Figures of speech in two minutes

slipslapslopRoger Horberry explains how to bring your writing to life.


Don’t confine yourself to literal descriptions. Instead, bring your writing to life by creating word pictures, the more vivid the better. Key figures here are metaphor, simile, metonymy and synecdoche. Not only is verbal imagery highly expressive, it’s also highly memorable. If a reader can associate a mental image with a particular point then the chances are it’ll stay with them for far longer.

To emphasise a point, try massively over-emphasising it using the familiar figure of hyperbole. Your audience will know you’re not describing the literal properties of your subject, but they’ll be equally clear that you are alluding to something truly exceptional. It’s a curious process by which you can convince readers of a truth by deliberately overstating it.

Onomatopoeia is a great technique to generating memorable slogans (‘slip, slop, slap’ for an Australian campaign on the importance of using sunscreen) and product names (‘Kerplunk’ for, well, Kerplunk).

Try flipping elements of common idioms to coin catchy phrases or straplines. The result is a figure called a chiasmus. Try using opposites or contradictions to draw attention to, or affirm, your point.

Parallelism is a gift to business writers. If you’ve got several related things to say, try finding a nice, regular structure in which to say them. The rule of two (isocolon) and the rule of three (tricolon) are both readymade structures ripe for exploitation, and specific examples of parallelism in action. In all these cases try to keep your clauses around the same length and structured in the same way (otherwise they won’t be parallel).

Puns can make great headlines/straplines/whatevers but only if they help make the message more persuasive or memorable. If you’re sure a pun is the way to go, the basic technique is find your key word, locate another that sounds alike, and swap.

Try ‘folding back’ part of a phrase by repeating a single word but with a different meaning to create something memorable (the old ‘The business of America is business’ shtick). The folding back figure is known as antanaclasis.

Alliteration is an effortless way to make the commonplace catchy, and create high-recall phrases out of the most unpromising source material. It works equally well for highlighting headings or when submerged within sentences.

Repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning (or end) of successive phrases, clauses or lines is a technique much exploited by dramatists and speechwriters to increase the intensity of a passage. The main figure here is anadiplosis.

Think about the sound of your words. Assonance, dissonance, euphony and resonance can direct attention to a particular word or phrase, establish a rhythm in your writing, and influence the entire mood of a piece.

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