You might not know the words “synecdoche” or “metonymy,” but these rhetorical devices are common in writing and everyday speech. So, what are synecdoche and metonymy? And how do they work? Our guide will explain the basics.
What Is Synecdoche?
A “synecdoche” is a figure of speech that uses part of a thing to stand in for the whole of it, or vice versa. For example, if Bill asks Stella for her hand in marriage, he is not literally asking to marry just her hand! The word “hand” is standing in for Stella as a whole. Other common examples of synecdoche include:
All hands on deck
These “hands” originally referred to the crew of a ship literally going to the ship’s deck to work.
Nowadays it means everyone should pull together on a task.
The deadline is tomorrow, so we need all hands on deck today!
The “bars” here refer to bars in a prison cell, so this means someone is in jail.
He has been behind bars for four years now.
Hit the sheets
Here, “sheets” represents the bed and bedclothes as a whole, so the phrase means “to go to bed.”
I’m so tired, I need to hit the sheets.
These are all established phrases you might have heard used before. But you can also use this literary device more generally. For example, it is common to refer to a sports team by their place of origin. For example:
England are into the quarter finals of the World Cup!
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Here, we’re referring to the England football team, not the country as a whole.
Alternatively, you could use synecdoche to poetic effect, using a single term to stand in for a whole in a poem or story. This can help to emphasize a key feature (e.g., referring to a smart character in a group as “the brain”). It’s all about picking a part of aspect of something that symbolizes the whole effectively.
What Is Metonymy?
Metonymy also involves using a term or phrase to represent something else. However, rather than using a part to represent a larger whole, metonymy replaces the word in question with another related word or attribute.
For instance, people often describe journalists as the press, referring to the presses used to print newspapers. In this case, the “press” isn’t a part of what it symbolizes, but rather a word associated with and representative of journalism.
Other well-known examples of metonymy include:
The White House
While the White House is a building, it is also frequently used to represent the US President and his or her staff (who are based there).
Because kings and queens wear crowns, this word is often used to stand in for the institution of monarchy or the state as a whole.
The pen is mightier than the sword
This phrase contains two metonyms, with “pen” standing for the written word and ideas and “sword” representing violence and physical force.
As with the examples above, metonymy is common in our language, with several familiar terms and phrases drawing on the technique. But as with synecdoche, it also has an important poetic use, allowing you to use an evocative word or phrase to stand in for something else. It’s all about using language creatively!
Expert Creative Writing Proofreading
Synecdoche and metonymy can add an extra dimension to your writing. However you use them, though, don’t forget to get your work proofread by our expert editors.