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Simile, Metaphor, and Personification: A Brief Guide to Figures of Speech, Written by an English Instructor
Figurative language, or figures of speech, are rhetorical devices used by writers and speakers to give words meaning beyond their usual, literal definition. There are many different kinds of figures of speech, including simile, metaphor, personification, hyperbole, metonymy, and synecdoche. Here, I'll just cover a few of the basics likely to come up in an introductory level high school or college English class, with annotated examples provided for each type.
This is one figure of speech that you may be familiar with from earlier English classes. A simile is a comparison between two unlike things, usually using the words "like" or "as." The presence of these two words tends to make similes easy to identify on a test.
A few examples:
1) "Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get." - Forrest Gump
This simile uses the word "like" to compare "life" and "a box of chocolates," two things that we would normally think of as unrelated. The comparison helps to highlight the surprises life often brings our way. Just as we bite into a candy from a variety box of chocolates unsure if the center will be peanut butter or raspberry, we get out of bed each morning unsure what will happen over the course of the day.
2) "A parson is like a doctor, my boy: he must face infection as a soldier must face bullets." - Candida by George Bernard Shaw
Here, we actually have two similes. The first simile uses the word "like" to compare the work of a churchman to the work of a doctor. The second simile uses "as" to explain the nature of the connection between the two: both parsons and doctors must confront sickness in their daily work, just as a soldier must confront danger. Notice again that "parson" and "doctor" originally seem like dissimilar professions until the explanation that follows.
3) "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Thou are more lovely and more temperate." - Shakespeare, "Sonnet 18"
Finally, this is an example of a sneaky simile that does not use "like" or "as." However, note the telltale keyword "compare" in the opening question. Also note the seeming dissimilarity between the objects being compared: "thee" (a person, presumably the speaker's lover) and "a summer's day." The explanation that follows explains that the speaker's lover is both more beautiful and more agreeable than "a summer's day."
Metaphor is a figure of speech frequently taught alongside simile to help illustrate the differences between the two. Unlike a simile, a metaphor states that an object or idea is in some way the same as another, seemingly unrelated thing. For example, where a speaker using a simile to insult someone might say, "He's like a rat," a speaker using a metaphor would say something like, "He's a real rat!" Of course, the person being insulted is not literally a rat; instead, the speaker is using a metaphor to draw a connection between his victim and a rather unsavory animal.
1) "That test was a total breeze." - Common expression
This simple statement is a great example of a metaphor. The speaker does not actually mean that the test was a light current of wind. Instead, she says that the test was "a breeze" to indicate that the test and a light wind are the same, since both are easy, gentle, and present no difficulty.
2) "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are gray." - Popular song
The lyrics to this popular song are another very simple example of the direct connection a metaphor makes between two things. Rather than saying her beloved is "like" sunshine, the speaker says that her beloved is sunshine.
Personification, also known as "anthropomorphism," is the attribution of human qualities to non-human things. These can be objects, events, ideas, or even living, non-human things.
A few examples:
1) "The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces." - "Araby" by James Joyce
In this example, Joyce brings his scene to life by describing houses as "conscious" of the families living within them and possessing "faces" with which they "gaze." Of course, none of this is meant to be taken literally; the houses are not truly alive. Instead, the description provides a sense of the atmosphere in the neighborhood-- one of respectability and perhaps even privacy, in which even the houses seem to respect the "decent lives" they conceal and stand "imperturbable" in the knowledge of that decency.
2) "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, / Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; / Conspiring with him how to load and bless / With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run" - "To Autumn" by John Keats
This example is interesting because in it, Keats directly addresses the season of autumn as if it were a person. He also refers to it as a "friend" to the sun, capable of "conspiring" to provide fruit to the season's vines. In this way, Keats ascribes human qualities to an abstract idea, the time of year.
Next Up: Hyperbole, Metonymy, and Synecdoche
Now that you've mastered three basic figures of speech, you're ready to move on to a few subtler, less commonly discussed terms. Check out my hub on Hyperbole, Metonymy, and Synecdoche for more information on figures of speech!