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Figures of Speech in the English Language


Figures of Speech in the English Language The aim of good writing is to express our thoughts clearly, forcefully, and elegantly so that we can engage readers' interests. Language is literal or figurative. It is literal when words have their primary or fundamental meanings. This fundamental meaning usually appeals to the physical senses. You can see a glowing ember; feel a hard stone; taste sweet cider. Literal words express ideas comprehended through the senses.

Many words acquire additional meanings by long use. Writers can make vague ideas vivid by applying literal terms to them. Thus, you bring the idea of eloquence into the range of sight and touch when you say glowing eloquence.

It is purely imaginative to speak of music in terms of taste, but when the mind has grasped the new turn of thoughts or figure, the feeling of reality gives surprise and pleasure. We create a figure of speech when we turn a word from its ordinary or literal meaning and acquires an additional meaning by the turn of thought.

Whenever we use a literal word that is not plain, concise and succinct, we call it "figurative." Figures of speech are variations from the literal or ordinary forms of expression. They can add visual effectiveness to your writing because they add vividness, vigor, and beauty.

To use figures of speech skillfully, you need a dynamic imagination, acute perception, and good judgment. You must see similarities and differences in life. The act of making comparisons is fundamentally psychological. The active mind must compare. The law of association of ideas must affirm itself; it will see resemblances or differences, but principally resemblances. The more active your mind is the more resemblances it will see and the better comparisons it will make.

Since the tendency to compare things is a natural trait of the mind, it is not surprising that we base popular figures of speech on comparisons or obvious observations. The less formal the comparison the more figurative the usage becomes.

In general, figurative language helps us express our thoughts more clearly and forcefully—and at the same time, renders them attractive to our readers or listeners. Although figures of speech are the "decorative ornaments of writing," we must curb their use unless we feel we can use them naturally and appropriately to improve the effectiveness of what we have to say.

The figures based on comparisons are oxymoron, simile, metaphor, allegory, personification, apostrophe, allusion, metonymy, and synecdoche. Other rhetorical devices, such as interrogation, alliteration, hyperbole, and antithesis, are sometimes classed as figures of speech.

The following figures of speech (with their corresponding literal equivalents) will illustrate their uses as a means of effective expression. We will only cover the ones which we still use in today's language. Click on a link below to learn about a specific figure of speech.

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