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If you expect to be a serious writer, you will know the tools of the craft as familiarly as a carpenter knows his hammer and saw, a pianist her scales. That means, among other things, mastering the common figures of speech, or tropes.

The tropes of traditional rhetoric, like other tools, they can be wielded to disastrous effect in inexperienced hands. Here are some brief descriptions and advice on the most common tropes: alliteration, antithesis, assonance, chiasmus, climax, hyperbole, irony, metaphor, metonymy, onomatopoeia, parallelism, periphrasis, personification, puns, rhetorical questions, simile and synecdoche. For further information, Edward P.J. Corbett’s Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Reader is thorough and informed.

Alliteration: A figure of speech in which initial or medial consonants are repeated in successive words. Used sparingly, it can touch up prose. But it is so obvious and mannered that it easily becomes laughable, as in Spiro Agnew's "nattering nabobs of negativism." Be judicious.

Anthithesis: A figure of speech that opposes contrasting ideas, typically in parallel structure, as in Neil Armstrong's words on setting foot on the moon, July 20, 1969: "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind," It can be overdone; please do not imitate Charles Dickens' "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. ...

Assonance: A figure of speech in which vowel sounds are repeated in successive words: "pie in the sky by and by." It can be less obvious and intrusive than alliteration, but it should still be employed sparingly.

Chiasmus: A rhetorical structure, a variant of parallelism, in which two pairs of words "criss-cross," the order of the pair reversed in the second instance. The pattern is x, y / y, x. A familiar example is John F. Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country": country, you; you, country. The term comes from the Greek letter chi, our x.

Climax: A figure of speech in which terms, phrases or clauses are arranged in increasing order of importance, as in the Declaration of Independence's ringing "we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor." An attempt at climax that collapses ludicrously is called bathos, a kind of unintentional anticlimax in which the intention to achieve a high effect falls flat: "Osama bin Laden is wanted for conspiracy, murder, terrorism, and unpaid parking tickets." The term was coined by Alexander Pope in "Peri Bathos; Or the Art of Sinking in Poetry" in 1727.

Hyperbole: A figure of speech that operates by exaggeration for effect. Use sparingly. Hype, the most common modern form of hyperbole, is extravagant or excessive promotion of a subject, and is to be avoided.

Irony: A word or expression used to suggest the opposite of its meaning. This figure of speech can be tricky. Ironically is often misused in references to things that are merely coincidental. A thing is ironic only when some contrary or contradictory element is present. Example: "Pro football teams share television revenue under the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961, a form of collusion often credited with the National Football League's financial success. Ironically, it's an exception that baseball could employ but doesn't." No irony there.

Metaphor: A figure of speech that implies common qualities in two things that are unlike: "The ship plows the sea." Successful metaphors tend to be both brief and apt., drawing attention to the subject rather than to the writer. Unsuccessful ones are inapt, mixed or extended beyond usefulness. Inapt metaphors are like those that drew Samuel Johnson's censure of the Metaphysical poets: "The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together." An example: "Like well-fed thighs stuffed into too-tight pants, the road needs room to spread." Mixed metaphors distract by their inconsistency: "The pools are the third rail of Columbia politics. No one on the Columbia Council seems eager to rock the boat. ..." Swimming pools are a subway and a boat — two contradictory images, neither particularly appropriate. Extending metaphors tends to make them forced or strained: "On misty days the sky and water marry on Prince William Sound, a ceremony overseen by the bridesmaids of jeweled mountains." Such metaphors tend to push toward allegorical levels, inviting additional correspondences. Who's the father of the bride here? What clergyman is officiating?

Metonymy: See synecdoche.

Onomatopoeia: A figure of speech in which sounds are represented phonetically. Many common words are onomatopoeic, such as buzz. But extended efforts to represent sounds tend to become ludicrous: "Its songs are the sounds of whirring dragonfly wings and grasses rustling in the hot spring wind: 'Tchi-tchi-tchi, jyuuuu jyuuuuu jyuuuuuu, jyuuuuuuu.'" This is a trope to avoid.

Parallelism: A figure of speech in which words, phrases or clauses are arranged in similar structure. Keep grammatical structures parallel: The commission traveled through the state, holding public hearings, observing school activities, and taking testimony from parents, teachers and administrators: holding, observing, taking. Parallelism sorts things out in an orderly manner for the reader; violating parallelism suggests disorder and confused thinking. But do not make things parallel if they are of unequal weight or significance.

Periphrasis: A figure of speech in which a descriptive word or phrase is substitute for a proper name, or a proper name is substituted for some other thing: the Sultan of Swat for Babe Ruth, Jim Crow for legally enforced segregation. These circumlocutions can easily grow tiresome.

Personification: A figure of speech in which human qualities are attributed to inanimate things or abstractions. Many conventional personifications — Mother Nature, Old Man Winter, Jack Frost — are so hackneyed as to be useless.

Puns: Plays on words come in three forms: antanaclasis, when a word is repeated in a different sense; paranomasia, which uses words that sound alike but are different in meaning; and syllepsis, or zeugma, in which a single word is yoked to two different senses. Antanaclasis is represented by Benjamin Franklin's "If we do not hang together, we will hang separately," paranomasia by the inevitable headline about cats that uses purr-fect, syllepsis or zeugma by Alexander Pope's "Here thou, great Anna! whom three realms obey / Dost sometimes counsel take — and sometimes tea" — take to mean both consider and drink. When original, plays on words enliven writing. When obvious, they grate. Shun wordplay that requires tricky spellings, which is clumsy. Do not pun on people's names, which is childish. If a play on words seems at all familiar, it should be avoided.

Rhetorical questions: A trope much esteemed in classical orations, the rhetorical question — which asks a question for which no answer is required, so as to assert or dent something obliquely — tends to look stilted. Recollect the tedious and pretentious discourse of the unctuous Mr. Chadband in Dickens’ Bleak House: “My friends,” says Mr. Chadband, “peace be on this house! On the master thereof, on the mistress thereof, on the young maidens, and on the young men! My friends, why do I wish for peace? What is peace? Is it war? No. Is it strife? No. Is it lovely, gentle, and beautiful, and pleasant, and serene, and joyful? Oh, yes! Therefore, my friends, I wish for peace, upon you and upon yours.” If you find that you must frame rhetorical questions, pray refrain from answering them.

Simile: This figure of speech, a form of metaphor, compares two things by saying explicitly that they are alike: "My love's like a red, red rose." It is hard to get in trouble with these brief comparisons unless they are incongruous.

Synecdoche: See metonymy.

All right, all right, I toyed with you on metonymy and synecdoche, but the two figures of speech are so similar that the experts do not always agree on the differentiation.

Metonymy is the substitution of an attribute of a thing for the thing itself. The brass, for military officers, is a metonymy.

Synecdoche is the substitution of a part for the whole. Bread meaning food in general — our daily bread — and hands for the crew of a ship are examples of synecdoche.

Whether the crown for the British monarchy is a metonymy or synecdoche is something you can pass the coming cold winter nights by arguing over.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:07 AM | | Comments (3)


Thanks for yet another lesson, John.
And thanks for the reminder in your previous post of John Scholz's great moment.

Thanks, John -- you have upped my crossword puzzle scores by several hundred points today! :-)

Some good examples of chiasmus can be found in the film "Mystery Men," in which enigmatic superhero sage The Sphinx gives his students such instructions as:

"Hide your strikes from your opponent, and you more easily strike his hide,"


"When you can balance a tack hammer on your head, you will head off your foes with a balanced attack."

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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