Figure of Speech

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A figure of speech is a use of a word that diverges from its normal meaning, or a phrase with a specialized meaning not based on the literal meaning of the words in it such as a metaphor, simile, or personification. Figures of speech often provide emphasis, freshness of expression, or clarity. However, clarity may also suffer from their use, as any figure of speech introduces an ambiguity between literal and figurative interpretation. A figure of speech is sometimes called a rhetoric or a locution.

Not all theories of meaning have a concept of "literal language". Under theories that do not, figure of speech is not an entirely coherent concept.

Rhetoric originated as the study of the ways in which a source text can be transformed to suit the goals of the person reusing the material. For this goal, classical rhetoric detected four fundamental operations[1] that can be used to transform a sentence or a larger portion of a text. They are: expansion, abridgement, switching, transferring.

The four fundamental operations

The four fundamental operations, or categories of change, governing the formation of all figures of speech are:[1]

  • expansion/superabundance/addition (adiectio)
  • abridgement/lack/omission/subtraction (detractio)
  • switching/interchange/substitution/transmutation (immutatio)
  • transferring/transposition (transmutatio)

These four operations were detected by classical rhetoric, and still serve to encompass the various figures of speech. Originally these were called, in Latin, the four operations of quadripartita ratio. The ancient surviving text mentioning them, although not recognizing them as the four fundating principles, is the Rhetorica ad Herennium, of author unknown, where they are called ἔνδεια, πλεονασμός, μετάθεσις and ἐναλλαγή.[2] Quintillian then mentioned them in Institutio Oratoria.[3] Philo of Alexandria also listed them as addition (πρόσθεσις), subtraction (ἀφαίρεσις), transposition (μετάθεσις), and transmutation (ἀλλοίωσις).[4]There are many examples of figures of speech.

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