You are on page 1of 2


Figures of speech in everyday discourse and poetry

Literary language (particularly the language of poetry) is often defined as the

opposite of referential language.
In referential language the meanings are literal, this is the language of natural
sciences and the language we use in everyday communication. In non-literary
language the meanings are metaphorical. But there isnt a sharp division line
between literary and non-literary texts.
When we discuss a poem, we usually have to identify figures of speech, but it is
also important that we should explain the difference between the poetic and the
non-poetic representation of the same meaning.
The imagery of poems is often constructed through comparisons: something that
is supposed to be unknown to the reader is illuminated with something known.
The two most frequently used figures of comparison are the metaphor and the
Metaphors are used not only in poetry: we often use them in colloquial language
and other registers, too. The language of poetry is rich in metaphors. A metaphor
is a figure of speech in which one object is compared with another one either
through identification or substitution. The two elements of a metaphor are the
tenor and the vehicle. The tenor is the idea to be explained; the vehicle is the
image that is used for the sake of comparison. The relationship between these
two is called the ground.
In most metaphors the vehicle is substituted for the tenor, that is, the tenor is
not a part of the text.
We can talk about extended metaphors or called telescoped metaphors:
they are like the rings or tubes of a telescope. Every image in it becomes the
tenor for the next metaphor, every metaphor illuminates the previous one.
Extended metaphors mostly occur in poetry and other rhetorical texts. The
opposite of the extended metaphor is the dead metaphor: a metaphorical
phrase that has been so overused that one does not even recognize it as a
metaphor. For example: the head of a cabbage, the leg of a table, or calling your
beloved sweet. Such phrases have lost their original quality and are a part of
colloquial language rather than that of poetic style.
The simile is another figure of speech that is also based upon comparison. In a
simile we can also distinguish between the tenor and the vehicle, but (unlike in a
metaphor) the tenor is always a part of the image. In a very simple way: the
metaphor implies that A is B, while the simile says that A is like B.
Constructing images through similarities is only one way of image making. The
opposite is equally frequent in poetry: the target of representation can also be
illuminated in terms of contrast.
In the case of overstatement and understatement a discrepancy or contrast
is introduced between what is said and what is meant
The tenor in this case is what is meant, and the vehicle is what is said.

The sentence He was less than sober means that he was completely drunk
(tenor). The sentence says less than is meant (understates the meaning).
The sentence I could kill him means that I am very angry with him (tenor). The
sentence says more than is meant (overstates the meaning).
Understatement is a stylistic device also used in everyday discourse, the
device of presenting something as less significant than it really is. We use the
term understatement when somebody says less than s/he means.
Gap-filling is a well-known form of grammatical drill: a word or a phrase in a
sentence is left out, and the student has to find it. When we read poetry we can
follow (and often unconsciously do follow) the same method. There are, however,
two differences: a) the poem is a complete text, consequently what you fill in
will be a part of your interpretation rather than the text itself; b) unlike a
grammatical test, the experience of reading poetry always implies numberless
solutions in filling the gaps in the text. Nevertheless, you keep on doing gapfilling when you want to interpret the understatements in a poem.
A metonymy is a figure in which the name of one object is used for another.
Personification is the description of an object or an idea as if it had human
Overstatement is the opposite of understatement: in a wider sense, we use the
term when somebody repeats the same meaning in various forms, or uses
stylistic effects that show something as more significant than it is commonly
Whenever you intend to discuss poetry, always start with reading the poem for
pleasure; that is what poetry is meant for. Never start discussing a poem before
you have read it at least twice. You should feel the musical effects and observe
the pictorial elements before you analyse them. Then you can close-read all the
elements of the images and their relationship with each other or, to put it
another way: explore how the words of the text make a poem.