Figures of speech

Figures of speech are ways of using words and phrases to add interest and 'colour' to what you are saying or writing. They vary in different countries and regions. Here are some of the main types. Some of the examples can be included in more than one category, e.g., colloquialisms overlap with idiomatic terms. This page also explains some items which are not usually called figures of speech but which also colour your writing.


Colloquial means relating to the sort of language used in everyday informal conversation. Colloquialisms can be used in direct speech, i.e, what people say, in your a story. They should not be used in the text itself unless you are writing from a particular character's point of view and using that character's style of speech. Colloquial speech also includes swear-words and rude words.

Here are a few examples:

       gimme = give me

        outta or outa = out of

        G'day = Good day (a greeting in Australia)

        ratbag = rascal, rogue, unpleasant person

        yeah = yes                   

        kid = child or teenager (it means 'young deer', so it's a compliment)

        seconds = the second helping of something at a meal   


A euphemism is a polite, childish or picturesque word or phrase, used when the real word or phrase might be embarrassing or offensive to some people. Euphemisms often relate to items or actions which are considered taboo, i.e., we don't mention them in polite speech. Some are used by people who wish to sound 'politically correct'.

Here are a few examples:

       casket = coffin

        pass away, pass on, pass over = die

        beverage = drink (noun)

        bathroom, dunny, loo, toilet, and many others = lavatory, though lavatory literally means the same thing as bathroom

        elderly citizen = old person

        hearing handicapped = deaf

        sit-upon = buttocks


Jargon includes two types of words and phrases: (a) The specialised language or vocabulary of a particular group of people, members of a trade of profession. (b) Fairly meaningless talk used by anybody at all.

In the first category, doctors, footballers, microbiologists, carpenters — all kinds of specialists — have their own words and phrases which are sometimes not understood by outsiders. In the second category, we find people using language to impress, or padding out their statements with long words or phrases. They might also be using jargon to cover up the fact that they don't really understand what they are talking about!

Here are some examples:

decimate is used to mean 'destroy' or, in effect, to destroy or kill 90%. Its real meaning, however, dates back to ancient Roman times. It means to kill or destroy 10%.

good track record is a term used for race-horses and greyhounds, but business-people use it as a metaphor when they talk about someone's ability and employment history.

ongoing meaningful dialogue or dialog is simply a long-winded way of saying 'useful discussion'

parameter is often used where people mean 'perimeter', because they don't know what parameter actually means. You don't? Look it up!

myocardial infarction is a medical term used by doctors for a type of heart attack. It is correct for the medical profession to use accurate terms such as this. This is an example of jargon being the technical language of a particular group of people.

collateral damage is military jargon meaning killing of the enemy by 'our side'. If it is caused by the other side and our people are killed, then it becomes civilian casualties. Our side launches a pre-emptive strike but the other side attacks without provocation. In the same way, journalists report our brave soldiers as being dare-devils but those of the enemy are cannon-fodder. This use of jargon is called propaganda.


Strictly speaking, tautology is not a figure of speech. I have included it here because it does not make your writing more interesting to read. It is simply a common form of error. Tautology is unnecessary repetition. It is very common. Here are some examples:

        Me myself personally (you can write that if you are being funny, but not if you are writing seriously)

        Puzzling problem (a problem is always puzzling, so you don't need to say that it is)

        Sad misfortune (a misfortune is sad, anyway)

        Seafaring mariner (where else does a mariner travel?)

        Free gift (if it is a gift, we know it is free)

        3 a.m. in the morning (if it is a.m., we already know it is in the morning)

        9 p.m. in the evening (if it is p.m., we know it is in the afternoon or evening)



Using one phrase to describe another. A figure of speech in which one thing is identified with the other, without using words such as ‘like...’ or ‘’. This is not the same as a simile. In common speech, metaphors are sometimes also called colloquialisms. Etymology: 16th century. From Greek metaphora, metapherein, to transfer. Examples:

beyond the Black Stump (Australian metaphor meaning a long way from here.)           

can of worms

a kangaroo loose in the top paddock (Another Australian metaphor. Look it up!)

let the cat out of the bag        

look a gift horse in the mouth  

raining cats and dogs    

storm in a tea cup                  

under a cloud


A direct comparison. A figure of speech in which two things are compared using ‘like’ or ‘’.  Etymology: 14th century. Latin simile, something similar. Examples:

as black as night

as cool as a cucumber                    

as good as gold

as smooth as silk                  

like a bat out of hell                  

like a cat on a hot tin roof

like a house on fire

like water off a duck’s back


An allegory is like an extended metaphor. It is a story which has an apparent meaning on the surface, but another meaning underneath, behind its symbols.

The Greek philosopher Plato’s story of a cave is an allegory of the way people’s experience and understanding develop.

Some people are prisoners in a deep cave. They have never seen the world outside the cave. They are tied up and cannot move. There are several  objects in the cave, and a fire. The fire is throwing shadows of the objects onto the wall of the cave. The people can see the shadows but they cannot see the objects. They are then untied, and can move around. Now they can see the real objects and also the fire. Eventually, they can see out of the cave and see the sunlight. After so long in the cave, they discover the real world outside and the sun in the sky.

Bible stories, e.g. Ezekiel, chapter 17. Here is the first part:

A great eagle with great wings and long pinions, rich in plumage of many colours, came to Lebanon and took the top of the cedar. It broke off the highest twig and carried it to a land of trade, and placed it in a city of merchants. Then it took a seed and planted it in fertile soil beside a flowing river.

The story is not really about an eagle. The reader has to ‘crack the code’ to understand it. It is about current events and the people who were involved. The eagle represents King Nebuchadnezzar. Lebanon is the hilly country of Judah. The highest twig symbolises the king of Judah. A land of trade’ means the country of Babylonia. The place with fertile soil is Palestine.

Aesop’s Fables have animals and their actions representing human behaviour and attitudes.

John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory of the Christian life, with  Slough of Despond, Vanity Fair, Celestial City.

George Orwell’s Animal Farm: animals represent humans, life on the farm represents conflicts in society.

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is, on the surface, a story about a group of children who find themselves on a remote island, after an aeroplane crash. It is, beneath the surface, a chilling allegory about society, rivalry, power, violence and the thin veneer of civilisation.


Idiom is similar to colloquial, colloquialism, but is more specific. It refers to words or phrases used by particular people, such as the inhabitants of a country region, or members of a social group. Some idiomatic phrases are confined to the area or group where they started, but others spread to other areas and countries. Etymology: 16th century from Latin idioma, peculiarity of language, from Greek idios, private, separate. Examples:

a galah (Australia) = a fool

beyond the black stump (Australia) = far away from here

fresh out of (USA) = sold out, completely without

How are you going? said as ‘Ow yer goin’? = How are you?

No worries = It was no trouble

roo (Australia) = kangaroo

'Utch up (parts of eastern England) = Please sit closer together

mardy (parts of the English midlands) = sulky, disagreeable

bathers, cossie, togs, costume  = swimming costume

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