The ESL Student's Guide to the Types of Figures of Speech

“My professor will kill me if do not submit my essay about the mass shootings in America soon.” You hear this from your classmate and you are probably surprise. His professor is a murderer? Not really; your classmate just said a hyperbole, a figure of speech.

Along with idioms, figures of speech are one of the ways that you can learn to enrich your conversational English. In fact, learning the types of figures is something you should definitely do to make the most out of our list of ESL tips to master conversational English. If you know how to use a figure of speech, not only will you have an extensive grasp of communicating in English—you will come one step closer to mastering English as a whole, a goal which many ESL students desire to accomplish in any predominantly English society.

To help the ESL student with learning about the figures of speech, we put together the ESL Student’s Guide to the Types of Figures of Speech. This will cover the essentials of figures of speech, the types of figures of speech and examples of each, and a brief explanation on when to use figures of speech.

What are figures of speech?

Figures of speech are rhetorical devices where words or phrases have a different meaning from how they are directly understood. As stated earlier, these are learned and used to enrich conversational English. You may be led to think that these are similar to idioms. The main difference between the two is that whereas idioms can be rooted in culture or real-life phenomenon, figures of speech are more rhetorical; they are rooted in a figurative and creative control of the structure of language to achieve a meaning that is different from the original definition.

Furthermore, idioms have a certain set of words that each convey distinct meanings. On the other hand, figures of speech are technical by being both formulaic and dynamic—formulaic in that figures of speech follow a certain “formula” or structure to achieve the effect of a type of figure of speech, and dynamic in that any set of words can be used to take the form of a figure of speech, so long as it follows the said formula.

What are figures of speech?

If you like to learn more about idioms, here is a short guide on idioms for English language learners.

With that said, figures of speech hold their own niche, or special category, in the English language. Given how commonly figures of speech are used not only in conversational English but also English literature, it is a must that the ESL student should learn, at the very least, the types of figures of speech and how each of them is used.

Types and examples of figures of speech

A challenge for the ESL student is to determine whether a figure of speech is being used. Such difficulty can be found when reading English literature where figures of speech are employed, though this is especially the case in conversational English where someone may use a figure of speech as if it is naturally part of a sentence.

When facing such a situation, you can simply ask what they mean about something they said. The best way, however, is to know the types of figures of speech. As previously mentioned, figures of speech are formulaic; unlike idioms which can be memorized and clearly identified, some may find it difficult to determine a figure of speech as it could many forms.

Hence, learning the types of figures of speech is your best solution. We gathered various types of figures of speech, each with some examples to give you an idea of how it may be used.

Simile

Simile is one of the types of figures of speech that is used to make a comparison between two things, with the goal of saying that object A is similar to object B through a particular aspect. The best indicator of simile is the use of the words like or as, either to emphasize or clarify the comparison. Sometimes, simile is used to enhance a verb or adjective, similar to an adverb—take note that simile is not actually an adverb.

“Bonnie is like a rabbit whenever she walks.”

“Ronda Rousey proves that 'to fight like a girl’ can be a compliment.”

“After two all-nighters of working on his essay about the American dream, Trevor became lazy as a sloth.”

“His time in the boxing gym made him tough as nails.”

Metaphor

Metaphor is similar to simile as one of the comparative figures of speech types. The main difference is that metaphor does not use like or as as an indicator. Instead, what usually connects the two objects in a comparison is a verb, though sometimes metaphors can be quite subtle as shown in the examples below. This is often employed to emphasize a very strong similarity that the two compared objects are nearly identical.

    “Don is the lion of the office who leads his colleagues in working towards a common goal.”

    “Rebecca accused Sharon of being a snake for tricking her boss into firing her best friend, Pam.”

    “When I got on my bed, I became a stone that could not be moved.”

Personification

Personification is one of the types of figures of speech where a non-human object is stated to have qualities or do something that is similar to a human being. The term itself comes from the verb “personify.” Personification is usually done in poems or richly figurative texts, though it is also sometimes used in conversational English.

    “The staunch oak tree never bowed down to the unrelenting storm.”

    “In the evening, stars cover the night sky and stare at the people on earth.”

    “Fallen leaves dance with the flow of the wind during Autumn season.”

Hyperbole

Hyperbole is probably one of the favorite types of figures of speech for some people. Exaggeration is the main element of hyperbole. It is used to express the level or magnitude of something, particularly a feeling or event. Hyperbole is one of the more highly fluid figures of speech types; it can take the form of nouns, verbs, or adjectives. The best way to detect hyperbole is if a statement seems highly unlikely or exaggerated.

    “I have not eaten anything for half the day. I could eat a horse right now.”

    “Ben said his dad will kill him if he shows his failing grade to him.”

    “The employees in the company were tearing each other apart to get the higher open position.”

Oxymoron

Oxymoron is one of the more creative types of figures of speech. It is done by using two opposite or contradictory words together to make a single term. Oxymoron can be used creatively by emphasizing a certain point beyond the direct meaning of the term. You can detect this easily whenever two contradictory words seem to be used together as a single term.

    “If two people truly love each other, they will see each other’s flaws as perfect imperfections.”

    “My professor discussed about false truths in his lecture about misinformation and ignorance in the United States.”

    “No one dared disturb the sound of silence.” (from the song “The Sound of Silence” by the music duo Simon and Garfunkel)

Onomatopoeia

Onomatopoeia involves the employment of words whose pronunciation resembles the sound it describes in real life. The most common examples of onomatopoeia are from animals, though some onomatopoeia also come from objects. Onomatopoeia is best used in poems and conversational English.

    “Wilbur oinked in joy when he realizes that he will live.”

    “My pet cat Timone always purrs whenever he sees me.”

    “The pitter-patter of the rain slowly softened over the night.”

Irony

Irony is one of the types of figures of speech that are very dynamic. Irony occurs when something is said that is opposite to what is going on. It also takes place when ideas that are conveyed by a certain statement are contradicted by the actual situation. This often happens as a way of producing further impact or to achieve a certain effect, such as humor or emotional turmoil. This is especially the case in poems.

    “The professional swimmer drowned in the sea.”

    “They could not understand what they were saying to each other despite the clear cellular signal.”

    “His prescribed medicine caused him to get sick.”

For a more in-depth discussion, click here to get better at understanding irony.

Euphemism

Euphemism is notable among the figures of speech types, as it is frequently used in conversational English. It involves using other less direct terms to convey a particular idea without the—often—emotional impact. Idioms are used to best effect with euphemisms. Keep in mind, however, that not all idioms are figures of speech.

    “Many students passed away in the Columbine High School incident, one of the deadliest mass shootings in America.” (“Passed away” means died.)

    “Some mentally challenged people conducted a seminar that focused on reminding people about the importance of mental health.” (“Mentally challenged” refers to those who have mental illnesses.)

    “The manager let Van go because of his poor performance.” (To “let someone go” in terms of employment means to fire someone.)

Understatement

Understatement is one of the types of figures of speech that, similar to euphemisms, achieve an impact that is lower than expected but is usually unintended. It occurs whenever a said statement attempts to describe a situation but fails to reach its actual level or intensity. Some people may commit understatements without meaning it, usually whenever they do not know the actual magnitude of the situation. 

    “I do not understand why people love John Wick. It is just about a guy shooting people.”

    “The job of lawyers is to lie and win.”

    “Playing football is easy if you have fast legs.”

Synecdoche

Synecdoche is a type of figure of speech where a part of an object is used to represent the whole object in a sentence. If the whole object is used to represent one of its parts, it is also considered a synecdoche. Synecdoche is a very popular rhetorical device that is used in conversational English, especially when it comes to team sports.

    “We need more hands to work on this project..” (“Hands” refers to people.)

    “Chad told me that I have nice wheels.” (“Wheels” refers to a car.)

    “Every new addition to the homeless shelter means another mouth to feed.” (“Mouth” refers to person.)

Metonymy

Metonymy involves referring to something or someone by one of its characteristics or parts. Similar to synecdoche, it is a popular device that is used in conversational English as a way of being able to refer to something with more names.

    “The lab coats are currently working on some big experiment.” (“Lab coats” refers to scientists.)

    “Many literature majors are expected to read Montaigne.” (“Montaigne”  refers to the essays of the real-life Michel de Montaine)

    “There are more Apples sold than Samsungs this month.” (“Apples” and “Samsungs” each refer to the devices by the electronic gadget brands, Apple and Samsung.)

Alliteration

Alliteration is one of the types of figures of speech that touches upon repetition. In alliteration, multiple words that all start with the same consonant are put together in a sentence. Certainly, alliteration is not something that is usually done within conversational English. This is usually found in poems and other creative writing pieces.

    “What wolves wear wool?”

    “Carmel cuts corners calmly.”

    “Dogs do dine during dinnertime.”

Assonance

Similar to alliteration, assonance involves repetition—in this case, it occurs when multiple words that all start with the same vowel are in the same sentence. It also cannot be found in usual conversational English and instead being used mostly in writing poems.

    “Accountants are apparently austere.”

    “Inside is Illinois’ ill individuals.”

    “Uther unearthed unimaginable, unfathomable unicorns..”

Anaphora

Anaphora is another one of the types of figures of speech that uses repetition—this time, the repetition of words or expressions. This takes place at the beginning of multiple clauses or sentences. The purpose of anaphora is to emphasize the repeated word of expression. It is often used in poems and songs

    “Good government leads to good people. Good people leads to a good society. Good society leads to good citizens in the future.”

    “The right of free speech is a right that everyone deserves. The right of free speech must be excluded from no one. The right of speech is for all peoples, regardless of color, religion, or birth.”

    “Water in the ocean, water in the river, water in the pool, water in our bodies—water is everywhere.”

Chiasmus

Chiasmus occurs when a group of words is repeated but in an order that is reversed, either in the same form or a modified version. Chiasmus is very versatile; so long as the form is followed, it can be used quite well for emphasis. It can be used in either prose, poetry, or even in conversational English.

    “To truly forgive and forget, you have to forget and forgive.”

    “Don’t waste your time, or time will waste you.” (From the song “Knights of Cydonia” by Muse)

    “ ‘Live to love’ and ‘love to live’ are the simple keys to the life we‘ve been given.” (From the song “Love” by re:plus, featuring Sam Ock)

When to use figures of speech

Figures of speech are rhetorical devices. They are used to vastly enrich not only conversational English but also in English literature, particularly some prose but mostly poems. In such cases, using and utilizing various types of figures of speech is done to great extent to present ideas and symbols in a more colorful and exciting manner. For the ESL student, knowing how to use figures of speech is definitely worth the effort. 

It is important to remember, however, that figures of speech must not be used too much, especially in conversational English. These are meant to enrich the use of English, not become how you use English. The consequence of using figures of speech too much is that your ideas will not be clearly understood by others. In this case, it is just as bad, or perhaps even worse. as not knowing how to use figures of speech at all—and not being understood is something any ESL student is trying to avoid. It would be best, therefore, to use figures of speech sparingly. 

When it comes to academic writing, figures of speech are extremely rarely used—if not at all. This is because the academic writer is expected to be clear with the ideas and arguments being presented. Such a goal cannot be achieved with figures of speech, as using these can lead to confusion. Thus, it is best to avoid figures of speech as much as possible when writing a research paper.

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