A summary, with examples taken from the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare and from the King James Bible.

Two standard classical treatments are to be found in Book IX of Quintilian's Institutio oratoria, and Book IV of the widely influential, pseudo-Ciceronian Rhetorica ad Herennium (often cited simply as "Tully" - that is, Marcus Tullius Cicero). The order given here is that of the Ad Herennium, an ordering also followed exactly (except for the ten tropes) in Geoffrey of Vinsauf's brilliant (and infamous) model poems, in his Poetria nova (c.1200), the most popular and influential medieval treatment.

A figure or schema is "any deviation, either in thought or expression, from the ordinary and simple method of speaking, a change analogous to the different positions our bodies assume when we sit down, lie down, or look back.... If the name is to be applied to certain attitudes (habitus) or gestures (gestus) of language, we must interpret schema as that which is poetically or rhetorically (oratoria) altered from the simple and obvious method of expression." (Quintilian, IX.i.11-14)

"Figure is the term employed when we give our language a conformation other than the obvious and ordinary." (Quintilian, IX.i.4)

Two or three classes of figures are commonly distinguished (although there is some disagreement in regard to detail and classification): figures of word or diction, sometimes including tropes, and figures of thought.

For more on classical and medieval rhetoric, especially, see:

  • Ad C. Herennium de ratione dicendi. Trans. Harry Caplan. Cambridge MA & London, 1954.
  • Corbett, Edward P.J. Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. 3rd ed. New York & Oxford, 1990.
  • Corbett, Edward P.J., ed. Rhetorical Analyses of Literary Works. New York, 1969.
  • Dupriez, Bernard. A Dictionary of Literary Devices: Gradus, A-Z. Trans. & adapted by Albert W. Halsall. Toronto, 1991.
  • Geoffrey of Vinsauf. Poetria nova of Geoffrey of Vinsauf. Trans. Margaret F. Nims. Toronto, 1967.
  • Murphy, James J. Medieval Rhetoric: A Select Bibliography. Toronto, 1971.
  • Murphy, James J. Rhetoric in the Middle Ages: A History of Rhetorical Theory from Saint Augustine to the Renaissance. Berkeley, 1974.
  • Quintilian. Institutio oratoria. Trans. H.E. Butler. 4 vol. London, 1921-22.

With special thanks to Sister F. Nims of Toronto
("Why ne hadde I now thy sentence and thy loore...?")

Garrett P.J. Epp
University of Alberta (1994)

Christie Schultz – web version (2002)
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1. repetitio (anaphora, epanaphora): repetition of a word at the beginning of successive clauses (or poetic lines):

Allas, the deeth, allas, myn Emelye,
Allas, departynge of oure compaignye;
Allas, myn hertes queene, allas, my wyf,
Myn hertes lady, endere of my lyf! (KnT 2773-76)

2. conversio (antistrophe): repetition of a word at the end of successive clauses:

Behold, bless ye the Lord, all ye servants of the Lord, which by night stand in the house of the Lord. (Ps 134.1)

3. complexio (symploce): repetition of both initial and final words in successive clauses:

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child.... (1 Cor 13.11)

4. traductio (ploce, symploce): a type of pun, involving either

(a) repetition of a word, preferably in different cases:
To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak. (1 Cor 9.22)
(b) use of words with the same sound, but different meaning or function:
... As clerkes ben ful subtile and ful queynte;
And prively he caughte hire by the queynte. (MilT 3275-76)

5. contentio (antithesis): a statement built on contraries (often classed as a figure of thought; see III.9 below):

I wasted time, and now doth time waste me. (R2 5.5)

6. exclamatio (apostrophe): an expression of grief or indignation, addressed to a person, place, or object:

Eyes, look your last!
Arms, take your last embrace! and lips, O you
The doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss
A dateless bargain to engrossing death! (R&J 5.3)

7. interrogatio (erotema): the 'rhetorical question':

Thou that didst bear the key of all my counsels,
That knew'st the very bottom of my soul,
That almost mightst have coined me into gold,
Wouldst thou have practiced on me for thy use? (H5 2.2)

8. ratiocinatio (aetiologia): reasoning by question and answer:

What do I fear? Myself? There's none else by.
Richard loves Richard: that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am:
Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why -
Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?
Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? ... (R3 5.3)

9. sententia (gnome): a maxim or general observation showing what does or should happen in life:

 The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.... (PF 1)
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgement. (Hamlet 1.3)

10. contrarium (enthymeme); Quintilian deems this more a method of argument than a figure of diction): reasoning by contraries; implying the answer to a question by stating an opposing position:

For how sholden they love togidre in the peyne of helle, whan they hated hated ech of hem oother in the prosperitee of this lyf? (ParsT 203)

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11. membrum (colon): two, or preferably three, succinct clauses, each complete in itself, but joined to express a total meaning:

Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favored rage. (H5 3.1)
       (note: each clause here is considered a membrum or colon.)

12. articulus (comma): a series of single words without connectives, giving a staccato effect:

Beguiled, divorcéd, wrongéd, spited, slain! ( R&J 4.4)

13. continuatio (periodos): a dense, uninterrupted series of words expressing a single thought, generally a complex sentence having from two to four interdependant clauses or membra (although Aristotle allows a "simple" period).

If ever you our streets disturb again
Your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace. (R&J 1.1)

This figure often takes the form of a maxim:
Trouthe is the hyest thyng that man may kepe. (FklT 1479)

14. compar (isocolon): a combination of cola or clauses with a virtually equal number of syllables:

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once. (JC 2.2)

15. similiter cadens (homoeoptoton): two or more words with the same case endings, within one period (see continuatio, above):

Hominem laudem egentem virtutis, abundantem felicitatis? (ad Her.)
... and ek his moder dere,
His bretheren and his sustren, gonne hym freyne .... (Troylus 5.1227)

16. similiter desinens (homoeoteleuton): two or more indeclinable words with the same endings, within one period:

Turpiter audes facere; nequiter studes dicere. (ad Her.)
Bloody, bawdy villain!
Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain! (Hamlet 2.2)
       (note: the two preceding figures are often used together;
        in English, since case forms have disappeared, the two terms
       are sometimes used loosely to mean rhymed endings.)

17. adnominatio (paronomasia): play on the sound or meaning of words by a slight change or transposition of letters, by a change in word-form or case, or by the addition of a prefix:

SAMPSON: Gregory, on my word, we'll not carry coals.
GREGORY: No, for then we should be colliers.
SAMPSON: I mean, an we be in choler, we'll draw.
GREGORY: Ay, while you live, draw your neck out of collar. ( R&J 1.1)
... Then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king;
Then am I kinged again; and by and by
Think that I am unkinged by Bolingbroke .... (R2 5.5)

18. subjectio (hypophora): a combination of question and answer directed against an adversary in argument:

Honour hath no skill in surgery then? No. What is honour? A word. What is that word honour? Air - a trim reckoning. Who hath it? He that died a Wednesday.... (1H4 5.1)

19. gradatio (climax): repetition of the closing word of one clause as the opening word of the next:

Then everthing include itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite. (T&C 1.3)

(For a variation on this figure, combined with repetitio, see AYL 5.2:

...no sooner met but they looked; no sooner looked but they loved; no sooner loved but they sighed; no sooner sighed but they asked the reason; no sooner knew the reason but they sought the remedy; and in these degrees have they made a pair of stairs to marriage....)

20. definitio (horismus): a brief and pointed summary of the characteristic quality of a person or thing:

Poverte is a hateful good and, as I gesse,
A ful greet bryngere out of bisynesse;
A greet amendere eek of sapience
To hym that taketh it in pacience. (WBT 1195)

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21. transitio (metabasis): a brief recalling of what has been said, and an introduction to what is to follow:

And remember well,
I mentioned a son o' the king's, which Florizel
I now name to you, and with speed so pace
To speak of Perdita .... (WT 4.1)

22. correctio (epanorthosis): retraction of what has just been said, and substitution of a more suitable word:

Thou let'st thy fortune sleep - die, rather.... (Tempes t 2.1)

23. occupatio (paralipsis): description of a situation, or naming of objects, while professing to leave them unnamed through lack of knowledge, or unwillingness to discuss them (also called occultatio):

I'll speak of her no more, nor of your children;
I'll not remember you of my own lord,
Who is lost too. (WT 3.2)

24. disjunctio (diazeugma?): verbs positioned at the end of two or more clauses (often with the same subject):

And Thisbe, tarrying in mulberry shade,
His dagger drew, and died. (MND 5.1)

25. conjunctio (mezozeugma; also called synzeugmenon): placing in the middle of a construction a single verb which holds together the two parts:

The morning cometh, and also the night. (Isaiah 21.12)

26. adjunctio (epezeugmenon): one verb controlling two clauses, positioned either

(a) at the beginning of the first clause:
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar. (Lear 1.3)
(b) at the end of the second clause:
Neither a borrower nor a lender be. (Lear 1.3)

27. conduplicatio (anadiplosis?): repetition of one or more words for amplification or pity:

O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain! (Hamlet 1.5)

28. interpretatio (synonymy): repetition of a single idea in synonymous words:

Crack Nature's molds, all germains spill at once,
That makes ungrateful man. (Lear 3.2)

(This figure is common in biblical proverbs, such as Prov 16.18:
Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.)

29. commutatio (antimetabole): balanced phrasing, with transposed order of words in the two halves of a statement. The two parts of the statement may be antithetical:

But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first. (Mt 19.30)
The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool. (AYL 5.1)

30. permissio (epitrope): surrender of a situation to the will of another; often for pity or irony:

Lo, here I lend thee this sharp-pointed sword,
Which if thou please to hide in this true breast
And let the soul forth that adoreth thee,
I lay it naked to the deadly stroke
And humbly beg the death upon my knee. (R3 1.2)

31. dubitatio (aporia): expression of uncertainty as to which of two or more words is most suitable:

How, a page?
Or dead or sleeping on him? But dead rather .... (Cymb 4.2)

32. expeditio (apophasis): enumeration of various alternatives, and elimination of all but one:

I cannot tell if to depart in silence,
Or bitterly to speak in your reproof,
Best fitteth my degree or your condition.
If not to answer, you might haply think
Tongue-tied ambition, not replying, yielded
To bear the golden yoke of sovereignty
Which fondly you would here impose on me.
If to reprove you for this suit of yours,
So seasoned with your faithful love to me,
Then, on the other side, I checked my friends.
Therefore - to speak, and to avoid the first,
And then, in speaking, not to incur the last -
Definitively I answer you. (R3 3.7)

33. dissolutio (asyndeton): a concise series of clauses without connectives:

Touch not; taste not; handle not. (Col 2.21)

34. praecisio (aposiopesis): the breaking off of a sentence, for emotional effect or implication:

But ere they came - O let me say no more!
Gather the sequel by that went before. (Errors 1.1)

35. conclusio (Quintilian denies this is a figure): a brief summary, deducing the consequences of what has been said or done:

But thy vile race,
Though thou didst learn, had that in't which good natures
Could not abide; therefore wast thou
Deservedly confined into this rock, who hadst
Deserved more than a prison. (Tempest 1.2)

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(that is, "conversions" - ten figures of word or diction in which words are used in a way that
effects a change in their conventional meaning.)

1. nominatio (onomatopoeia): neologism made on the basis of aural imitation or expressiveness:

The goos, the cokkow, and the doke also
So cryede, "Kek kek, kokkow, quek quek" .... (PF 498-99)

2. pronominatio (antonomasia): designating a person or thing by means of an epithet in place of the proper name:

You come with letters against the King, and take Vanity the puppet's part against the royalty of her father. (Lear 2.2)

3. denominatio (metonymy): substitution of the name of a related thing for the thing itself:

... doublet and hose ought to show itself courageous to petticoat. (AYL 2.4)

4. circumitio (periphrasis): expressing a simple idea by means of a circumlocution:

Madam, an hour before the worshipped sun
Peered forth the golden window of the east .... (R&J 1.1)

5. transgressio (hyperbaton): a change from normal word order (usually for the sake of rhythm), either through perversio (anastrophe), a reversal of words:

As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free. (Tempest Epilogue)
or through transiectio, a transposition involving the separation of grammatically related elements:
It is the cause. Yet I'll not shed her blood,
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow .... (Othello 5.2)
       (note: Dupriez does not mention transiectio, but cites this passage as an
       example of anastrophe, which he distinguishes from hyperbaton.)

6. superlatio (hyperbole): exaggeration, used either to magnify or to belittle something:

Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine
Making the green one red. (Macbeth 2.2)

7. intellectio (synecdoche): substitution of a part for the whole, or the whole for a part, of a thing:

Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood! (JC 3.1)

8. abusio (catachresis): inexact use of a word (also the unintentional misuse of a word, which is considered a fault):

I will speak daggers to her, but use none. (Hamlet 3.2)

9. translatio (metaphor): application of a word in a transferred sense from one thing to another that is in some way similar or analogous. (This most elaborate of tropes is too well known and too varied to be usefully illustrated here.)

10. permutatio (allegory): denoting one thing literally, but meaning another. This figure normally includes not only allegorical fictions as a whole (including dream visions such as Chaucer's HF and PF), and more isolated personified abstractions (such as Shakespeare's Time in WT or Rumour in 2H4), but also any extended metaphor, irony, sarcasm, and other local effects. As a figure or trope, allegory should be distinguished from what is often termed allegoresis, or allegorical interpretation of a text such as the Bible.

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1. distributio (diairesis, merismos): the assigning of specified roles among a number of things or persons:

They have a king and officers of sorts,
Where some like magistrates correct at home,
Others like merchants venture trade abroad,
Others like soldiers arméd in their stings
Make boot upon the summer's velvet buds .... (H5 1.2)

2. licentia (parrhesia): frankness of speech, before those to whom one owes reverence, because we feel justified in pointing out some fault:

Kill the physician, and thy fee bestow
Upon the foul disease. Revoke thy gift,
Or, whilst I can vent clamour from my throat,
I'll tell thee thou dost evil. (Lear 1.1)

3. diminutio (related to meiosis, litotes): a form of understatement, and implication of more than the words say:

And he nas nat right fat, I undertake .... (GProl 288)

4. descriptio (energia, diatyposis): clear, lucid, and vivid description (especially of the potential consequences of some action):

 ...in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards
And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls;
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds.... (H5 3.3)

5. divisio (prosapodosis): distinguishing the alternatives of a question, and resolving each, by subjoining a reason:

If we do meet again, why, we shall smile;
If not, why then this parting was well made. (JC 5.1)

6. frequentatio (synathroesmus): points scattered through a speech are gathered up to give sharpness and point:

You have conspired against our royal person,
Joined with an enemy proclaimed, and from his coffers
Received the golden earnest of our death;
Wherein you would have sold your king to slaughter,
His princes and his peers to servitude,
His subjects to oppression and contempt,
And his whole kingdom into desolation. (H5 2.2)

7. expolitio: a dwelling on and refining of the same topic, by repeating it in a variety of ways, or by descanting upon it, varying words, treatment, and tone of delivery.

To be, or not to be ... [etc.] (Hamlet 3.1)
(This is also a common sermon technique; see, for instance Chaucer's Pardoner on gluttony, or his Parson's Tale in general.)

8. commoratio (epimone): lingering upon a strong point and frequently returning to it. The Ad Herennium says it is not possible to give an example, since this figure runs through a whole discourse, but note, for instance, Mark Anthony's variations in the funeral oration (JC 3.2) on the theme: "...Brutus says he was ambitious,/ And Brutus is an honorable man." (Note: this particular line also illustrates the figure commutatio - see I.29 above.)

9. contentio (antithesis): a statement based on antithetical ideas (for contentio as a figure of diction, see I.5 above):

Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more. Had you rather Caesar were living, and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all freemen? (JC 3.2)

10. similitudo (parabole): a manner of speech that detects a kind of resemblance in things or situations that are different. It works through contrast, negation, detailed parallel, or abridged comparison:

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. (Mt 19.24)
For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Mt 12.40)

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11. exemplum (paradeigma): the citing of something done or said in the past together with the naming of the doer or author; it is used to render a thought clear, vivid, plausible:

Eek Plato seith, whoso kan hym rede,
The wordes moote be cosyn to the dede. (GProl 741-42)

12. imago (simile): a comparison of one thing with another by means of an image:

You were wont, when you laughed, to crow like a cock; when you walked, to walk like one of the lions.... (TGV 2.1)

13. effictio (karakterismos): the representation of physical appearance:

His face is all bubukles and whelks, and knobs, and flames o' fire, and his lips plows at his nose, and it is like a coal of fire.... (H5 3.6)

14. notatio (ethopoeia): representation of a person's character, stressing the most distinctive qualities: "by such delineation, anyone's ruling passion can be brought into the open" (ad Her. IV.65):

Sownynge in moral vertu was his speche,
And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche. (GProl 307-8)

15. sermocinatio (dialogoi): assigning language to a person which conforms with his character:

'Ye quek,' yit seyde the doke, ful wel and fayre,
'There been mo sterres, God wot, than a payre.' (PF 594-95)

16. conformatio (prosopopoeia): representing an absent person as speaking, or giving speech to that which has no speech:

All several sins, all used in each degree,
Throng to the bar, crying all, 'guilty, guilty.' (R3 5.3)

17. significatio (emphasis): insinuation and innuendo, often produced through ambiguity, analogy, or figures such as hyperbole:

But were I Brutus,
And Brutus Antony, there were an Antony
Would ruffle up your spirits, and put a tongue
In every wound of Caesar that should move
The stones of Rome to rise and mutiny. (JC 3.2)

18. brevitas (brachylogia): expressing an idea with a minimum of words:

King Lear hath lost, he and his daughter ta'en.
Give me thy hand. Come on. (Lear 5.2)

19. demonstratio (enargeia): a description so vivid that the event seems to take place before our eyes. It often includes an account of what precedes, accompanies, and follows an action:

No joyful tongue gave him his welcome home,
But dust was thrown upon his sacred head;
Which with such gentle sorrow he shook off,
His face still combatting with tears and smiles .... (R2 5.1)

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1. repetitio
similiter cadens
similiter desinens
17. adnominatio
18. subjectio
19. gradatio
20. definitio
21. transitio
22. correctio
23. occupatio
24. disjunctio
25. conjunctio
26. adjunctio
27. conduplicatio
31. dubitatio
32. expeditio
33. dissolutio
34. praecisio
35. conclusio

1. nominatio
2. pronominatio
3. denominatio
4. circumitio
5. transgressio
6. superlatio
7. intellectio
8. abusio
9. translatio
10. permutatio

1. distributio
2. licentia
3. diminutio
4. descriptio
5. divisio
6. frequentatio
7. expolitio
8. commoratio
9. contentio
10. similitudo
11. exemplum
12. imago
13. effictio
14. notatio
15. sermocinatio
16. conformatio
17. significatio
18. brevitas
19. demonstratio

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