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Hyperbole, Metonymy, and Synecdoche: A Brief Guide to Figures of Speech, Written by an English Instructor

Updated on February 9, 2018

As noted in the earlier hub from this short series, figurative language-- otherwise known as figures of speech-- describes a variety of techniques used by authors to give words meaning beyond their usual, literal definitions. Some common examples of figures of speech taught in high school and college English classes are simile, metaphor, and personification. More advanced classes might begin to discuss other figures, notably hyperbole, metonymy, and synecdoche. In this article, I'll give you an explanation of these last three figures, followed by annotated examples of each term in action.

This image ironically uses hyperbole to express how incredible hyperbole is.
This image ironically uses hyperbole to express how incredible hyperbole is. | Source

Hyperbole

Hyperbole can most easily be described as exaggeration and is commonly used to emphasize important points. For example, if you just finished carting a backpack full of books up the stairs, you might say "That bag weighed a ton!" Although you're probably not actually trying to convince anyone that you literally carried 2,000 pounds of books up the steps, saying that your burden weighed "a ton" emphasizes heaviness and difficulty better than if you had said, "That bag weighed forty pounds!"

Examples:

1) "Your mother is so fat, when she sits around the house, she sits AROUND the house." - Common joke

"Yo mama" jokes commonly use hyperbole to comic effect, emphasizing to a ridiculous degree how fat, old, ugly, stupid, or promiscuous the listener's mother supposedly is. It's pretty obvious that the listener's mother is unlikely to literally fill multiple chairs, rooms, etc. when she sits, but saying so takes the insult to a higher level and is more imaginative and therefore, amusing, than simply saying, "Your mother is fat."

2) "It's a slow burg-- I spent a couple of weeks there one day." - Carl Sandburg, "The People, Yes"

In this example, the speaker emphasizes the boredom he felt in a small town by saying that "I spent a couple of weeks there one day [emphasis mine]," something that is impossible to actually do. The statement is a creative way of showing how slowly time seemed to pass for the speaker, and like the first example, helps to create amusement.

Metonymy

Metonymy is a slightly more difficult term to explain. It is a figure of speech in which a thing is referred to not by its own name, but by the name of something closely related to it. This idea can best be clarified through a couple of examples.

Examples:

1) "The White House is responsible for the current economic crisis" - Possible political opinion (Disclaimer: I'm not really trying to make a political statement here; this is just an example.)

In this statement, the speaker is most likely blaming "the current economic crisis" on the President and possibly his staff, not the iconic building in which they are housed. Here, "the White House" becomes shorthand for the executive branch of government. This is different from a metaphor, because the White House and the President are actually quite clearly connected. If the speaker had instead said "Those rats in the White House are responsible for the economic crisis," then "those rats" would be considered a metaphor, since actual "rats" and White House staff are not really connected in any way.

2) "I got rear-ended by a pick-up truck." - Common expression

When the speaker says that "I got rear-ended," she most likely means that her car got rear-ended. Here, the driver who was inside the car at the time, and therefore closely related to it, substitutes "I" for "my car," a clear example of metonymy.

Synecdoche

Synecdoche (pronounced "SIN-ECK-DOH-KEE") is another less commonly taught figure of speech. It is a device used to describe a whole object by naming only one of its parts.

Examples:

1) "That's a nice set of wheels!" - Common expression

This is one of the simplest commons examples there is. The speaker of course means to compliment someone on a car, not just a "set of wheels." However, the whole car is referred to by one of its parts, the wheels.

2) "Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears." - Shakespeare's Julius Caesar

In this famous literary example, Marc Antony begins his funeral oration for Caesar by asking his fellow Romans to listen to him. He does not literally mean that they should they should remove their ears so that he can borrow them; instead, he uses "ears," part of the listening process, to represent what he really wants: their attention.

The video below shows a speech by Robin Hood in Mel Brooks's 1993 movie Men in Tights, which spoofs Antony's oration by showing exactly what he didn't mean when he said, "Lend me your ears." Apparently, Robin's audience does not understand synecdoche.

3) "Aragorn: You have my sword.
Legolas: And you have my bow.
Gimli: And my axe." - Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, directed by Peter Jackson

These lines quoted from the scene in which the hero Frodo's companions offer their protection and assistance in his upcoming quest are also a great example of synecdoche. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli are not saying, "Take our weapons, and have fun on your dangerous journey; we'll just stay here and play Scrabble." Instead, they are offering to go along with Frodo. Therefore, the sword, the bow, and the axe are used to represent the presence and protection of the men who will be carrying them.

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    • profile image

      Justin a student 6th 

      14 months ago

      This rally helped me on my test

    • pbsandwichofdoom profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathryn Lamoreux 

      6 years ago

      Thanks for reading, everyone! I'm glad you found this interesting; I hope it shows that I've been doing something right when teaching these to my classes.

    • jellygator profile image

      jellygator 

      6 years ago from USA

      Studied these in college. I still think "Synecdoche" would make a pretty name for a little girl, even if it is a bear to spell it!

    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      6 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      This hub is really very interesting and useful. I have used all of these figures of speech before, but never realized that they were known as hyperbole, metonymy, and synecdoche. You did a very good job in using illustrative examples. Voted up and sharing.

    • pagesvoice profile image

      Dennis L. Page 

      6 years ago from New York/Pennsylvania border

      Voted up, useful and interesting. Your title was an attention getter for me. I asked myself "What the heck is this article about?" Much to my surprise, you took something which doesn't stir much enthusiasm and turned it into an interesting Hub. When I was younger I found that learning about grammar, sentence structure, nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, etc., was extremely intimidating. Now that I'm older I don't worry about those things as much and simply try to write easy to understand pieces that don't require a dictionary for the average reader. I enjoyed your article.

    • Nettlemere profile image

      Nettlemere 

      6 years ago from Burnley, Lancashire, UK

      That was really interesting - I didn't know that Metonymy and Synecdoche existed as named concepts and it could easily have been confusing, but your explanations and examples are very clear and easy to understand. Pinned

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