For example:
“Peter picked a peck of pickled peppers” repeats the letter p
Alliteration isn’t just restricted to repeating the first letter, for example, in James Thomson’s poem:
“Come…dragging the lazy languid line along”
And Edgar Allan Poe’s famous verse, The Raven, is heavily alliterative, with sounds and not specifically letters being repeated:
“And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain”
All kinds of effects can be achieved by using alliteration. The key to understanding the effect is simply to listen – how do the sounds make you feel?
Poets can call attention to certain words in a line of poetry by using alliteration, and they can use it to create a pleasant, rhythmic effect.
It can also be used to add to the mood of a poem, or to create more drama or danger. Repeat soft, melodious sounds and you can achieve a calm or somber mood. Want to create a short, sharp, shocking effect? Try repeating harsh sounds like -ck or -ot, and the mood can become tense, excited, or more dramatic. Switch to smooth sounds like s, l, and f, and you can create a hushed and peaceful feeling, like E.E. Cummings does beautifully here in his poem All in Green Went My Love Riding:
“Softer be they than slippered sleep the lean lithe deer the fleet flown deer”
This figure of speech is similar to alliteration, because it also involves repetition of sounds. But this time it’s vowel sounds that are being repeated. Assonance creates internal rhyming within phrases or sentences by repeating vowel sounds that are the same. Here’s E.E. Cummings again with an example:
“On a proud round cloud in white high night”
With its power to create rhymes within words, it’s not surprising to find that assonance is used far more often in poetry than in prose. In fact, together with alliteration and consonance, assonance forms the building blocks of poetry. But it can pop up anywhere an artist wants to create a powerful rhyming effect – in music lyrics especially. The next time you’re listening to hip hop listen out for it, because rap relies on it. Here’s a great example from Eminem this time:
“Fire at the private eye hired to pry in my business”
Not just letters and sounds but whole words can be repeated in the English language to create different effects. Anaphora is the deliberate repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of several successive verses, clauses, or paragraphs. Again, it is used a lot in poetry, but also in speeches, to stir up emotions. Winston Churchill’s famous speech:
“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”
is just one example. Martin Luther King also used anaphora in his iconic I Have a Dream speech.
Antithesis comes from the Latin and Greek anti- meaning against and –tithenai meaning to set. So antithesis means setting opposite, or contrast. As a figure of speech it’s used when two opposites are introduced in the same sentence, for contrasting effect. For example:
“Many are called but few are chosen”
It’s another figure of speech that’s used in rhetoric and speeches a lot, as it can be used to strengthen an argument by using either exact opposites or contrasting ideas. It also makes a sentence more memorable for the reader or listener, for example, in John F. Kennedy’s famous line:
“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”