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What are Figures of Speech?


Techniques > Use of language > Figures of speech > What are Figures of Speech?

History | Language rules | Breaking rules | Devices and figures | See also


What are Figures of Speech? Here's some history and detail.


The Greeks, especially the Athenians, turned the use of figures of speech into a science, naming many of them. The Romans then took up the baton and continued the game. It is perhaps a mark of civilization where the language itself becomes a method of art.

After a long gap, theologians took up the baton in interpretation of the Bible, including:

  • Solomon Glassius (1625). Philologia Sacra
  • Benjamin Keach (1682). Troposchemalogia: or, a Key to open the Scripture Metaphors and Types
  • E. W. Bullinger (1899). Figures of Speech used in the Bible.

The term 'figure' comes from the Latin 'figura' which comes from 'fingere', meaning 'to form'. Figures are hence about shaping of the language, just as we talk about the figure of a body or the a figure as a diagram.

Language rules

Language is a system of communicating meaning, with precise rules about how words should be used, including those of spelling, grammar and of syntax. Words must appear and be used together in the right way (much to the confusion of many students).

Most of the time, we follow these rules, but what about when we want to grab attention? What about when we want others to think more about some things, and maybe not think about others? This is where figures come in.

Breaking rules

Figuration of language in shaping it, is done through breaking the rules of grammar, syntax and so on.

But what happens when we break rules, any rules? The first thing is that it grabs attention. We seek and monitor patterns in the world around us to reassure us that all is well. When a pattern is fractured, when rules are broken, we suddenly fear that all is not well and so we have to look closely to check for threats (and maybe opportunities).

Figures of speech are hence attentional devices, simple rule-breaking mechanisms that cause people to think differently. In poetry, it makes us ponder the meaning of words and invokes deeper feelings. In changing minds, it is a big toolbox for subtle persuasion.

A curious paradox is that figures themselves have rules. As the Greeks and Romans defined them, they tamed them and provided a rule-set for the linguistic elite. They extended the language and made it much richer. And of course they produced a toolbox you can use in changing minds.

Devices and figures

What is the difference between a device and a figure? Not a lot, really, although a device can be considered as being a more general, broader term. 'Device' is a word used to describe some method of achieving something. In speech and language this can include all forms of figures.

The term 'figure' is a bit more contentious as some prefer to keep it only for named Greek and Roman devices. Others are looser with the term, using it for all kinds of linguistic device or method.

See also

Figures of speech (full list), Attention principle, Distraction principle


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