A figure of speech or rhetorical figure is a word or phrase that intentionally deviates from ordinary language use to produce a rhetorical effect.[1] Figures of speech are traditionally classified into schemes, which vary the ordinary sequence of words, and tropes, where words carry a meaning other than what they ordinarily signify.

An example of a scheme is a polysyndeton: the repetition of a conjunction before every element in a list, whereas the conjunction typically would appear only before the last element, as in "Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!"—emphasizing the danger and number of animals more than the prosaic wording with only the second "and". An example of a trope is the metaphor, describing one thing as something it clearly is not, as a way to illustrate by comparison, as in "All the world's a stage."

Four rhetorical operations

Main article: Rhetorical operations

Classical rhetoricians classified figures of speech into four categories or quadripita ratio:[2]

These categories are often still used. The earliest known text listing them, though not explicitly as a system, is the Rhetorica ad Herennium, of unknown authorship, where they are called πλεονασμός (pleonasmos—addition), ἔνδεια (endeia—omission), μετάθεσις (metathesis—transposition) and ἐναλλαγή (enallage—permutation).[3] Quintillian then mentioned them in Institutio Oratoria.[4] Philo of Alexandria also listed them as addition (πρόσθεσις—prosthesis), subtraction (ἀφαίρεσις—afairesis), transposition (μετάθεσις—metathesis), and transmutation (ἀλλοίωσις—alloiosis).[5]


The cartoon is a pun on the word Jamaica, whose pronunciation [dʒəˈmeɪkə] is a homonym to the clipped form of "Did you make her?"

Figures of speech come in many varieties.[6] The aim is to use the language inventively to accentuate the effect of what is being said. A few examples follow:

To say "it was like having some butterflies in my stomach" is a simile, because it uses the word like, which a metaphor does not.
To say "It was like having a butterfly farm in my stomach", "It felt like a butterfly farm in my stomach", or "I was so nervous that I had a butterfly farm in my stomach" could be a hyperbole, because it is exaggerated.


Whitehall is a road in the City of Westminster, London used synecdochically to refer to the entire UK civil service, as many government departments are nearby.

Scholars of classical Western rhetoric have divided figures of speech into two main categories: schemes and tropes. Schemes (from the Greek schēma, 'form or shape') are figures of speech that change the ordinary or expected pattern of words. For example, the phrase, "John, my best friend" uses the scheme known as apposition. Tropes (from Greek trepein, 'to turn') change the general meaning of words. An example of a trope is irony, which is the use of words to convey the opposite of their usual meaning ("For Brutus is an honorable man; / So are they all, all honorable men").

During the Renaissance, scholars meticulously enumerated and classified figures of speech. Henry Peacham, for example, in his The Garden of Eloquence (1577), enumerated 184 different figures of speech. Professor Robert DiYanni, in his book Literature: Reading Fiction, Poetry, Drama and the Essay[7] wrote: "Rhetoricians have catalogued more than 250 different figures of speech, expressions or ways of using words in a nonliteral sense."

For simplicity, this article divides the figures between schemes and tropes, but does not further sub-classify them (e.g., "Figures of Disorder"). Within each category, words are listed alphabetically. Most entries link to a page that provides greater detail and relevant examples, but a short definition is placed here for convenience. Some of those listed may be considered rhetorical devices, which are similar in many ways.


Schemes are words or phrases whose syntax, sequence, or pattern occurs in a manner that varies from an ordinary usage.


Tropes are words or phrases whose contextual meaning differs from the manner or sense in which they are ordinarily used.

See also



  1. ^ Mar, Emanuel del (1842). "A Grammar of the English Language .. In a series of familiar lectures, etc". Archived from the original on 2016-05-08. Retrieved 2015-12-02.
  2. ^ Jansen, Jeroen (2008) Imitatio Archived 2015-07-14 at the Wayback Machine ISBN 978-90-8704-027-7 Summary Archived 2008-12-05 at the Wayback Machine translated to English by Kristine Steenbergh. Quote from the summary:

    Using these formulas, a pupil could render the same subject or theme in a myriad of ways. For the mature author, this principle offered a set of tools to rework source texts into a new creation. In short, the quadripartita ratio offered the student or author a ready-made framework, whether for changing words or the transformation of entire texts. Since it concerned relatively mechanical procedures of adaptation that for the most part could be learned, the techniques concerned could be taught at school at a relatively early age, for example in the improvement of pupils' own writing.

  3. ^ Book IV, 21.29, pp.303–5
  4. ^ Institutio Oratoria, Vol. I, Book I, Chapter 5, paragraphs 6 and 38–41. And also in Book VI Chapter 3
  5. ^ Rhetorica ad Herennium
  6. ^ "The Forest of Rhetoric". Silva Rhetoricae. Brigham Young.
  7. ^ Robert DiYanni, Literature: Reading Fiction, Poetry, Drama and the Essay, Second Edition, McGraw-Hill, ISBN 0-07-557112-9, p. 451
  8. ^ Bernard Marie Dupriez (1991). A Dictionary of Literary Devices: Gradius, A-Z. University of Toronto Press. p. 213. ISBN 978-0-8020-6803-3. Archived from the original on 7 January 2014. Retrieved 31 May 2013.Dupriez, Bernard Marie (1991). A Dictionary of Literary Devices: Gradus, A-Z. University of Toronto Press. p. 213. ISBN 978-0-8020-6803-3. Archived from the original on 2014-01-07.
  9. ^ Kevin Wilson; Jennifer Wauson (2010). The AMA Handbook of Business Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Style, Grammar, Usage, Punctuation, Construction, and Formatting. AMACOM Div American Mgmt Assn. p. 224. ISBN 978-0-8144-1589-4. Archived from the original on 2013-12-05.
  10. ^ a b Stephen Cushman; Clare Cavanagh; Jahan Ramazani; Paul Rouzer (26 August 2012). The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics: Fourth Edition. Princeton University Press. p. 647. ISBN 978-1-4008-4142-4. Archived from the original on 3 November 2013.
  11. ^ Shipley, Joseph T. (1943). "Trope". Dictionary of World Literature: Criticism, Forms, Technique. Philosophical Library. p. 595. Archived from the original on 2016-03-10.
  12. ^ Kennedy et al, 2006 p. 4-5
  13. ^ Quinn, 1999. p. 12
  14. ^ Baldick,2008. p. 7
  15. ^ Corbett and Connors, 1999. p.62
  16. ^ Corbett and Connors, 1999. p. 64-65
  17. ^ Corbett and Connors. 1999. p.69-70
  18. ^ Corbett and Connors, 1999. p.60