Figures of speech refer to the connotative use of language. When a writer departs from (or moves beyond) the literal meanings (or denotations) of words for the sake of emphasis or vividness, we say that he is employing figures of speech. In other words, a figure of speech is a literary expression which either says one thing and means another or simply means something deeper than what it says.



These figures can be subdivided into six broad headings:

  1. Figures of Similarity.
  2. Figures of Dissimilarity.
  3. Figures of Association or Connection.
  4. Figures Based on Imagination.
  5. Figures Based on Indirectness.
  6. Figures of Sound.



These figures establish similarity between objects.

a) Simile

A simile is an expressed comparison between two things that are essentially unlike. It compares one thing with another by means of such words as: like, as, and than. By these words, it likens the emotional and physical or imaginative attributes of the second thing to the first thing being compared. See the following examples:

  • Ngozi slept like a log of wood.
  • Ezenwa is as clever as a dove.
  • My grandmother’s breasts are flatter than Moses’ slippers.


b) Metaphor

A metaphor is an implied comparison between two dissimilar things. It says that one thing is another which it is literally not. It tends to invest the first thing with the emotional or imaginative qualities associated with the second. Link verbs are often used in metaphor. At times, adjectives are used. Consider the following examples:

  • Emma is a lion.
  • The camel is the desert ship.
  • All experience is an arch.
  • He has a pot belly and a stone heart.


c) Allegory

An allegory is a sustained metaphor in which objects, persons and actions in a story are equated with meanings that lie outside the story itself. It may also be defined as a story, a play, a poem, a novel, or a picture that has two levels of meaning – a surface level (with historical, fictitious or fabulous characters) and an implied level (with religious, moral, racial, political, sexual, personal, or satirical overtones).

In an allegory, abstract ideas are represented by concrete images/qualities (e.g. honesty, faith, beauty, love are personified) and the reader is expected to see the resemblance between the narrative facts and the ideas that are implied. Fables, parables, apologue, exemplums, and beast epics are kinds of allegories. Such works as Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Orwell’s Animal Farm, Igiligi’s War Without End, and Onwueme’s The Desert Encroaches are allegorical.


d) Parable

This is a story or anecdote designed to teach a lesson. The parable was Christ’s greatest method of teaching: and the Bible is replete with parables that teach morals. “The prodigal son,” “The Good Samaritan.” “the Fig Tree” are some of the parables that have lessons to be learned from them.


e) Fable

Closely connected with parables are fables. This also is a short fictitious story that teaches morals. The characters in the story are usually animals.

Chaucer’s “the Nun’s Priest Tale”, George Orwell’s Animal Farm are good examples. In traditional Igbo society, fables with animal characters like the tortoise, the elephant, the tiger, etc. are favourite pastimes at the end of the day’s labour.



These are figures that contrast two things so that the differences are made clearer. These include –

a) Paradox

This is an ostensibly self-contradictory, illogical or absurd statement that makes sense on deep reflection. Examples:

  • More haste, less speed.
  • Children are the poor man’s wealth.
  • The child is father of the man.
  • Dangerous safety.
  • More haste, less speed.
  • The first shall be the last.
  • Whoever tries to save his life shall lose it.
  • The magician says “the more you look, the less you see”.


b) Epigram

A short pointed saying that expresses an idea in a clever, witty but apparent contradictory way. It frequently introduces antithetical ideas. It is more or less a proverb; for example:

  • “I have nothing to declare but my genius. I am Oscar Wilde.” (Oscar Wilde at the International Airport). Man proposes but God disposes.
  • The proper study of man is man. (A. Pope)
  • Brevity is the soul of wit. (Shakespeare: Hamlet).
  • “Education is knowing more and more about less, and less.”


c) Oxymoron

This is a figure of speech in which effect is produced by the juxtaposition of two contradictory terms.


  • Faith unfaithful kept him falsely true.
  • tears of joy; the living dead.
  • eloquent silence; sweet nothing.
  • cheerful pessimist.
  • “sweet sadness of Congo music” — Ayi Kwei

Armah’s The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born.


d) Antithesis

This is a figure of speech that establishes contrast of idea by means of parallel arrangement of words, clauses or sentences. It is a balancing of ideas that are contrasted or antithetical, usually in the same sentence.

  • To work is to pray.
  • Man proposes but God disposes.
  • Pity would be no more.

If we did not make someone poor. (William Blake).


e) Climax

This is an arrangement of ideas gradually from the lowest to the highest; that is, in an ascending order of magnitude


  • “I came, I saw, I conquered.”
  • David Diop’s “Africa” presents to us a good example:

Africa my Africa …

I never know you

But my gaze is full of your blood

Your beautiful black blood split in the fields

The blood of your sweat

The sweat of your toil

The toil of your slavery

The slavery of your children.


e) Anti-climax or Bathos

This is the exact opposite of “climax”. It is an arrangement of ideas in a descending order from the highest down to the lowest. In other words, there is a fall in action or in importance; for example:

He is a literay giant, a great soldier, and a drunk.

Abioseh Nicol’s “African Easter,” presents in a funny way, a good example.

I am a churchman, now

Broad-minded, which means past caring whether high or low.

The priest may hold the chalice,

or give it to me. It depends

On where he trained. I only mind

That he wipes the wet rim

Not to spread dental germs

A tenth of my goods

I give to the poor

Through income tax.


If the protagonist were actually broadminded, he should not have minded the wetness of the rim of the chalice; and again he is not charitable as he would want us to believe. In fact he merely pays his tax. Our admiration when he says “a tenth of my goods I give to the poor” is dampened by the conclusion “through income tax.”



These are figures of speech suggesting association of ideas or making connection between different things and ideas.

a) Allusion

Allusion is a brief reference to a famous historical or literary figure or event. One popular Biblical allusion in English literature is in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice: “A Daniel come to judgement”. An allusion is a space-saving method of conveying much meaning with few words by referring the reader, to a well-known person, place, thing, legend, story or song which evokes the desired constellation of meanings.

  • The Nigerian Press branded General Babangida “Maradonna” and the 2nd Republic Governor of Imo State, Chief Sam Mbakwe, “Oliver Twist.”
  • The Nigerian Press once coined the expression “If you Tarka me, I Daboh you” – – an allusion to the celebrated controversy between the Late Chief J. S. Tarka of Benue State and Mr Godwin Daboh who swore to an affidavit accusing Chief Tarka of series of wrong doings.


b) Metonymy

Metonymy is naming a thing by that which it is associated with; that is, naming by objects of contact or recognition or association. Consider the following:

  • The kettle is boiling. (kettle is mentioned in place of water in it).
  • The crown is dead. (crown is named in place of the king that wears it).
  • The pen is mightier than the sword. (pen for writer; sword for soldier)
  • I read Achebe in the University. (Achebe for Achebe’s book).


c) Synecdoche

This is naming or presenting a whole thing with only a part of the thing, or representing a part of it with the whole. Some examples are:

  • We need more hands to clear the field. (people).
  • Give us this day our daily bread. (food generally or means of livelihood).
  • Ngozi wore silk yesterday. (silken dress).

It is, however, pertinent to note that synecdoche can also occur when the abstract is put for the concrete (He suffered for mankind), the concrete for the abstract (The man in him rebelled), the material for the thing (sonorous metal: trumpet), and an individual for a class (Daniel come to judgement: every wise judge).


d) Hypallange or Transferred Epithet

This is a figure of speech in enIT which the qualifying adjective or epithet is transferred from a person to an object. Examples:

  • I had a sleepless night. (It was not the night that was sleepless but I, the individual).
  • A man comes back from work and complains to the wife that it was a “busy day” for him at the office. (Busy has been transferred to “day”).
  • Grey’s “plowman homeward plods his ‘weary way’ (Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard). Stripped of this figure of speech, the sentence would read: “The weary plowman plodded along’
  • Last year 1993 was a “difficult year” for most families. (It was not the year that was difficult but the economic and political situations in the country).



a) Personification

This is an extended simile or metaphor which assigns human traits, attributes, behaviour, form, character, or sensibility to an animal, an inanimate object, an idea, or an abstraction. In the following examples, the personified things are treated as if they were endowed with human personality (traits), intelligence, and emotions:

  • Flowers sang and danced about the lawn.
  • The sun smiles broadly but the moon, gently.
  • Hunger and Misery stared us in the face during the war.

Notice that personification is usually expressed in the third person and that personified objects are started with capital letters like proper nouns where they are not preceded by articles.


b) Apostrophe

An apostrophe is a direct address to animals, birds, dead or absent persons/things, objects, gods, or abstract entities (which are incapable of responding) as if they could respond. Thus, when we speak to the dead or to any objects (animate or inanimate), spirits, idols, icons, or supernatural images as if they were capable of listening and replying to us, we are said to be employing “apostrophe”. Essentially, the thing talked to or addressed cannot respond and the addresser obviously expects no verbal feedback from the addressee. See the following examples:

  • Valiant ancestors, where were you when those infidels invaded us?
  • Death, why are you proud?
  • Who is like unto Thee, O Lord?

Notice that apostrophes are expressed in the second person.


c) Hyperbole

This is a deliberate exaggeration for emphasis or effect.

See the examples below:

  • I was so hungry I could swallow the food and the cooking pot.
  • I love you so much that I can wait for a million years to marry you.
  • Your problems are a mass of sand.


Note: The opposite of hyperbole is understatement, and not litotes.


d) Pathetic Fallacy

This is a figure of speech in which nature rocks, sea, weather – are described as if they were living; for example:

  • It might rain because the “clouds are pregnant.”
  • The “angry waves” tossed the boat about.
  • The “morning became cheerless” after Babangida had cancelled the June 12 election.



a) Irony

This is a figure of speech in which the speaker says exactly the opposite of what he means; such words are not meant to be taken literally. Irony should not be confused with sarcasm.


  • In his funeral oration, Mark Anthony repeatedly refers to “Brutus as an honourable man” –  when actually he means that that Brutus is very dis-honourable.
  • In “A Modest Proposal,” Jonathan Swift suggests that the wealthy Englishmen should buy and eat up Irish infants to avoid the infants and their improverished parents, and mothers in particular starving to death. In actual fact, Swift means that the English have ruined the economy of the Irish and should take-over Irish responsibilities.


An irony is a visible contrast between appearance and reality. It may be verbal, situational, or dramatic. Hence, we have three major types of irony.

  • Verbal Irony (also known as Irony of Statement) is an oral or written expression which means the opposite of what it says.
  • Situational Irony (otherwise known as Irony of Situation) occurs when there is a discrepancy between expectation and reality; that is, when the real situation differs from most people’s expectation. But it becomes Attitudinal Irony when an individual thinks that the situation is what, in reality, it is not.
  • Dramatic Irony occurs in plays when characters think, say or do what they believe to be true, which in fact, the audience knows is false. The audience certainly knows what the characters do not know about themselves. An example of dramatic irony is seen in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex in which Oedipus searches and boasts to kill the reprobate who killed king Laius without knowing that he himself is the unwitting murderer of Laius.


b) Sarcasm – is undisguised irony usually expressed with contempt, bitterness or ridicule, for example:

  • Mr Mid is the breadwinner of the family but his wife wears the trousers. (meaning that it is his wife that takes decisions for the family).
  • In Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Unoka is addressed or referred to an “agbala” (a woman).


c) Innuendo/Insinuation

An indirect remark suggesting something unpleasant without actually being very specific.


  • I know he is not a thief, but each time he is around something gets lost.
  • In fact, only a moron could have acted the way he did.
  • Only mad people drive at night without light.


d) Euphemism

This is a figure of speech in which direct and blunt statements are deliberately avoided. They are called “lexical swap” as the same meaning is expressed in several words. It IS a way of “sugaring” bitter pills.

This is a manner of presentation in which a serious or an unpleasant event/statement is presented in mild or pleasant terms.

  • His friend passed away – meaning that his friend died.
  • In Nigeria stewards and cooks are now called “house keepers”.
  • One no longer asks about latrines, lavatories and toilets but “conveniences.”


e) Litotes

This is an ironical understatement which expresses the affirmative by using the negative for the contrary:

  • I am not a fool. (i.e. I am wise).
  • I am not ungrateful, (i.e. I am grateful).
  • I am a citizen of no mean country. (i.e. I am a citizen of a very important country).


f) Satire

This is a figure of speech that attacks humans, political and social institutions by means of exaggerated and often bitter humour, contempt, indignation or scorn. The overall intention is always to achieve a transformation for good.

  • Henry Balow’s poem – “Building the Nation” satirizes the Nigerian Permanent Secretary.
  • Soyinka’s “Telephone Conversation” ridicules a British landlady unwilling to accommodate a black tenant.



a) Pun

A humorous play on words that sound alike but have different meanings.


In Julius Caesar, the Cobbler, in replying to a question, says that he is “a mender of bad soles.”


b) Onamatopoeia or “Echoism”

-This is the use of words whose sounds appear to resemble the sounds they denote; for example:

“hiss”, “Buzz” “rattle” “Cuckoo”, “murmur”, “jingle”, “Bang”, “Crash” etc.

Richard Ntiru’s Pauper is seen “Squashing” lice between his nails.


c) Alliteration

Alliteration is the repetition of initial identical consonant sounds in a successive or closely associated words in one or more lines of poetry.


  • Fair is foul and foul is fair. (Shakespeare)
  • The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew. The furrow followed free. (Coleridge)


d) Assonance

This is the resemblance or similarity (not exact correspondence) in sound between vowels in two or more closely associated accented syllables in verses of prose/poetry.


  • “Turn and burn” (perfect internal rhymes, not assonance)
  • “Bake and late” (assonance)


e) Consonance

This is the repetition or harmony of middle/terminal identical consonant sounds in a successive or closely associated words in the last stressed syllables of the verses of words considered.

“bend – fend”, “handkerchief – unbelief”. “singular – regular”.