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Devices of Style - Part III: Tropes

“Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtle; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend.”
—Francis Bacon

Devices of style make our writing come alive! Figures of speech, also called devices of style, are “a form of speech, artfully varied from common usage.” 1 Students who make a conscious effort to use figures of speech will find their speech or writing improves dramatically.

There are two essential kinds: schemes and tropes. In Part I of this series I gave an overview and introduced them both. In Part II I explored schemes, laying a lavish feast of examples. Schemes are “the artful deviation from the ordinary arrangement of words” while tropes are “the artful deviation from the ordinary or principal signification of a word.”1 If a scheme is a transference of word order, a trope is a transference of meaning.1 I will focus on three kinds of tropes:

  • words which reference one thing as another,
  • word play and puns,
  • overstatement and understatement.

Words which reference one thing as another

  • Metaphor - An implied comparison between two things of unlike nature1 :

“We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let all the beautiful stuff out.” –Ray Bradbury

Parables are extended metaphors, and Christ spoke many. In the Parable of the Sower we understand that the seed is the Word, the soils are the hearts of men, the crow is the devil, and so on.

  • Simile - An explicit comparison between two things of unlike nature that have something in common1:

“We contend that for a nation to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift himself up by the handle.” –Winston Churchill

“Her hair was like gravy, running brown off her head and clumping up on her shoulders.” 2

  • Personification - Inanimate objects invested with human qualities or abilities:

“Here he often loved to wander, through the forest of stiff strong stalks that carried their own golden sky away over his head—a sky that was always dancing, shimmering, softly talking; or swaying strongly to the passing wind and recovering itself with a toss and a merry laugh.” –Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

  • Synecdoche (si-nek’-duh-kee) - A figure of speech in which a part stands for the whole.1 This can be a species standing in for a genus, or a genus for a species:

“I have betrayed innocent blood.” –Matt. 27:3

“Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?” –Marlowe

“A hungry stomach has no ears.” –La Fontaine

“The Atoms of Democritus
And Newton’s Particles of light
Are but sands upon the Red sea shore
Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.” –William Blake

Word Play and Puns
We do not always find it appropriate in high school essays to employ the wit of wordplay, but this is exactly what can make for lively dinner conversation. Many teens play with words, a creative gift that should be encouraged.

  • Antanaclasis - Repetition of a word in two different senses1:

“If we don’t hang together, we’ll hang separately.” —Ben Franklin

“Your argument is sound, nothing but sound.” —Ben Franklin

“It is easy to make a buck. It’s a lot tougher to make a difference.” –Tom Brokaw

  • Paronomasia - Use of words alike in sound but different in meaning1:

“Neither hide nor hair of him had been seen since the day that Kwame Nkrumah had been ostrichized, accused of being the biggest cheetah in Ghana, but safaris anyone knew, no fowl play was involved.” –Article in Time Magazine April 8, 19661

“Casting my perils before swains.” –Marshal McLuhan

  • Zeugma - One part of speech (most often a main verb) governing two more parts of a sentence, often in a series2:

“Alexander conquered the world; I, Minneapolis.”3

The quotation at the top of the article is a zeugma, and being expanded reads, “Histories make men wise; poets make men witty; the mathematics make men subtle; natural philosophy makes men deep; moral [philosophy] makes men grave, and logic and rhetoric make men able to contend.”

Overstatement and understatement

  • Litotes - Deliberate use of understatement, not to deceive someone, but to enhance the impressiveness of what we say1:

“To write is, indeed, no unpleasing employment.” –Samuel Johnson

  • Hyperbole - Exaggerated terms used for the purpose of emphasis or heightened effect1:

“My left leg weighs three tons. It is embalmed in spices like a mummy. I can’t move. I haven’t moved for five thousand years, I’m of the time of Pharaoh.” –Thomas Bailey Aldrich, “Marjorie Daw”

There are many more tropes. Should I tell you about aporia, where the speaker expresses doubt about how to proceed? I will not mention preterition, for I would certainly not draw attention to something while pretending to pass it over.

Figures of speech are like gestures. Everyone uses hands and facial expressions when telling a story or arguing a point. But by becoming aware of what can be conveyed through the artistic arch of a brow or the lift of a hand, the storyteller becomes an artist. Think about it: we already use some devices of style instinctively. As we become conscious of schemes and tropes, discover them in literature, and deliberately practice them, we will create them more often.

And as we do we just might have a little fun.


1 Corbett, Edward P. J., and Robert J. Connors. Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1999. Print.

2Burton, Gideon. Silva Rhetoricae. Brigham Young University. Web. 20 Mar. 2015.

3 "Zeugma." 1 Jan. 2015. Web. 20 Mar. 2015.

Quinn, Arthur. Figures of Speech. Salt Lake City: Gibbs M. Smith Inc. 1982. Print.

Painting by Leonid Pasternak. The Passion of Creation. Public Domain. Retrieved from Wikipedia. “Writer”. Web. 21 March 2015.



CATEGORIES: Articles, Classical Christian Education, Dialectic Stage (ages 12 to 14), Rhetoric Stage (ages 14 to 18)

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