15 Figures of Speech to Color Your Characters

By Mark Nichol

Figures of speech can create vivid images in readers’ minds when they read about characters in your works of fiction. By “figures of speech,” however, I don’t mean simply the contemporary techniques of metaphor or hyperbole. I refer, instead, to the classical figures of etymology, orthography, syntax, and rhetoric, which often have applications in both everyday and elegant language.

I shared a list of rhetorical terms some time ago, but here I present specific devices (including some of those I listed before) for suggesting character traits or implying dialect by altering the spelling or form of words or the construction of sentences.

These techniques help convey a character’s voice and/or personality — whether they’re highbrow or lowbrow, pretentious or unaffected, eloquent or inarticulate:

1. Apheresis: elision at the head of a word, such as in ’gainst, (against), often to alter poetic meter.

2. Apocope, or apocopation: elision at the tail of a word, such as ad (advertisement), for colloquial convenience, or th’ (the), to indicate dialect.

3. Archaisms: old-fashioned phrasing for nostalgic or literary effect, such as “ye old antique shoppe”-type constructions, or obsolete words such as dight (adorn) or yclept (named).

4. Dissimulation: mispronunciation of a word that involves suppressing one of two instances of the r sound, as in the erroneous Febuary (February).

5. Ellipsis: omission of implied words, whether mundane, as in “He was the only person (who) I saw,” or poetic, as in “Wrongs are engraved on marble; benefits (are engraved) on sand.”

6. Enallage: substitution for poetic effect of a correct form of a word with an incorrect form, as in “Sure some disaster has befell.”

7. Epenthesis: insertion of a consonant (called excrescence) or vowel (known as anaptyxis) into the middle of a world, as in drawring (drawing), often to illustrate a speaker’s substandard dialect.

8. Hyperbaton: transposition of words, as in “Happy is he who is simple.”

9. Mimesis: malapropisms and mispronunciations for humorous effect, as “very close veins” instead of “varicose veins.”

10. Paragoge: attachment of a superfluous suffix to a root word to indicate dialect, as in withouten (without), or to emphasize a stereotypical foreign accent, as in an Italian person’s supposed inclination to end all English words with a vowel sound in a sentence like “He’s a very-a rich-a man.”

11. Pleonasm: redundancy for literary effect, as in “He that has ears to hear, let him hear.”

12. Prosthesis: attachment of a superfluous prefix to a root word, as in “She were aborn before your time.”

13. Syneresis: folding of two syllables into one, as in everyday contraction like I’ll (“I will”) or archaic forms like “Seest thou?” (“Do you see?”).

14. Syncope: elision of letters within a word, as in e’en (even), to affect meter in poetry or otherwise allude to a classical frame of mind.

15. Timesis: insertion of a word between the elements of an open or closed compound, whether in contemporary slang (abso-frickin’-lutely) or classical usage (“So new a fashioned robe.”)

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9 Responses to “15 Figures of Speech to Color Your Characters”

  • Deborah H

    7. Epenthesis: insertion of a consonant (called excrescence) or vowel (known as anaptyxis) into the middle of a world, as in drawring (drawing), often to illustrate a speaker’s substandard dialect.

    I dun knowd them damn Yankees talked funny.

  • Phil

    In New Zealand a quite common excrescence is howrever (however), but that extra r sometimes appears on the end of how and now, which doesn’t quite fit the definition.

  • Anna

    These are great. I’ve used many of these before without knowing what they were called. One question though… isn’t Tmesis only supposed to have the one ‘i’?

  • Crystal Hilbert

    This was pretty interesting. I try to keep in mind different ways of speaking when I write.

    Right now, I’ve got a group of people that use “you all”, a group of people that tend to drop the subjects out of their sentences and another group that fried all their braincells, so they kind of speak like Yoda smoking pot.

    Good post to keep in mind!

  • Joel Neely

    Thanks for the great list! However, “ye old…” is not really archaic phrasing, but archaic orthography.

    The first word in such phrases is not “ye” (as in the plural of “thou”), but simply “the”, using a modern letter “y” instead of the original letter, “thorn”. That letter was used in Old English and Middle English to represent the “th” sound, but fell out of use. The letter “y” was substituted for “thorn”, because of their generally similar appearance. (“Thorn” was taller on the left, with a curved arm on the right.)

  • Krissy Brady, Writer

    What a great post! I’m going to print it out for my future reference. There are some things I want to change in my WIP to give the dialogue more substance and I think your list will do the trick. 🙂

  • Mark Nichol

    Anna:

    Yes, tmesis is the correct spelling. Timesis is the way my friend Tim speaks.

  • Skip Knox

    Just a small adjustment: It’s not so much that Italians love to put a vowel at the end of words as that they shrink from words than end in a consonant. The harder the stop, the more likely a short E or A will attach itself, despite the best efforts of the speaker.

    A vowel at the end of “very” is very unlikely. OTOH, an Italian has a devil of a time saying my first name as a single syllable.

  • Jon

    I thought Timesis was Tim’s female sibling?

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