A figure of speech is a word or phrase that departs from everyday literal language for the sake of comparison, emphasis, clarity, or freshness. http//www.fictionwriting.about.com
A figure of speech is a specific device or kind of figurative language such as hyperbole, metaphor, personification, simile or understatement. Chin et al (2003)
A figure of speech is also a word or group of words used to give emphasis to an idea or sentiment. Microsoft Encarta (2009)
Generally, a figure of speech is any word, phrase or sentence used in a literary work for special purpose of eliciting emotions in the side of the audience and distinguish a literary text from a non-literary text.
For any work of art to be effective, and to be distinguished from a non-literary work, it is imperative that authors use figures of speech. The figures of speech help in making a literary work very effective and more appealing on the side of the reader/audience. These help the artists to manipulate the language, the way they see fit to deliver their content to their targeted audiences. They occur in the following classification: Figurative comparison; (Metaphor, simile, personification, apostrophe, analogy and allegory). Substitution and Representation; (metonym, Synecdoche, and Symbol). Changes in Degree; (Hyperbole and Litotes). Contradictions, opposition and Juxtaposition; (irony, oxymoron, and paradox).Alan & Joseph (1997). Below are the reasons/importance explaining the rationale of using figures of speech in literature.
Figures of speech are used for emphatic reason or to emphasize a point in a literary work. Not all words will have the same importance in a literary work. When authors want their audience to pay attention to particular words, phrases or sentences, they do so well by using figures of speech. The figures of speech responsible for emphatic purpose include, repetition, rhetorical question or exaggeration (hyperbole). With repetition, the author repeats the words, phrases or sentences to show that the character wants to emphasize a point. For example in Imbuga’s The Successsor.
“CHONDA: Fool! Fool! You little fool! Take her out of my sight! Take her out! Out! Pg 59
Also a rhetorical question may be used for emphatic function as in Ngugi’s A Grain of Wheat pg 62 “why did they want him to lead uhuru celebration? Why not Gikonyo, Warui or one of the forest fighters? Why Mugo? Why? Why?
Figures of speech are also used to make comparison in a literary work. When authors want their readers to easily grasp an idea they usually compare it with something very familiar to them, or which shares the features with the thing being compared with. The authors make use of metaphors, and similes for this comparison. For example in Grain of Wheat a number of similes have been used including the following;
“Such a tall man-his thing is probably as long as donkey’s penis” pg187
“She whimpered and cried like an animal in a cage.” Pg 201.
“…one by one Gikonyo removed her clothes as if performing a ritual in the
“When he shot them they seemed less like human beings and more like animals”
Figures of speech are used to connect the content of the text with the larger world. Sometimes authors write but readers fail to get a connection with the real world. To combat this, writers make reference to real historical figures, places, or people to make their work vivid. When they do so, they apply a figure of speech known as allusion. Ngugi is one the others who like to use allusion in their works. In most of his works, he would first introduce the history of Kenya, before colonialism, during Mau Mau and after independence. He would also include real memorable historical figures in Kenyan history like Kenyatta, Harry Thuku, Dedan Kimathi, General China, to mention just a few. Example in page 4 of A Grain of Wheat he writes;
Thabai was a big village. When built it had combined a number of ridges: Thabai, Kamandura, Kibingo, and parts of Weru. And in 1963 it had not changed much from the day 1955 when grass grass-thatched roofs and mud walls were hastily collected together”
This is a real historical event that occurred in the history of Kenya.
Figures of speech also help the authors to escape from punishment. One of the roles of literature is to criticize the society. Authors usually examine the misdeeds from their societies and decide to write to condemn them. When the pen of the author touches the ruling class, the writer’s work may be banned or the author’s life may be at stake. To avoid this, authors usually use figures of speech especially to avoid mentioning the names directly. The figures of speech responsible for this purpose include allegory, personification, satire, and symbolism. For example Armah’s symbolic representation of The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born has totally nothing to do with beautiful ladies, but rather it symbolizes that Africa has not yet got uncorrupt leaders. He criticizes his government that, despite the independence that was attained as a result of collective efforts of the mass, and even after the revolution, still the new government continued with its corrupt tendencies as the old one.
Figures of speech are used to express meaning beyond the literal definition of each individual word. Sometimes writers write their works to give the language a new meaning. They use ordinary language but assign it a new meaning. The authors may use irony, symbolism, metaphor, and euphemism to express meanings beyond what the words literally mean. For example in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People the author did not actually mean that Dr. Stockmann is an Enemy, so the words in it need to be interpreted beyond what they literally suggest.
Figures of speech may be used for Economic purpose. In other words, few words may be used but to represent a lot of things. When writers want to economize the space in their works they will often opt to use figures of speech which represent the larger event/idea. These include metaphor, simile, synecdoche and symbolism. For example when Ngugi in A Grain of Wheat metaphorically refers to Tom as “he was a man-eater walking in the day and night. He was death …”. By saying “he was death” one may attribute all the concepts related to death, like, he was brutal, merciless, cruel, oppressive, murderer and so on.
Figures of speech may be used to organize the text and make it easier to understand. When the author wants to organize ideas, say which have the same level of importance he will use a figure of speech which helps him connect his flow of ideas but also to bring about rhythm when reading. These figures of speech include Parallelism and anaphora. Parallelism is the repetition of the same pattern of words or phrases within a sentence or passage to show that two or more ideas have the same level of importance. Anaphora involves repeating the same words/phrases at the beginning of the neighboring sentences. For example Ngugi in his I Will Marry When I Want. Use both anaphora and Parallelism in the following lines:
Organization is our sword
Organization is our gun
Organization is our shield.
Organization is our strength. Page 116
Figures of speech are used to make contrast between two opposing ideas in a literary work. Writer would sometimes want to show the oppositeness or contradictions arising in his work as a result of, say, characters conflicts, conflicting ideas, or values. They use figures of speech to represent/portray these contradictions. These include paradox, irony, oxymoron, and antithesis. Oxymoron for example is a figure of speech that takes two opposing ideas and makes them sit next to each other. Imbuga has employed this in his The Successor
“At first I saw flood waters of the River of life and death. Pg 38
It is obvious that life and death do not go together as they are opposing phenomena. Another is found in page 39 when he says
“… beware of darkness in light” the fact is that darkness cannot sit where light reins, neither is light where darkness reigns. The presence of one implies automatic absence of the other.
Figures of speech are also used to create suspense to the readers, of a literary work. Suspense helps to keep the readers reading to see what happens at last. The author may create a situation in which one character is ignorant of a situation, but it affects him directly. So readers continue reading to see what happens if the character discovers the truth. This is a kind of irony literary known as dramatic irony. It occurs when a character on stage doesn’t know something that the readers and some characters know. For example in his The Successor, Imbuga creates a situation where the whole community of Masero plus their emperor, Chonda, believed that it was Jandi who impregnated Zira (his cousin). But the reader, and some characters like Sasia, Zira herself, and Oriomra knew that it was Sasia who was responsible for the pregnancy. Jandi is banished following that crime (abomination). He disappears and they all think him dead since he is nowhere to be seen. As readers we know that he is with See Thro, hidden in the shrine. This creates suspense for the reader to see what will happen if they disclose that it wasn’t Jandi who impregnated Zira and also that Jandi I still alive.
Figures of speech also help to avoid banality (boredom, familiarity). In most cases, things which look very familiar or common are boring. Thus human beings decide to do things in an unfamiliar way. Even the artist of literary works, acknowledging this, they decide to colour their works with literary devices so that their audience may not be bored by their works. The artists use, say Metonymy-substituting one thing with another associated to it. For example “we waited for two sunsets” (two days), and hyperbole (over exaggeration) for example. “I hardly saw him at the part since there were billions and billions of people”. A good example is synecdoche (substation of whole for its part) found in Ngugi’s A Grain of Wheat page 206. Where blood has been used to substitute the whole human being.
“blood has been split for this day. Not blood from the ram but from the veins and
skins of our sons and daughters..”
Artists also use figures of speech to show divine worships to their God, gods/goddess. Apostrophe is usually used when addressing the natural powers. An apostrophe refers to addressing an absent person/thing as if present. This is used by characters when praying to their God/gods. A good example of apostrophe is in Ngugi’s A Grain of Wheat page 206. When Kigori leads a prayer.
“Kigori: Let us pray. Lord, open thou our hearts.
Crowrd: And our mouths shall show forth thy praise
Kigori: God of Isaac and Jacob and Abraham, who also created Gikuyu and Mumbi
and gave us, your children, this land of Kenya, we, on this occasion ever to be remembered by all the nations of the earth as the day you delivered your children from Misri, do now ask you to let your tears stream down upon us, for your tears oh Lord are eternal blessings”
Figures of speech are also used to make literature (message) memorable and heighten the emotional effects of words. When artists use repletion of words, phrases, or sentences they make these words memorable as compared to others. The figures used to attain this include repetition itself, parallelism and anaphora. For example is very easy for the reader to remember these words as used in Ngugi’s I Will Marry When I Want. Simply because they are repeated and organized in a way enhancing memory.
Organization is our sword
Organization is our gun
Organization is our shield.
Organization is our strength. Page 116
Figures of speech are used for euphemistic purpose. It is obvious that every natural language has words that can be used publicly and those considered as taboo words meaning that they cannot be used publicly. If then one wants to express a concept involving a taboo word he will opt to use a figure of speech to cover the effect. The figures that are used for euphemistic purpose include euphemism itself, irony and symbolism. For example Ngugi uses Euphemism to describe the act of making love in the following paragraph extracted from A Grain of Wheat. Page 88.
Gikonyo passed his hands through her hair and over her breasts, slowly coaxing and smoothing stillness from her body until she lay limp in his hands. Suddenly Gikonyo found himself suspended in a void, he was near breaking point and as he swooned into the dark depth he heard a moan escape Mumbi’s parted lips. She held him tight together to herself. Their breath was now one.
So basically, figures of speech are effective tools for making literature. They are not used haphazardly, but always artists use them as a means to enhance the effectiveness of their works as well as considering the interests of their audiences. Any work of art that is free of figures of speech is not worth the name. It should be taken as a non-literary work than the opposite of it.