Art reference

The art of writing and speaking The English language: Chapter II – Figures of speech

The Art of Writing and Speaking The Study of Words in English, by Sherwin Cody is part of HackerNoon’s blog post series.

Sherwin Cody

American writer and entrepreneur who developed a lengthy home-study course in speaking and writing

The Art of Writing and Speaking The Study of Words in English, by Sherwin Cody is part of HackerNoon’s blog post series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here.


It is not easy to pass from the logical precision of the grammar to the vague suggestiveness of the words which evoke whole troops of ideas not contained in the simple idea which a word represents. The specific idioms are themselves at odds with grammar and logic, and grammarians constantly fight them; but when we enter the vague domain of poetic style, the logical spirit is immediately lost. And yet it is more important to use meaningful words than to be strictly grammatical. We must reduce grammar to an instinct that will prevent us from being contradictory or crude in our sentence construction, and then we will make that instinct harmonize with all the other instincts that a successful writer must have. When grammar is treated (as we have tried to treat it) as a “logical instinct”, then there can be no conflict with other instincts.

The suggestiveness of words finds its specific embodiment in the so-called “figures of speech”. You have to examine them a bit, because when you arrive at an expression like “The kettle is boiling” after a few lessons in tracing logical connections, you risk saying without hesitation that you have found an error, an absurdity. At first glance, it is absurd to say “The kettle is boiling” when we mean “The water in the kettle is boiling”. But reflection will show us that we have only condensed our remarks a little. Many idioms are curious condensations, and many figures of speech can be explained as natural and easy condensations. We have already seen such a condensation in “more complete” for “more almost complete”.

The following definitions and illustrations are provided for information only. We don’t need to know the names of any of these figures to use them, and it’s quite likely that learning to name and analyze them will make us to some extent too embarrassed to use them. At the same time, they will help us explain things that might otherwise confuse us in our study.

1. Comparison. The simplest figure of speech is comparison. It is no more and no less than a direct comparison through the use of words such as like and like.

Examples: Unstable like water, you will not excel. How many times would I have gathered my children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings! The Kingdom of God is like a grain of mustard, is like leaven hidden in three measures of flour. Their lives flow like rivers that water the forest. Mercy falls like gentle rain from heaven upon the place below.

2. Metaphor. A metaphor is an implicit or supposed comparison. The words like and like are no longer used, but the construction of the sentence is such that the comparison is taken for granted and the thing to which the comparison is made is treated as if it were the thing itself.

Examples: The valiant taste of death but once. Block the ears of my house. His strong spirit reeled from the blow. The suppressed passions of a century exploded in the French Revolution. It was written in white heat. He can barely keep the wolf away from the door. Strike the iron while it is hot. Murray’s eloquence never burst into sudden flashes, but its clear, placid, gentle splendor was never clouded.

Metaphor is the most common figure of speech. Our language is a sort of graveyard of faded metaphors. Look in the dictionary for the etymology of words such as obvious, ruminating, insurmountable, delicate, pondering, etc., and you will see that they have obtained their present meaning through metaphors which have now faded so much that we do not know them. recognize more.

Sometimes we get into trouble by introducing two similes in the same sentence or paragraph, one of which contradicts the other. So should we say “Lead us through the desert of life”, we would introduce two figures of speech, that of a piloted ship and that of a caravan in a guided desert, which would contradict each other. This is called a “mixed metaphor”.

3. Hint. Sometimes a metaphor consists of a reference or allusion to a well-known passage of literature or a historical fact. Examples: Daily, with souls cringing and scheming, we Sinais climb and don’t know it. (Reference to Moses on Mount Sinai). He received the lion’s share of the profits. (Reference to the lion’s share fable). Don’t be betrayed by a kiss. (Reference to the betrayal of Christ by Judas).

4. Personification. Sometimes the metaphor is to talk about inanimate things or animals as if they were human. This is called the figure of personification. It elevates the inferior to the dignity of the superior, and thus gives him more importance.

Examples: the Earth felt the wound. Then Anger rushed forward, his eyes burning. The moping owl complains to the moon. True Hope is fast and flies with swallow wings. Vice is such a hideous-looking monster that to be hated only needs to be seen. Speckled Vanity will soon fall ill and die.

(Note in the penultimate example that the purely impersonal is elevated, not to the human level, but to that of gross creation. Still, the figure is called personification).

5. Apostrophe. When addressing inanimate or absent things, whether living or dead, as if they were alive and present, we have a figure of speech called an apostrophe. This figure of speech gives animation to the style. Examples: O Rome, Rome, you have been a tender nurse to me. Huff, huff and crack your cheeks. Take her, o spouse, old and gray!

6. Antithesis. Previous figures were based on likeness. Antithesis is a figure of speech in which opposites are opposed or one thing is opposed to another. Contrast is almost as powerful as comparison in making our ideas clear and vivid.

Examples: (Macaulay, more than any other writer, usually uses antitheses). Saul, searching for his father’s donkeys, found himself transformed into a king. Adapt the same intellect to a man and it’s a bowstring; to a woman and it is a harp string. I thought this man had been a lord among spirits, but I find that he is only a spirit among lords. Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven. For fools rush where angels fear to tread.

7. Metonymy. Besides the figures of resemblance and dissimilarity, there are others of quite another kind. Metonymy consists of substituting for the thing itself something closely associated with it, such as the sign or symbol of the thing symbolized, the cause of the effect, the instrument of its user, the container of the thing contained , the material of the thing made of it, etc.

Examples: He is a slave to the cut. Knock for your altars and your fires. The kettle is boiling. He stood up and addressed the chair. The palace must not despise the cottage. The watched pot never boils. The Redcoats turned and fled. Iron flows and lead rains down on the enemy. The pen is mightier than the sword.

8. Synecdoche. There is a special form of metonymy which is given the dignity of a separate name. It is the substitution of the part for the whole or the whole for the part. The value of it lies in bringing forth the most well-known thing, the thing which will most powerfully appeal to thought and feeling.

Examples: Come and trip him as you go, on the light fantasy tip. American trade is carried out in British funds. He bought a hundred head of cattle. It is a village of five hundred chimneys. He shouted, “A sail, a sail! Busy fingers ring.


Indicate the figure of speech used in each of the following sentences:

1. Come, seeing the Night, scar the tender eye of the pitiful day.

2. The coat doesn’t make the man.

3. From two hundred observatories in Europe and America, the glorious artillery of science assails the heavens every night.

4. The lamp burns out.

5. Blow, blow, winter wind, you are not so wicked as man’s ingratitude.

6. His reasons are like two grains of wheat hidden in two bushels of straw.

7. Laughter and tears are meant to turn the cogs of the machinery of sensitivity; one is wind power, the other is water power.

8. When you are an anvil, stand still; when you are a hammer, strike as you please.

9. Save the ermine from pollution.

10. There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, caught in the flood, leads to fortune; omitted, the whole journey of their life is bound up with shallows and miseries.

Turn each of the sentences above into plain language. Caption: (Numbers in parentheses indicate figure of speech in numbered sentences above). 1. (4); 2. (7); 3. (2); 4. (7); 5.(5); 6. (1); 7. (2 and 6); 8. (2 and 6); 9.(7); 10. (2).

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Cody, Sherwin, 2007. The Art of Writing and Speaking The Study of Words in English. Urbana, IL: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved April 2022 from

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by Sherwin Cody @Sherwincody.American writer and entrepreneur who developed a lengthy home-study course in speaking and writing

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