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The Meaning and Usage of Personification

Updated on June 9, 2015
JohnMello profile image

JohnMello is a writer, composer, musician and the author of books for children and adults.

Time "ageing" a canvas
Time "ageing" a canvas | Source

Personification's Roots

Personification is believed to be related to the word anthropomorphism, which is a combination of the Greek words "anthropos" (human) and "morphe" (shape or form). In truth, however, anthropomorphism is not the same as personification.

The term "personification" came into usage around 1700 and is often used as an umbrella term to denote the attribution of human characteristics to something non-human. Anthropomorphism is a term that originally meant giving human characteristics to the gods, of which there were many in ancient times.

Can the wind really howl at your door? Does death come and get you? Is love truly blind? Does time creep up on you?

Obviously, the answer to all the above questions is NO. The wind can't howl, death cannot come and get you, love is neither blind nor sighted, and time is incapable of creeping in any capacity.

Personification is a device we use to attribute human characteristics to things which are not human. It's a figure of speech that adds color to language and is used to enrich the texts of poetry and prose the world over.

For the purposes of this article, the term "personification" is used as a general term to describe the act of "personifying" anything non-human, whether that's an abstract idea, an animal, or a force of nature.

On some buildings, windows give the impression of "eyes"
On some buildings, windows give the impression of "eyes" | Source

Personification in Poetry

Here's a great example of how the poet Longfellow uses personification to convey a dark and ominous mood:

  • And the meeting-house windows, blank and bare,
    Gaze at him with a spectral glare
    As if they already stood aghast
    At the bloody work they would look upon.

- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Paul Revere's Ride

This is a creepy representation of what one might imagine when looking at dark, curtainless windows at a certain time of day. Depending on their construction, windows in some houses are almost like the building's eyes - and nothing is scarier than eyes that appear black, empty and dead, but nevertheless fixed on you.

Compare Longfellow's use of personification to that of William Wordsworth in one of his most famous poems, I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud:

  • Ten thousand saw I at a glance (daffodils)
    Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

    The waves beside them danced, but they
    Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:

Daffodils tossing their heads and dancing more joyfully than the nearby waves: nature provides ample opportunities for personification in the hands of a skilled craftsman. Not forgetting, of course, the loneliness of the cloud mentioned in the poem's title.

Personification is a device we use to attribute human characteristics to things which are not human

A single cloud can represent the concept of loneliness
A single cloud can represent the concept of loneliness | Source

Definition of Personification

Personification is defined in a wide variety of dictionaries as follows:

1. the attribution of human nature or character to animals, inanimate objects, or abstract notions, especially as a rhetorical figure.

2. the representation of a thing or abstraction in the form of a person, as in art.

3. the person or thing embodying a quality or the like; an embodiment or incarnation: He is the personification of tact.

4. an imaginary person or creature conceived or figured to represent a thing or abstraction.

(Source: Dictionary.com)

Personification in Prose

Personification can be found in prose just as easily as in poetry. One startling example occurs in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, where the Ghost of Christmas Present opens his robe to reveal two figures to Ebenezer Scrooge, saying:

  • This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want.

These serve as both examples of metaphor and of personification; after all, you can't get much more "personified" than by turning a concept (ignorance, want) into an actual person, can you?

Here's another example found in Edith Nesbit's classic story, The Railway Children:

  • Down below they could see the line of the railway, and the black yawning mouth of a tunnel.

From a distance a railway tunnel looks like its "mouth" is wide open
From a distance a railway tunnel looks like its "mouth" is wide open | Source

Further Examples of Personification

In the poem Mirror by Sylvia Plath, the poet gives the inanimate mirror the ability to speak, see, and swallow, pointing out that it is also honest and frank:

  • I am silver and exact.
    I have no preconceptions.
    Whatever I see I swallow immediately
    Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
    I am not cruel, only truthful --

Here is perhaps a more familiar example of personification in a much-quoted line by the poet Emily Dickinson:

  • Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me.

Personification also figures largely in our everyday speech and in the expressions we use to make a point or be more descriptive:

  • The slot machine ate his money
  • The engine wheezed
  • The candle flame danced
  • The moon looked down on us
  • The thunder grumbled
  • The city that never sleeps
  • The party died when he left
  • The wind whispered
  • The alarm clock screamed at me

Nature provides ample opportunities for personification in the hands of a skilled craftsman

The dish ran away with the spoon!
The dish ran away with the spoon! | Source

Personification Adds Impact

Personification is a figure of speech and, as such, is used to spice up your writing - or speech - and give it extra flavor. It's like sprinkling salt and pepper on your food.

You can inject personification into anything you write simply by applying human characteristics or qualities to the items in your text. For example, take clothes hanging out to dry. You might write the following:

  • The clothes hung on the washing line and the wind moved them around.

That sets the scene, but it's pretty dull. Let's add personification to jazz things up a little:

  • The clothes danced on the washing line as the wind tickled them.

You can see straight away how this changes everything. Suddenly the clothes are not just hanging there; they're dancing. And the wind is making them do it. It conjures up images of children giggling and bouncing about as another person teases them.

Here's another example. Imagine it's the middle of October, the days are getting shorter and the temperature continues to drop. In some parts of the world it might even get cold enough for the odd snowflake or two:

  • I don't know if climate change is behind it, but I didn't expect to see snow in the heart of October.

Is it Personification?

The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man appears in the 1984 film Ghostbusters as the physical manifestation of the Sumerian demon Gozer. But is it an example of personification?

See results

Here's a better example from the poem Cataract Operation by the English poet Simon Armitage:

  • From pillar to post; a pantomime
    of damp forgotten washing

    on the washing line.
    So, in the breeze:

    the ole of a crimson towel,
    the cancan of a ra ra skirt,

    the monkey business of a shirt
    pegged only by its sleeve,

    the cheerio
    of a handkerchief.

In this case, the wind is making the various items on the line behave like people, some dancing, some waving, some clowning around.

Personification versus Prosopopoeai

According to Wikipedia, prosopopoeia is a rhetorical device (figure of speech) in which a speaker or writer communicates to the audience by speaking as another person or object. The term derives from the Greek roots prósopon (face, person) and poiéin (to make, to do). It is also used when an author wishes to present an unpopular point of view, using a popular stereotype to do so and thus avoiding getting the blame directly.

Think of the manifold sayings of Homer Simpson, more often attributed to him than to the writer who penned the words. The point can be stretched to include ventriloquists, whose dummies are allowed to get away with things their operators wouldn't - under normal circumstances.

Buffalo Bob Smith and Howdy Doody
Buffalo Bob Smith and Howdy Doody | Source

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    • JohnMello profile image
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      JohnMello 3 years ago from England

      Thanks ajwrites57... it's been at the top of my list for months now. Glad you liked it!

    • ajwrites57 profile image

      AJ 3 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Wonderful JohnMello! Your Hub presents the idea of personification in a beautiful way! Well deserved Hub of the Day!

    • parrster profile image

      Richard Parr 3 years ago from Oz

      Voted up and interesting. I've found religious writing also contains much personification. Proverbs 8, for example, personifies wisdom. I find the use of personification brings what's communicated into a relational sphere.

    • JohnMello profile image
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      JohnMello 3 years ago from England

      Thanks very much suzettenaples!

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 3 years ago from Taos, NM

      Nice hub on personification. It is well explained and you have some great examples and visuals. I enjoyed reading this and congrats on this being HOTD.

    • JohnMello profile image
      Author

      JohnMello 3 years ago from England

      Thanks Pamela. Glad you liked it!

    • Pamela Kinnaird W profile image

      Pamela Kinnaird W 3 years ago from Maui and Arizona

      I really enjoyed all of your examples -- and I enjoyed seeing Buffalo Bob Smith for the first time in about 57 years. Great hub.

    • JohnMello profile image
      Author

      JohnMello 3 years ago from England

      Thanks pochinuk for reading and sharing!

    • profile image

      pochinuk 3 years ago

      Thank you for an informative article.

    • JohnMello profile image
      Author

      JohnMello 4 years ago from England

      Thank you all for your kind remarks and for voting up and sharing. Makes all the hard work worth while :)

    • HappyMikeWritter profile image

      HappyMikeWritter 4 years ago

      I am still learning to write and this article surely helps a lot. Thank you for sharing it .

    • Nguyen Phuong Dai profile image

      Nguyen Phuong Dai 4 years ago from Viet nam

      Wow you're good writer . I love it so much.

    • rose-the planner profile image

      rose-the planner 4 years ago from Toronto, Ontario-Canada

      Congratulations on HOTD! I found this article very interesting. Thank you for sharing. (Voted Up) -Rose

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Congratulations on your HOTD...well-deserved and well-written.

    • Jen Ef profile image

      Jennifer F 4 years ago from Australia

      Hey John - Loved the article.

      I recently addressed Mr Panic in a post elsewhere and he clearly is not a person, but I certainly gave him an identity.

      'The stapler just left his teeth in the paper'

      Very much enjoyed :)

    • Jatinder Joshi profile image

      Jatinder Joshi 4 years ago from Whitby, Ontario, Canada

      Congratulations on making it to the Hub of the Day award.

      Personification beautifully amplified with examples. Enjoyed reading about it - by the way, have always loved the poem 'Daffodils' by William Wordsworth, and you used it so well to explain personification.

    • donnaisabella profile image

      Donaisabella 4 years ago from Fort Myers

      Beautifully written, illustrated and informative. I loved reading your hub. Thanks for sharing the humor, language and learning experience.

    • JohnMello profile image
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      JohnMello 4 years ago from England

      Thanks ComfortB... glad you liked it :)

    • ComfortB profile image

      Comfort Babatola 4 years ago from Bonaire, GA, USA

      Very interesting examples of personification. I especially like the part where 'the dish ran away with the spoon'. Seems like ages ago when I heard that read to me in kindergarten.

      Thanks for a good read, and congrats on the HOTD award.

    • JohnMello profile image
      Author

      JohnMello 4 years ago from England

      Thank you starbright! Glad you enjoyed it... and thanks for sharing.

    • starbright profile image

      Lucy Jones 4 years ago from Scandinavia

      Really very interesting and something I'd not really thought about. Enjoyed your well deserved HOTD immensely. Voted up and shared.

    • JohnMello profile image
      Author

      JohnMello 4 years ago from England

      Thank you Sharkye11 for your kind words... and for sharing!

    • Sharkye11 profile image

      Jayme Kinsey 4 years ago from Oklahoma

      Congratulations on HOTD. This is a very deserving hub. I enjoy personification in all writing, for as you said, it is adds the seasoning to words that otherwise might be bleak and mediocre. Sharing and voting, this deserves to be read by everyone!

    • JohnMello profile image
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      JohnMello 4 years ago from England

      Thanks epbooks. Glad you enjoyed it!

    • epbooks profile image

      Elizabeth Parker 4 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      Enjoyed this hub a lot and so greatly explains personification in writing. Thanks for posting this. Will be following you here!

    • JohnMello profile image
      Author

      JohnMello 4 years ago from England

      Many thanks MPG Narratives! And thanks for sharing it so liberally :)

    • MPG Narratives profile image

      Marie Giunta 4 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      This is a great hub John, thanks for all the tips on how to use personification in our writing. I think many writers use this technique without actually knowing they are using it. Voted up, interesting, pinned and shared.