lexical stylistic devices
Lexical stylistic devices
Pun, zeugma, semantically false chains,
nonsense of non-sequence
Hyperbole and understatement
Lexical stylistic device is such type of denoting phenomena that serves
to create additional expressive, evaluative, subjective connotations. In
fact we deal with the intended substitution of the existing names
approved by long usage and fixed in dictionaries, prompted by the
speaker’s subjective original view and evaluation of things. Each type
of intended substitution results in a stylistic device called also a
This act of substitution is referred to transference – the name of one
object is transferred onto another, proceeding from their similarity (of
shape, color, function, etc.) or closeness (of material existence,
cause/effect, instrument/result, part/whole relations, etc.).
Lexical stylistic devices
The most frequently used, well known and elaborated among lexical
stylistic devices is a metaphor – transference of names based on the
associated likeness between two objects, as in the “pancake”, “ball” for
the “sky” or “silver dust”, “sequins” for “stars”. So there exist a
similarity based on one or more common semantic component. And the wider
is the gap between the associated objects the more striking and
unexpected – the more expressive – is the metaphor.
If a metaphor involves likeness between inanimate and animate objects,
we deal with personification, as in the “face of London” or “the pain of
Metaphor, as all other lexical stylistic devices, is fresh, original,
genuine when first used, and trite, hackneyed, stale when often
repeated. In the latter case it gradually loses its expressiveness.
Metaphor can be expressed by all notional parts of speech. Metaphor
functions in the sentence as any of its members.
When the speaker (writer) in his desire to present an elaborated image
does not limit its creation to a single metaphor but offers a group of
them, this cluster is called sustained (prolonged) metaphor.
Another lexical stylistic device – metonymy is created by a different
semantic process. It is based on contiguity (nearness) of objects.
Transference of names in metonymy does not involve a necessity for two
different words to have a common component in their semantic structures
as is the case with metaphor but proceeds from the fact that two objects
(phenomena) have common grounds of existence in reality. Such words as
“cup” and “tea” have no semantic nearness, but the first one may serve
the container of the second, hence – the conversational cliche “Will you
have another cup?”.
Metonymy as all other lexical stylistic devices loses its originality
due to long use.
The scope of transference in metonymy is much more limited than that of
metaphor, which is quite understandable: the scope of human imagination
identifying two objects (phenomena, actions) on the grounds of
commonness of their innumerable characteristics is boundless while
actual relations between objects are more limited. One type of metonymy
– namely the one, which is based on the relations between the part and
the whole – is often viewed independently as synecdoche.
As a rule, metonymy is expressed by nouns (less frequently – by
substantivized numerals) and is used in syntactical functions
characteristic of nouns (subject, object, predicative).
semantically false chains
and nonsense of non-sequence
Pun, zeugma, semantically false chains and nonsense of non-sequence are
united into a small group as they have much in common both in the
mechanism of their formation and in their function.
In the stylistic tradition of the English-speaking countries only the
first two (pun and zeugma) are widely discussed. The latter may be
viewed as slight variations of the first ones. The foursome perform the
same stylistic function in speech and operate on the same linguistic
mechanism. Namely, one word-form is deliberately used in two meanings.
The effect of these lexical stylistic devices is humorous. Contextual
conditions leading to the simultaneous realization of two meanings.
The formation of pun may vary. One speaker’s utterance may be wrong
interpreted by the other due to the existence of different meaning of
the misinterpreted word or its homonym. For example, “Have you been
seeing any spirits?” “Or taking any?” The first “spirits” refers to
supernatural forces, the second one – to strong drinks. Punning may be
also the result of the speaker’s intended violation of the listener’s
We deal with zeugma when polysemantic verbs that can be combined with
nouns of most varying semantic groups are deliberately used with two or
more homogeneous members which are not connected semantically, as in
such example: “He took his hat and his leave”. Zeugma is highly
characteristic of English prose of previous centuries.
When the number of homogeneous members, semantically disconnected but
attached to the same verb increases we deal with semantically false
chains, which are thus a variation of zeugma. As a rule, it is the last
member of the chain that falls out of the semantic group, producing
humorous effect. The following case may serve an example: “A Governess
wanted. Must possess knowledge of Rumanian, Italian, Spanish, German,
Music and Mining Engineering”.
In most examples of zeugma the verb loses some of its semantic
independence and strength being considered as member of phraseological
unit or cliche.
Nonsense of non-sequence results in joining two semantically
disconnected clauses into one sentence, as in: “Emperor Nero played the
fiddle, so they burnt Rome”. Two disconnected statements are forcibly
In all previously discussed lexical stylistic devices we dealt with
various transformations of the denotational meaning of words, which
participated in the creation of metaphors, metonymies, puns, zeugmas,
etc. Each of these lexical stylistic devices added expressiveness and
originality to the nomination of the object. Their subjectivity relies
on the new and fresh look at the object mentioned and shows the object
from a new and unexpected side.
In irony subjectivity lies in the evaluation of the phenomenon. The
essence of irony consists in the foregrounding not of the logical but of
the evaluative meaning. Irony thus is a stylistic device in which the
contextual evaluative meaning of a word is directly opposite to its
The context is arranged so that the qualifying word in irony reverses
the direction of the evaluation and a positive meaning is understood as
a negative one and (much-much rare) vice versa. “She turned with the
sweet smile of an alligator”. The word ”sweet” reverse their positive
meaning into the negative one due to the context. So, like all other
lexical stylistic devices irony does not exist outside the context.
There are two types of irony: verbal irony and sustained irony. In the
stylistic devise of verbal irony it is always possible to indicate the
exact word whose contextual meaning diametrically opposes its dictionary
meaning. And we deal with sustained irony when it is not possible to
indicate such exact word and the effect of irony is created by number of
statements by the whole text. This type of irony is formed by the
contradiction of the speaker’s (writer’s) considerations and the
generally accepted moral and ethical codes.
Antonomasia is a lexical stylistic device in which a proper name is used
instead of a common noun or vice versa. Logical meaning serves to denote
concepts and thus to classify individual objects into groups (classes).
The nominal meaning of a proper name is suppressed by its logical
meaning and acquires the new – nominal – component. Nominal meaning has
no classifying power for it applies to one single individual object with
the aim not of classifying it constituting a definite group, but, on the
contrary with the aim of singling it out of the group of similar
objects, of individualizing one particular object. The word “Mary” does
not indicate if the denoted object refers to the class of women, girls,
boats, cats, etc. But in example: “He took little satisfaction in
telling each Mary, something…” the attribute “each”, used with the name,
turns it into a common noun denoting any woman. Here we deal with a case
of antonomasia of the first type.
Another type of antonomasia we meet when a common noun is still clearly
perceived as a proper name. So, no speaker of English today has it in
his mind that such popular English surnames as Mr.Smith or Mr.Brown
used to mean occupation and the color. While such names as Mr.Snake or
Mr.Backbite immediately raise associations with certain human qualities
due to the denotational meaning of the words “snake” and “backbite”.
Antonomasia is created mainly by nouns, more seldom by attributive
combinations (as in “Dr.Fresh Air”) or phrases (as in
Epithet is a lexical stylistic device that relies on the foregrounding
of the emotive meaning. The emotive meaning of the word is foregrounded
to suppress the denotational meaning of the latter. The characteristic
attached to the object to qualify it is always chosen by the speaker
himself. Epithet gives opportunities of qualifying every object from
subjective viewpoint, which is indispensable in creative prose,
publicist style and everyday speech.
Like metaphor, metonymy and simile epithets are also based on similarity
between two objects, on nearness of the qualified objects and on their
Through long and repeated use epithets become fixed. Many fixed epithets
are closely connected with folklore. First fixed epithets were found in
Homer’s poetry (e.g. “swift-footed Achilles”).
Semantically, there should be differentiated two main groups. The
biggest one is affective epithets. These epithets serve to convey the
emotional evaluation of the object by the speaker. Most of qualifying
words found in the dictionary can be and are used as affective epithets.
The second group – figurative epithets. The group is formed of
metaphors, metonymies and similes and expressed predominantly by
adjectives (e.g. “the smiling sun”, “the frowning cloud”), qualitative
adverbs (e.g. “his triumphant look”), or rarely by nouns in exclamatory
sentences (e.g. “You, ostrich!”) and postpositive attributes (e.g.
“Richard of the Lion Heart”).
Two-step epithets are so called because the process of qualifying passes
two stages: the qualification of the object and the qualification of the
qualification itself, as in “an unnaturally mild day”. Two-step epithets
have a fixed structure of Adv+Adj model.
Phrase-epithets always produce an original impression (e.g.
“shutters-coming-off-the-shops early morning”). Their originality
proceeds from rare repetitions. Phrase-epithet is semantically
self-sufficient word combination or even a whole sentence which loses
some of its independence and self-sufficiency, becoming a member of
Hyperbole and understatement
Hyperbole is a lexical stylistic device in which emphasis is achieved
through deliberate exaggeration.
Hyperbole is one of the common expressive means of our everyday speech
(e.g. “I have told it to you a thousand times”). Due to long and
repeated use hyperboles have lost their originality.
Hyperbole can be expressed by all notional parts of speech.
It is important that both communicants should clearly perceive that the
exaggeration serves not to denote actual quality or quantity but signals
the emotional background of the utterance. If this reciprocal
understanding is absent, hyperbole turns into a mere lie.
Hyperbole is aimed at exaggerating quantity or quality. When it is
directed the opposite way, when the size, shape, dimensions,
characteristic features of the object are not overrated, but
intentionally underrated, we deal with understatement. English is well
known for its preference for understatement in everyday speech. “I am
rather annoyed” instead of “I’m infuriated’, “The wind is rather strong”
instead of “There’s a gale blowing outside” are typical of British
polite speech, but are less characteristic of American English.
Oxymoron is lexical stylistic device the syntactic and semantic
structures of which come to clashes (e.g. “cold fire”, “brawling love”).
The most widely known structure of oxymoron is attributive. But there
are also others, in which verbs are employed. Such verbal structures as
“to shout mutely” or “to cry silently” are used to strengthen the idea.
Oxymoron may be considered as a specific type of epithet.
Originality and specificity of oxymoron becomes especially evident in
non-attributive structures which also (not infrequently) are used to
express semantic contradiction as in “the street was damaged by
improvements”, “silence was louder than thunder”.
Oxymorons rarely become trite, for their components, linked forcibly,
repulse each other and oppose repeated use. There are few colloquial
oxymorons, all of them show a high degree of the speaker’s emotional
involvement in the situation, as in “awfully pretty”.
Y.M.Skrebnev. Fundamentals of English Stylistics. M. V.Sh. 1994
I.R.Galperin. Stylistics. M. V.Sh. 1981
V.A.Kukharenko. A Book of Practice in Stylistics. M. V.Sh. 1986
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