Figures of Speech, Part 1


(My favorite line from Little Shop of Horrors)

“Figurative language” gets its name from the Latin word figura, meaning form, shape, or ornament. Figures of speech are the “special effects ” of language–they make ordinary words do extraordinary feats. Some of these are based on comparisons, such as

It’s raining cats and dogs!


Simile – a comparison using the word “like” or “as”

His smile flattened like a squashed toad.

Janet collapsed in the armchair, limp as a wilted daisy.


Metaphor – a comparison that doesn’t use the words “like” or “as”

A blazing sun plowed slowly across the sky.

“I am the light of the world.” (John 8:12)


Personification – giving human characteristics to animals or inanimate objects

The fax machine hunkered in a corner, its one light glaring at me.

The cat glanced up with a bored expression, obviously thinking, What do you want?


These are all based on comparison, but other figures of speech include alliteration, antonomasia, dysphemism, euphemism, hyperbole, meiosis, and my favorite, onomatopoeia. We won’t go there.


Nothing makes a reader sit up and take notice like an apt figure of speech, but they’re easy to misuse. Some common errors are


Clichés,  such as “dead as a doornail” or “flat as a pancake”


Mixed metaphors, where two comparisons are working at the same time–and not cooperating. Often the metaphors mixed are clichés, compounding the error.

Dressed in a sparkling coat of Christmas lights, our home beams like a lighthouse.
They have tons of charisma, coming out of their ears.


Comparisons that are too specific, too detailed, or just don’t work:

A 1973 Buick-sized orange moon fills the evening sky.

Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two fright trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.

She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like the sound a dog makes just before it throws up.


Comparisons thought up in the brain of a writer who discovers a knack for them and keeps stuffing paragraphs with so many striking images the reader loses track of what’s being said.


Hands on his hips, Cletus surveyed the valley with the assurance of a conqueror while the grass beneath his feet whispered excitedly like a schoolroom full of giggling girls. Far below, the sparkling river meandered, chuckling to itself, and smoke puffed from the chimneys of placid village cottages like the breath of a cluster of pipes.


If you have any doubts about using a particular figure of speech–don’t. But for practice, try completing these similes. A cliché will no doubt spring to mind, but resist it. Try to find fresh comparisons for each.

Flat as_________________
Howled like _____________
Warm as _______________
Crept like _______________
Cool as ________________
Sang like ________________
Soft as _________________
Stared like _______________


Next month, we’ll look a little more closely at metaphor.