figures of speech
turns of phrase, schemes, tropes, ornaments, colors, flowers
groupings index
schemes and tropes


Like wildflower seeds tossed on fertile ground, the figures of speech, sometimes called the "flowers of rhetoric" (flores rhetoricae), have multiplied into a garden of enormous variety over time. As the right frame of this web resource illustrates, the number of figures of speech can seem quite imposing. And indeed, the number, names, and groupings of figures have been the most variable aspect of rhetoric over its history.

Naming the Figures

The figures first acquired their names from the Greeks and Romans who catalogued them. Although attempts have been made to anglicize or update the figures' names, this sometimes proves to confuse things, even though the Greek and Latin terms are odd to modern ears. Pronunciation guides and etymologies have been provided to clarify the Greek terms, in particular. And because there are so many synonyms or close synonyms among the figures, each entry contains equivalent and comparative terms from Greek, Latin, and English. To view the terms from just one of these languages, see viewing options.

Categorizing the Figures

Over time these figures have been organized in a variety of different ways in order to make sense of them and to learn their various qualities —much as a scientist might classify the flora of a forest, grouping like species into families. Various kinds of groupings for the figures can be found here (cross references at the bottom of each figure's page can also lead one to related figures). The simplest (and oldest) arrangement for the figures divides them into two broad categories, "schemes" and "tropes"—useful starting points.

Situating the Figures within Rhetoric

As rich and interesting as the figures are, they do not constitute the whole of rhetoric, as some have mistakenly surmised. Such a view is a vast reduction of the discipline of rhetoric, which has just as much to do with the discovery of things to say (Invention), their arrangement (Arrangement), commital to memory (Memory), and presentation (Delivery) as it has to do with the figures of speech, which are typically categorized under the third of these canons of rhetoric, Style.

Figures of Thought / Topics of Invention

The word "figure" has sometimes been used to refer not only to means of expression, but to strategies of argument. Some theorists distinguish between "figures of speech" and "figures of thought" (see Figures of Speech and Thought). These latter "figures" are better known as topics of invention.

In this resource, a serious attempt has been made to show the close relationship between figures of speech and topics of invention. That relationship is something of a micro/macro relationship: what occurs on a local level with language to express an idea can in fact occur at a larger level, in an heuristic method, to discover ways of constructing arguments.

For example, the most identifiable tropes include metaphor and simile. These are simply comparisons: "Life is a journey"; "Watching TV is like taking a visual anaesthetic." But "comparison" itself is a topic of invention, a commonplace to which one may turn to generate ideas about something: "Let us compare life to a journey. We set out at birth, travel through various regions, and arrive at the bleak destination of death..." The difference between a figure and a topic of invention, then, may sometimes simply be a matter of degree, or it may be a matter of whether one views the strategy as one of expression of an idea (an issue of style) or the composition or discovery of an idea or argument (an issue of invention). The point is, we should recognize the close proximity of the figures and the topics of invention.

To this end, at the bottom of each page on which a figure is explained are listed 1) related figures and 2) related topics of invention. Thus, "Comparison" (the topic of invention) is listed at the bottom of the page explaining "metaphor," and is also at the bottom of the page on "simile." Reciprocally, "metaphor," "simile" and other comparative figures are listed at the bottom of the page that explains the topic of invention, "Comparison."

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.
Gideon O. Burton, Brigham Young University
Please cite "Silva Rhetoricae" (

Trees | SILVA RHETORICAE | Flowers