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Last week, I wrote about half of the “Top 20 Figures of Speech.”

As I was re-reading the list for this week, I realized two things. First, knowing the terms isn’t important. Just recognizing places to use them makes your words more persuasive. Think about when you pen your letter to Santa.

Second, these devices lose their muscle if you use cliches with them. Cliches are called cliches for a reason: They’re used so often that they have no effect. I’ll show you what I mean.


A metaphor uses a word or phrase to compare things that you wouldn’t think of as similar. But once you see the comparison, you get it. The term comes from Latin and Greek roots for “transfer.”

Suppose you book a hotel online and, when you arrive, it’s a little dirtier or more worn down than in the photos you admired on the website. Your spouse says, “This place is a dump.” That would be a metaphor, because of course the place isn’t truly a dump. But your spouse’s displeasure is clear.

William Shakespeare describes the night sky as “the blanket of the dark.”

Here’s a metaphor that’s a cliche, too: It’s time for you to step up to the plate.


Metonymy uses a word or phrase in place of another one associated with it.

You might tell friends on the East Coast that you’re planning to visit “The Windy City.” They’ll know you mean Chicago. (Though I maintain that people from a city rarely use the metonymic name for their own city.)

The chef may call a menu entree “a dish.” That doesn’t mean you eat the dishes — unless you’re visiting Willy Wonka.

The overused expression “the pen is mightier than the sword,” has two metonymies. The pen represents writing; the sword represents military force.


Onomatopoeia is a complex word for a simple concept. It’s when words sound like the sounds they describe. “Buzz” was the word that humans have decided describes the sound bees make. “Clang” is the sound metal makes when it hits something.

I just learned that the word “cliche” is an example of onomatopoeia. It’s from a French word that imitates the sound a plate on a printing press makes.


An oxymoron uses two contradicting terms next to each other. I’ve written about oxymorons a couple of times before.

Some are simple:

Open secret

Seriously funny

Awfully pretty

Silent scream

These two are from Richard Lederer, who has written many books on words:

Mandatory option

Good grief


A paradox is a statement that seems to contradict itself. Unparadoxically, it comes from the Greek word for “contrary to expectations.”

If a person says, “I always lie,” it can’t be true.

One of many quotes attributed to New York Yankee catcher/manager/coach Yogi Berra is a paradox. When asked about a certain restaurant, he said: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”


Personification is giving human qualities to an object or concept.

Writer Tom Robbins loves personification. Here’s one from him:

“Pink is what red looks like when it kicks off its shoes and lets its hair down.”

“Opportunity knocks” is a cliched personification. So is “time flies.”


A pun is a device in which the speaker takes advantage of the different senses of words.

Here’s a groaner, because I can’t help myself:

Two people with Ph.Ds.: a paradox.

Get it? Pair o’ docs! Ouch.


A simile is just like a metaphor except the comparison uses “like” or “as.”

The simile world is overrun with cliches.

Cool as a cucumber

Happy as a clam

Pale as a ghost

Find better ways to describe things.

A good one from Lord Jim author Joseph Conrad is:

I would have given anything for the power to soothe her frail soul, tormenting itself in its invincible ignorance like a small bird beating about the cruel wires of a cage.

And here’s one from a somewhat critical Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:

She entered with ungainly struggle like some huge awkward chicken, torn, squawking, out of its coop.


A synecdoche is a phrase that uses a part to represent the whole.

“Boots” in the phrase “boots on the ground” means soldiers.

“Suits” is a synecdoche for businesspeople.


An understatement is a statement that downplays the real situation. Understatements can be fun or horrifying.

Let’s say your 2-year-old has a teary, noisy, whiny temper tantrum in the middle of the supermarket. A helpful store worker may say, “He seems a bit upset.”

After serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested, he said to his dad, “I really messed up this time.”

Sources: Merriam-Webster,,, Flash Fiction, Midland Independent School District,, Gotham Writers Workshop,, CNN

Style on 10/22/2018

Print Headline: 10 ways to tweak language


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