Spicing Up English Language Learning with More Figurative Language - Part II

In a recent article for TalktoCanada.com I wrote about figurative language, that type of language that goes beyond literal meaning. It provides emphasis, offers freshness of expression, brings clarity and helps build English language. Examples of similes, metaphors and hyperbole in English conversation and writing were explored. In this blog I would like to talk about some additional types of figurative language:  personification, alliteration, onomatopoeia, irony and oxymoron. You might know about some of these… maybe even used some. By understanding these figures of speech and knowing how and why to use them in the English language (whether listening, speaking, reading or writing), you will gain a wider knowledge of the English language. You will be on step closer to mastering the English language.

Personification is giving a non-living object human traits and qualities such as emotions, desires, sensations, physical gestures and speech. The meaning of this word is easy to remember from the word “person” at the beginning of the word. Some examples include:

The leaves swayed in the wind.

The wind yelled while blowing.

The stars danced playfully in the moonlit sky.

The thunder grumbled like an old man.

The hikers were swallowed up by the Redwood forest.

Notice that leaves don’t really sway, the wind can’t yell, stars can’t dance, thunder does not grumble, and hikers are not eaten up by forests. But all of these human life descriptions when applied to inanimate objects give a clearer picture of the intended English message. You get a sharper image. And the choice of wording might even make you smile. The words are captivating and alive.

Were you able to figure out what the personification meant in each of the above sentences? Here, I’ll help you out. This is what the sentences intended to imply:

The leaves are blowing.

The wind is strong.

The stars are twinkling.

The thunder is loud.

The forest is massive.

Alliteration is the repetition of the same sound in a series of phrases or words. You probably have heard some tongue twisters which rely on alliteration to form the sentences:

Repetition of “P”:  Peter picked a peck of pickled peppers. If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, where’s the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?

Repetition of “B”:  Betty Botter bought some butter, but she said, this butter's bitter; if I put it in my batter, it will make my batter bitter, but a bit of better butter will make my batter better.

Repetition of “S”:  A skunk sat on a stump. The stump thought the skunk stunk. The skunk thought the stump stunk. What stunk - the skunk or the stump?

Actually, tongue twisters are a great way to practice the pronunciation of words. You can start out slowly and then increase your rate of speaking as you master the sounds. Try it! You’ll soon see that you can actually make that sounds quite well. Another idea to consider is to tape the tongue twisters by reading them slowly into a tape recorder and then saying (from memory) the tongue twister so you can work on each individual letter sound. As you progress with the sounds, you can increase your speed.

Alliteration is also seen in poetry, as in the poem Dancing Dolphins by Paul McCann:

Repetition of “T”:  Those tidal thoroughbreds that tango through the turquoise tide

Their taut tails thrashing, they twist in tribute to the Titans

The twirl through the trek

Tumbling towards the tide

Throwing themselves towards those theatrical thespians.

I think you will agree with me that McCann’s description of the dolphins with the use of alliteration is a lot more alive and fun than saying something like, “The dolphin were swimming and jumping out of the water.

”No doubt, you have read alliteration in nursery rhymes:

Three Grey Geese by Mother Goose

Repetition of “G”: …the three grey geese in a green field grazing. Grey were the geese and green was the grazing.

Alliteration can be found in modern music, magazine titles, advertisements, and names of businesses, cartoon characters and comic strips. Check out some of these: (companies) Best Buy, Chuckee Cheese, Dunkin Donuts, Krispy Kreme, American Airlines, Coca-Cola, Weight Watchers; (candy) Kit Kat, Bon Bons, Tic Tacs; (cartoons) Mighty Mouse, Mickey Mouse, Porky Pig; (events) Final Four, Golden Globes, Super Bowl Sunday; (websites/techie jargon) ConstantContact, FriendFinder, Twitter, Google, PayPal and YouTube.  And there are countless others. Many people choose first names of their children based on the last name:  Sally Smith, John Jacobson, Harry Houdini, etc. Maybe your name is alliteration or you have friends who have names that are. Again, it is a nice sounding way to put together words and it is a way to help you remember the words.

A related term, consonance, is the repetition of consonants (or a consonant pattern) but not necessarily the vowels, as in "Santos won't want flint" in which the “nt” sound is repeated. The consonant sound can be anywhere in the word and not necessarily at the beginning for consonance. Other examples include:  He struck a streak of bad luck; buckets of big blue berries; some mammals are clammy; and few flocked to the fight.

Assonance is a term for the repetition of vowel sounds, as in "Do you, too, have the flu?" in which the long “u” sound is repeated. Again, this sound does not have to be at the beginning of the word.  It could also be in the middle or in the end position. Other examples include: (the Hoover vacuum cleaner slogan) It beats as it sweeps as it cleans; (and in literature of e.e. cummings) on a proud round cloud in white high night and (the literature of Alfred Lord Tennyson) And murmuring of innumerable bees.

Onomatopoeia sometimes written as onomatopoeia is a word that means the imitation or suggestion of the sound that the word describes. Common examples include animal sounds (oink, meow, roar and chirp). The word itself makes the sound of the person, place or thing. There are examples in other languages as tick-tock in English is the sound of a clock which is dī dā in Mandarin or katchin katchin in Japanese. There is the "snip" of a pair of scissors which is su-su in Chinese, cri-cri in Italian, riqui-riqui in Spanish, terre-terre in Portuguese, krits-krits in modern Greek and katr-katr in Hindi. And the "honk" of a car's horn is ba-ba in Chinese, tut-tut in French,  pu-pu in Japanese, bbang-bbang in Korean, baert-baert in Norwegian and bim-bim in Vietnamese (source: Wikipedia)

Some other common English examples of onomatopoeia include splash, moo, beep, bang, hiccup and zoom. Sometimes things are named after the sound they make. For example the word “zip” in the UK and “zipper” in the USsom is a fastener that clasps together on clothing or a bag. Many birds are named after their birdcalls. Some of these are the whip-poor-will, whooping crane and the cuckoo. These all sound like the bird is saying its own name. There are lots of English language words.

Comic strips and comic books use onomatopoeia with words like “bam”, “pow” and “wham”, “ker-splash” and “lickety-wop”. They make the action alive. You can just hear what is happening between the characters and how the action climaxes before there is some type of resolution and ending. Advertising uses this literary tool as well. Alka Seltzer is a pill you take for an upset stomach, headache and indigestion by dissolving it in water first. Their jingle is filled with onomatopoeia “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, Oh, what a relief it is!” Rice Krispies cereal coined “snap, crackle and pop” referring to the cereal and the sound it makes when the rice flakes react to the poured milk. Some of these catchy advertising gimmicks are intended for the viewer or listener to repeatedly say the jargon in their brain…enough that they are tempted to purchase the product.

You have to admit that the use of onomatopoeia is catchy and this literary tool does help you remember the word or phrase associated with it. The use of onomatopoeia just might bring a smile or some laughter along the way, too. The words are fun to use and project clearly what the intent of the word/phrase is. You can even invent your own new words with the use of onomatopoeia.


Irony is the deliberate use of language to state the opposite of the truth. The word is sometimes used as a synonym for incongruous. For example, if someone shouts, “I’m not upset!” – he/she is obviously angry (and upset) as evidenced with the volume and tone of voice. However the words that are conveyed are just the opposite as the person says that he/she is not angry. Irony can be stated in phrases (similes and metaphors) like clear as mud, soft as concrete, and pleasant as a root canal. Irony is often used to produce humor and to give a clear picture of what is happening or what is being described. It makes you want to shake your head in disbelief that this really happened. Yet, irony is all too common in our everyday lives.

There are many, many examples of irony. For example, the traffic cop who gets his license suspended for unpaid parking tickets; and the Titanic which was advertised as 100% unsinkable, which sinks on its maiden voyage in 1912. If you think of your own life, you might be reminded of something that occurred that shows irony. Life is like that. It often deals you something when you least expect it. Have you ever left home really early for work only to get there later than usual? Have you declared that you were a vegetarian, only to be tempted (and eat) a meat pizza? Have you decided to go to bed early, but you could not sleep at all? Maybe you thought learning English was hard, but it turned out to be really easy with some type of instruction that just clicked, an online English learning program, or a class that you took. All of these are examples of irony.

Oxymoron combines contradictory terms. For example, the words ground pilot, dark light, living dead, mournful optimist, silent whistles, controlled chaos, open secret, organized mess, alone in a crowd, and accidentally on purpose are examples of these pairs of words.  Other examples include same difference, jumbo shrimp, hot ice, deafening silence, forward retreat, irregular pattern, serious joke, and sweet sorrow.

In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Romeo uses a string of oxymoron for effect in this stanza

:"O heavy lightness! Serious vanity!

Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms!

Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!"

Looking at this piece of literature, can lightness be heavy, or lead be light like a feather? Can smoke be bright, or fire be cold? And how can health be sick? Again, the use of combining these words is done intentionally as a figure of speech to grab your attention.

The figures of speech that were introduced and reviewed in this article (personification, alliteration - consonance and assonance -, onomatopoeia, irony, and oxymoron all are used to provide emphasis, offer freshness of expression, to bring clarity and to build English language just like the purpose of the figures of speech in the last article.


Why don’t you try using some of these figures of speech today? Tell me how you did. What was the expression on the listener’s or audience’s face? How did this make you feel? Did you feel a boost of confidence? Do you prefer to use one figure of speech over another? Have you found some examples in your English language study? Which do you like best? Why? I would like to hear your thoughts about figures of speech. Maybe you have some examples in your native language you would like to share? I would love to hear some of those examples, too. I really would. Please blab, blurt and chatter with me. After all, I enjoy learning about the English language every chance I can get. So thanks for sharing what you can. Yikes, I’ve blabbed enough. Talk to you soon.

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