Figures of Speech

You may have heard the saying “Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit”. But if you’ve ever laughed at a joke made by the character Chandler Bing in the TV Show FRIENDS, chances are, you find sarcasm to be quite entertaining. Sarcasm is just one example of a Figure of Speech. Figures of Speech – English 101.

We use Figures of Speech to create images or mind-pictures in order to express ourselves visually, imaginatively and powerfully. Language may be used either in a literal or figurative sense. Literal or denotative language is factual.

A figure of speech is a word or phrase that is used in a non-literal sense for rhetorical or vivid effect. When we use a figure of speech, we are intentionally deviating from the literal statement, in order to embellish the written or spoken language.

  • Nicky’s boyfriend broke his leg. (The accident literally/ actually occurred).
  • I crashed my car on Tuesday. (The fender-bender actually occurred).

Figurative or connotative language makes use of comparisons and suggestive ideas.

  • Nicky’s boyfriend broke her heart. (This is figurative language, suggesting that she is heartbroken).
  • My life is a car crash (Figurative language is used to denote a less than appealing life situation).
wood typography business design
Figures of Speech – English 101


COMPARISONSFigures of Speech – English 101

These are used to compare two objects (animate or inanimate) in direct or indirect ways. Often an expressive phrase replaces a simple adjective or adverb.


A simile is a direct comparison that always contains the words as or like.

  • He is as wealthy as Bill Gates.
  • Her personality is like a bubble in a bottle of champagne.


A metaphor is a comparison without the use of as or like. A metaphor refers to one person or object (as) being (like) another. In other words, a metaphor states that one thing is another thing. The comparison is implied rather than stated directly.

  • He is a Bill Gates. (They are both rich.)
  • She is a bubble in a bottle of champagne. (She has personality.)
  • The lieutenant roared his commands. (We are implying that the lieutenant is aggressive)

Extended Metaphors

These are recurring metaphors or analogies. They are extended over a passage or throughout a poem.

  • She was the bud blooming into womanhood.
  • She was petal, colourful and fragile.
  • A flower in the making!

Mixed Metaphors

These are incongruous and incompatible terms used to describe the same object or event. Mixed Metaphors should be avoided as they contradict one another.

  • Mountains of strawberries and cream were consumed during the titanic battle at Wimbledon.

(We are creating a confusing image of tennis, strawberries, mountains, giants and war!)


Personification gives human qualities to inanimate objects or abstract ideas. Personification and metaphors are similar in that they are both indirect comparisons.

  • Autumn arrived in his coat of orange, red and gold.
  • The clouds looked down and wept on the drought stricken earth.
  • Pride embraced her as she went up to receive her award.


An abstract idea, an inanimate object or a person who is no longer living is addressed or spoken to as if it were human.

  • “‘Lady luck, please be there when I throw the dice!’
  • Oh Shakespeare, if you could see your Globe Theatre rebuilt!”


This is either a direct or an indirect reference to a particular aspect. Many poets allude to Bible stories like the Creation or Fall in their poems. If we are ‘alluding to’ something, we are making an indirect reference to that thing.

  • Milton’s epic poem, ‘Paradise Lost’, deals with the Biblical themes of the Temptation and the fall of Man.

SOUND DEVICESFigures of Speech – English 101


Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of words. It often highlights the expression of movement.

  • Football fever fuels fans.
  • Rampant Rooney crushes Croatia.
beads with letters on pink background
Figures of Speech – English 101


Assonance is the repetition the same of similar vowel sounds in a sentence. Short vowel sounds may create a mood of speed, vitality, joy or suspense. Long vowel sounds slow down the pace and temper the mood.

  • The eccentric Esther enthused her listeners.
  • Clap your hands and stamp your feet!
  • Girls in curls swirled around the stage.
  • He slowly mowed the overgrown lawn.


Onomatopoeia uses words that imitate and reproduce real-life sounds and actions. The sound effect heightens the visual effect

  • The sky exploded with a crash, bang and a hissing of fireworks.
  • The tranquility of the scene was enhanced by the rustling of the reeds and the whistling of the wind.


Rhyme depends on sound, rather than on the written word. It is used for effect.

  • I am certain that this curtain
  • Was damaged in the rain again.
  • You will not laugh
  • If you only get half!

CONTRADICTIONSFigures of Speech – English 101

These are Figures of Speech that appear to contain conflicting or opposing ideas.


Antithesis compares and contradicts ideas or statements within a sentence. Used as a rhetorical device, Antithesis pairs exact opposite or contradicting ideas in a parallel grammatical structure.

  • Don’t underestimate him; he’s a mouse in stature, a lion in strength.
  • The Internet is a master of technology and a thief of time.


An oxymoron places two seemingly contradictory words next to each other. On analysis, these words evoke a powerful image.

  • The mother waved her son off to war with painful pride.
  • The accused felt angry relief when she was proved innocent.
  • The litter was a pretty ugly sight.


A paradox is a seemingly absurd or contradictory statement which, when analysed, is found to be true.

It is, in fact, an extended oxymoron. The opposites are not next to each other but are found in the same sentence.

  • “You will kill him with your kindness.” (Your kind deeds are doing more harm than good.)
  • She is only happy when she has something to worry about. (A happy worrier.)


Irony implies the opposite of what is said. The intention is for the opposite to be understood. It is the tone that tempers or conveys this meaning.

  • “I can’t wait for my detention on Friday afternoon.”
  • Walking into the empty cinema, the woman exclaimed, “Fortunately, we booked!”

Irony can be categorized in two ways. Situational Irony and Dramatic Irony. Situational Irony is where the opposite of what is expected occurs. Dramatic Irony is when the audience has knowledge of something of which the actors are unaware. This technique heightens tension and expectation.

  • A detective who is employed to catch a thief, might himself be arrested for dishonesty [Situational Irony]
  • In the play/film The Little Shop of Horrors, the audience is aware that the plant craves human blood while the characters, however, are blissfully unaware of this [Dramatic Irony]


Sarcasm, like irony, occurs when one thing is said, but something else is intended or understood. However, sarcasm is used with the express purpose of hurting, insulting or humiliating.

  • “You must have worked very hard to be bottom of the class!”
  • “Are you always the heart and soul of the party?”
man and woman drinking milkshake
Figures of Speech – English 101


Satire is sharp wit, irony or sarcasm used to highlight, expose or ridicule human, social or political weaknesses or stupidities. The satirists’ aims to change the situation, educate and entertain through humour. This ploy allows one to express oneself in a way that would normally be construed as libellous or derogatory. Satire is used in plays, cartoons and comic strips. Caricatures in cartoons are often the vehicles for satire.

  • Pieter Dirk Uys, in his ‘persona’ of Evita Bezuidenhout, perfected satire as a tool against the then South African Government and its Apartheid policies.
  • Jonathan Swift satirised the times in which he lived in his novel, Gulliver’s Travels.
  • In Animal Farm, George Orwell satirises the communistic way of life.
  • Mad Magazine satirises American pop culture.


This is the imitation and/or exaggeration of other text types, e.g. poems, in order to satirise or create humour. Parody is often used in cartoons or comedies. It is assumed that the reader is familiar with the original work.

  • This is ‘THE HOUSE’ that man built,
  • And this is the Flag of the Woman’s Franchise,
  • Which is making our Ministers open their eyes:
  • Fighting with grit to the front bit by bit;
  • Determined in Parliament one day to sit,
  • The bold Suffragette who is sure to get yet
  • Into ‘THE HOUSE’ that man built.
  • (Taken from the Good Weekend Magazine, Sydney Morning Herald, March 8, 2003)


This is similar to parody in that parts of an original text are used in a different context for a different audience. e.g. fairy tales and myths are borrowed and reconstructed.

  • Road Dahl makes use of this in his book, Revolting Rhymes.


An epigram is a brief and pointed statement that often contains humour or irony. There is usually a deeper underlying meaning.

  • “Friendship is what one expects from others.’
  • ‘If you think education is expensive, try illiteracy!’
  • ‘Employ a teenager while he/she still knows everything!’

Conclusion – Figures of Speech – English 101

After a thorough study of this article, you will be well equipped to start using the many exciting figures of speech we have described, to spice up your writing and verbal skills!

brown wooden blocks on white table
Figures of Speech – English 101

We have looked into three of the main classifications of figures of speech, namely Comparisons, Sound Devices, and Contradictions.

All three of these categories contain their own types of figures of speech. Why not attempt to isolate the use of the different types of figures of speech in your favourite TV show or book?

The next article will go over the last few types of figures of speech we haven’t mentioned here, including Puns, Hyperbole, Rhetorical Questions and Innuendos.

This website is designed for those who are excelling at English as well as the student that may struggle to grasp some basic concepts. Forgot some Collective nouns? Poetry Turning out to be a problem to interpret? Looking for tough concepts to be easily explained? Look no further!

Our development team hope you enjoy the content provided. Please leave us a comment below should you have any queries or concerns. This content is designed to assist the end-user with the Department of education syllabus.

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