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What is Synecdoche? Meaning, Types, Functions and Examples

Synecdoche is a literary device that is commonplace in everyday conversation. When you say, "Can I buy you a glass?" That's a synecdoche. It refers to using a part of something to refer to the whole or vice versa. In literature, it creates rhythmic, artistic, and colloquial effects. In this article, we explore the various types, effects, and examples of synecdoche.

Types of synecdoche in literature

Synecdoche can take several forms. But these forms either replace a part with a whole or a whole with a part. Here are four common usages, illustrated by examples: 

1. Using a part to represent a whole: A synecdoche can use a part of something to represent the whole. The phrase "hired hands" often refers to workers, as in "The company is trying to bring on more hired hands." Or the word "bread" can represent food, as in "Give us each day our daily bread."

2. Using a whole to represent a part: Synecdoche can also use the whole of something to represent a part. Here, a word denotatively refers to the totality of something when you're just speaking about a piece of it. People can use "the movies" to talk about a single movie at a particular theatre, as in "We are going to the movies next week." People also use "life" to refer to an aspect of the human experience, as in "This life is not fair, she should have gotten the promotion."  

3. Using a specific class to represent a whole: Synecdoche can use a word or phrase referring to a type to represent the whole group. People often refer to the United States as "America," one country in North America, while the Americas also refer to South America and Central America. For example, "I am going to America next year for my master's degree." People also use "Styrofoam," a brand name, to refer to any type of polystyrene. For example, "There is so much Styrofoam in this shipping package."

4. Referencing a material to name an object: Synecdoche also involves using the name of a material used in making an object to represent the object. People usually refer to credit cards and debit cards as "plastic," as in "I don't have cash, but I have plastic." People use "silverware" to refer to cutleries, even though most aren't made of silver. Remember when people called newspapers "the papers," as in "Can you imagine the ridiculous headline in the papers this morning?"

Functions of synecdoche in writing

Synecdoche is a functional literary device used by writers to achieve many effects. It can display creativity in language, making an expression sound more striking or more poetic. It helps create a powerful voice for a character, especially your story narrator. In Macbeth, for example, when Macbeth says, "Take thy face hence," readers get to see Macbeth's arrogant, savage personality at this point in the play. Synecdoche usually appears in slang, idioms, and colloquialisms. This helps writers create dialogues among characters that sound more real.

Poets use synecdoche to preserve their rhythm and rhyme by substituting one word or phrase for another. It gives writers options on how to express an idea and allows them to refer to a thing without repeating a word over and over. It also allows writers to be creative with their language usage, which readers can recognize and appreciate. Synecdoche also helps writers use a word or phrase to express a lot of meaning. Here, writers convey a broad, complex idea with simple words, making their work more complex, nuanced, and meaningful.

Examples of synecdoche in writing

Here are some examples of synecdoche in notable works of fiction:

1. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925). "It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again." Here, "ear" represents people listening to Daisy's voice.

2. Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987). "Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don't love your eyes; they'd just as soon pick 'em out. No more do they love the skin on your back." Here, "your eyes," "your flesh," and "the skin on your back" refer to a person.


Toni Morrison, Beloved, Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1987. 

 F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1925.

Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Frank Stephen