The Four Master Tropes

Of the hundreds of figures of speech, four have been singled out by the literary theorist Kenneth Burke as figures of thought, as indispensible means to the discovery and representation of reality. The four master tropes are metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony. These figures or tropes play a central role in the organization of both literary works and systems of thought.

Every figure of speech can be divided into two parts corresponding to what is literally said and what is meant.
For example, if a manager says that his company needs "fresh blood," he does not mean that the employees should get blood transfusions. He means, rather, that there is a need to hire new workers who will bring energy, excitement, and a new perspective to the business. What is literally said, when it stands for something else, may be termed the image. What is meant, what the image stands for, may be called the subject.

1. Metaphor is the substitution of a word, image, or idea for another, based on an implied resemblance or analogy.

Shakespeare's sonnet 147 offers several examples of metaphor in its opening lines:

My love is as a fever longing still,         
For that which longer nurseth the disease;
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
The uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,             5
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me....

Technically, "my love is as a fever" is a simile, but it is easy to see how little difference there is between the explicit comparison "as" denotes and the implicit comparison that the removal of this preposition would produce. What is the likeness? The image of the fever shows love--the subject of the speaker's discourse--to be a source of suffering that preoccupies the patient, making it impossible to think of anything else. In the fifth line there is another, closely related, metaphor, this time comparing "reason" to a doctor. Like a doctor, reason gives the sufferer orders that, if followed, would ease his suffering. Medicine is itself based on the application of reason to the alleviation of disease. Thus, the metaphor substitutes one particular use of reason for another. At the same time, the comparison of reason to a physician is a personification, a fact which again illustrates the way figures of speech are capable of overlapping.

At the beginning of Sophocles' play Oedipus Rex a priest tells Oedipus that the city of Thebes is suffering from a plague:

                   King, you yourself
have seen our city reeling like a wreck
already; it can scarcely lift its prow
out of the depths, out of the bloody surf.

Again we see a simile turn into a metaphor, comparing the city--the subject--to a ship that is sinking in sight of land (the image).

Consider the following lines from Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma: "The genetic information that orders and perpetuates life is written in nitrogen ink." The first metaphor is "information" since the genetic structures found in the DNA molecule only resemble facts expressed through speech or writing. The second, more obvious metaphor is "ink"; Pollan is comparing the distribution of nitrogen atoms in the DNA molecule to the ink that conveys information by designating letters and words that stand out against the white of the paper, where the white roughly corresponds to the more numerous carbon atoms. The analogy, as all analogies are, is imperfect since DNA contains oxygen and hydrogen atoms as well. To cite a related metaphor, DNA is often called the "blueprint of life."

As Pollan's use of metaphor shows, metaphor is not confined to literary works. We employ metaphors in ordinary speech and in science, relying on them to clarify unfamiliar aspects of the world by comparing them to what is more familar. When we speak of people playing social "roles," we are using a metaphor drawn from the theater, comparing the scripted roles actors play in a work of drama with the generic actions people perform in ordinary life as dictated by custom. This metaphor is the basis of a pioneering work of sociology, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman, which explores the way that social life is structured like the workings of theater.

2. Metonymy is substitution of the name of an attribute or an adjunct for the name of the thing meant. To put it another way, it is substitution based on contiguity or proximity.

For example, we often name products for the place in which they were first produced. Sparkling wine is named "Champagne" because Champagne is the name of the region of France where this kind of wine was first produced. The fabric called "denim" is so-called because it was first produced in the French city of Nimes; in French, it is "de Nimes." "Cashmere" is a product of Kashmir, a region of India. "Damask" is a fabric first produced in Damascus.

People or institutions are also frequently named for the place or building they occupy. The Defense Department is called "the Pentagon." The Congress may be called "the hill" for the little hill that the United States Capitol Building sits on. When someone in the White House speaks for the President, reporters may write that "the White House said...."

In another kind of metonymy, we have generic names for persons based on articles of clothing they typically wear. A king or queen is called "the crown" as in "We wait word from the crown." A construction worker is called "a hard hat." A male office worker is called "a suit" as in "The IRS is auditing me? Great! All I need is a couple of suits arriving at my door." A woman can be called a skirt as in "He is always chasing skirts."

Other examples of metonymy involve substituting an instrument for the one who wields it or for what it produces. For example, "The pen is mightier than the sword" contains two metonymies. "Pen" refers to the persuasive force of writing or speech and "sword" refers to military force, that is, soldiers wielding weapons under the command of an officer.

The word "heart," when it stands for emotion, is a metonymy, based on the causal connection between emotions and an increased heart rate. "Tears" for sorrow is a similar figure. Euphemisms about sex and elimination involve metonymies (i.e. "sleeping with someone"). The term "role," designating the part an actor plays in a drama, is also a metonymy since it comes from the roll of paper that included the actor's words and cues in the days before actors were trusted with entire scripts.

3. Synecdoche is the substitution of part for whole or whole for part.

In the example cited above, "fresh blood" is a synecdoche for "new people." "All hands on deck" is another: we refer to the people by the part of them that is most instrumental to our purpose. The same synecdoche is found in the term "farmhand." We call a smart person "a brain" and, if a football coach wants to send into the game a running back who is less tired, he may talk about the team needing "fresh legs." When we talk about "counting heads" we mean counting people. Commentators on television or in documentaries are called "talking heads." If we want someone new to look at a problem we are having trouble solving, we may speak of a need for "fresh eyes."

When we speak of something as a "microcosm," we are using a synecdoche, comparing a part to the whole. At the same time, our synecdoche is a metaphor since we are saying that the part resembles the whole, that the microcosm is a blueprint of the cosmos or world. On the other hand, if the synecdoche does not posit a resemblance between part and whole, it must be a metonymy since the part is an adjunct of the whole and vice versa. A hand has something of the relation to the sailor or farmworker it belongs to as a sword has to a soldier or a pen to a writer who wields it .

Kenneth Burke associates synecdoche with political representation since the representative is a part of the group who stands for the whole of the group, as a congressman represents his district or the president presents the nation. Synecdoche is the basis of most scientific research since for reasons of practicality scientists can only study subsets of larger groups and then use them to generalize about the group as a whole.

4. Irony is the substitution of a statement for its opposite. Put another way, in irony what is said in some way contradicts what is meant. The contradiction need not be absolute. In irony, what is said may be understood as true in one sense and false in another.

In "To His Coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvell, the speaker tells his lady love that "the grave is a fine and private place,/ But none, I think, do there embrace." Clearly a grave is a private place, but not in the sense of a site for a romantic rendezvous. It is fine, but only in the sense that dust is fine. The understatement conveyed by "I think" is an example of irony since the speaker means that he is certain although he speaks as if he were not. The technical name for ironic understatement is litotes.

This first example of irony is called verbal irony because the speaker intends a meaning at odds with what he says. In novels or drama, however, it is possible for the speaker to mean what he says and yet his words are still ironic because the author intends us to see that in some sense what he is saying is untrue. We call this type of irony dramatic irony. When Oedipus tells the suppliants at the beginning of Sophocles' play Oedipus Rex, "I know you are sick,/ yet there is not one among you, sick though you are,/ that is as sick as I myself," he is expressing sympathy with their suffering, unaware that he is the true cause of the plague that ravages the city and therefore sick in a sense he does not imagine.

A third kind of irony may be termed irony of circumstance since it involves a situation in which what happens is exactly contrary to expectation. To call a fire in a fire station ironic is to refer to this kind of irony.

In the Grammar of Motives Kenneth Burke identifies irony with dialectic, an dialogic argument between conflicting points of view that leads to an insight beyond the limits of either position. In drama such a conflict of ideas is embodied in a conflict of characters with opposing points of view. Drama entails irony by showing us the truth and error of each of these contrasting perspectives.