Tropes: Definition & Explanation

Instructor: Angela Gentry
Tropes are figures of speech that usher in a change or turn of meaning in writing. Check out a comprehensive definition and lesson about tropes, and then examine your knowledge with a quiz.


There have probably been times in your life, most likely when you seem harried or stressed beyond the usual, that a friend will say to you, 'Stop and smell the roses.' Of course, he/she doesn't intend for you to physically stop by a green house or a solarium and hunt down roses to sniff. Instead, we would look beyond the surface meaning and infer that the person was encouraging us to pause, enjoy life, and be thankful for our blessings.


The phrase, 'Stop and smell the roses,' and the meaning we take from it, is an example of a trope. Derived from the Greek word tropos, which means, 'turn, direction, way,' tropes are figures of speech that move the meaning of the text from literal to figurative. Tropes in literature are vehicles that transport us to a richer experience and resonance with both the sensory aspects and experience aspects of any genre of writing: fiction, poetry, or nonfiction.


A writer can engineer this turn into more complex meaning through a number of different mechanisms. These include, but are not limited to, antithesis, apostrophes, conceit, metaphor, hyperbole, imagery, irony, oxymoron, personification, pun, simile, synecdoche, paradox, and many more. Let's take a closer look at the most common tropes and some respective examples:

Metaphor: This is a comparison between two things that are not normally associated with each other. Shakespeare's 116th sonnet provides some compelling examples:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove:

O no! it is an ever-fixed mark

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wandering bark,

Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.

Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle's compass come:

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.


One metaphor among many here is that Shakespeare compares love to the 'star to every wandering bark.' If he had only said that love guides people or that it offers hope, it would not have been nearly as evocative as the image a star and a searching dog conjure.

Hyperbole:This is simply an exaggeration, often used to communicate a point through humor. Example:

It's a slow burg(town)---I spent a couple of weeks there one day.

--- Poet Carl Sandburg, 'The People, Yes'

This is humorous because of the contradiction between increments of time. It's impossible to spend weeks in one day, thus, we feel the slowness of the town more acutely because of the comparison.

Personification: This trope treats a concept or idea as if it were a person.


'On His Blindness'

When I consider how my light is spent

Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,

And that one talent which is death to hide

Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present

My true account, lest he returning chide,

'Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?'

I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent

That murmur, soon replies, 'God doth not need

Either man's work or his own gifts. Who best

Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state

Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,

And post o'er land and ocean without rest;

They also serve who only stand and wait.'

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