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Which sentence paints a clearer picture in your mind? “That pair of shoes is green,” or “That pair of shoes is as green as a blade of grass.”

Communicating in English can be done on two levels: the concrete and the abstract. Concrete communication involves factual and direct statements, whereas abstract communication uses figurative language, such as figures of speech. Abstract communication typically requires you to have a deeper understanding of English, as you need to be familiar with the reference being made in order to infer its meaning.

Being able to recognise or use abstract or figurative language in your IELTS Writing or Speaking tests is a great way to show the examiner that you understand English on a more complex level, displaying your English proficiency to help you achieve a greater band score.

One way to do so is to use figures of speech, where language transcends its literal meaning to evoke vivid imagery and convey complex ideas. In this guide, we'll delve into the nuances of figures of speech, exploring common types such as similes, metaphors, personification, hyperbole, puns, and more, complete with examples.

Understanding these figures of speech not only enriches your grasp of English by expanding your vocabulary but also enhances your ability to excel in exams like the IELTS, where nuanced language comprehension is key to success.


Alliteration is a figure of speech involving the repetition of initial consonant sounds in nearby words. It creates a musical effect, adding rhythm and emphasis to writing. For example, "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers" repeats the "p" sound. Using alliteration demonstrates a mastery of language play and a keen ear for sound patterns. It adds flair to writing, making it more memorable and engaging. However, this playfulness also means it is better suited for casual or personal contexts, and may be seen as inappropriate for formal or semi-formal settings like the IELTS Academic test. When you’re writing a semi-formal piece of work for the IELTS Academic Writing task, for instance, it’s recommended not to use alliteration as this can lower the formality of the writing.


Assonance is a figure of speech similar to alliteration but involves the repetition of vowel sounds within nearby words instead. It creates a musical or rhythmic effect, adding texture and resonance to writing. For example, "fleet feet sweep by sleeping geese" repeats the "ee" sound. Similar to alliteration, using assonance enhances the auditory quality of writing, making it more lyrical and expressive. Recognising and employing assonance is another way to demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of language aesthetics and sound patterns, showing literary craftsmanship.


A simile is a figure of speech that compares two unlike things using the words "like" or "as" and can serve as a powerful tool for drawing parallels and painting vivid mental pictures.

For example, if you are writing a formal letter of complaint for IELTS General Training in Writing Task 1 where you want to describe how a cake you ordered arrived in poor condition. You might describe the cake as “as soggy as a puddle on a rainy day”. This simile conveys the poor appearance of the cake, stressing the severity of the complaint to the recipient of your letter.

Using similes not only illuminates the reader's mind with a vivid mental image but helps to add depth and colour to your visual descriptions, making them more vibrant and engaging.


Unlike a simile, a metaphor directly equates two different things by asserting that one thing is another. Metaphors invite readers to perceive familiar objects or concepts in a new light, often revealing deeper truths or emotions. For example, "Time is a thief" encapsulates the idea that time can steal moments and experiences from our lives.

Mastering metaphors requires you to understand the similarities between both items being compared as well as be able to connect seemingly unrelated things through that similarity. In the IELTS Writing or Speaking tests, incorporating metaphors demonstrates your creativity and linguistic versatility, earning you valuable points for language proficiency.

Download the IELTS by IDP app for more free resources on topics such as figures of speech to help boost your English proficiency.


Personification attributes human qualities or actions to inanimate objects, animals, or abstract concepts. By breathing life into the lifeless, personification adds depth and emotion to writing, making the description more immersive and engaging to read. For example, "The wind whispered secrets through the trees" imbues the wind with human-like qualities of secrecy and intimacy.

Recognising and employing personification in your writing adds richness and personality, captivating your audience and enhancing your expression of ideas. While you may not use personification in response to IELTS test questions, being able to identify them in various settings showcases your ability to decipher nuanced language and extract meaning from context.


Onomatopoeia is the use of words that imitate the sounds they represent. This figure of speech can help bring descriptive writing to life by creating auditory imagery and sensory experiences. For example, "buzz" or "hiss" mimic the sounds of insects or steam, respectively. Incorporating onomatopoeia enhances descriptive writing, making it more vivid and immersive. Using onomatopoeic words in your IELTS Writing or Speaking test demonstrates a keen awareness of sound symbolism and sensory language, indicating a high level of language proficiency and literary skill.


Synecdoche is a figure of speech where a smaller part is used to represent the whole or vice versa. It adds depth and complexity to language by allowing writers to convey abstract concepts through concrete imagery.

For example, in the statement “I picked up my new set of wheels from the used car salesman yesterday”, the word ‘wheels’ refers to a whole car, rather than individual wheels. Recognising synecdoche demonstrates an ability to understand symbolic representation and infer meaning from context. It showcases advanced language proficiency and an appreciation for the subtleties of expression.


Metonymy is a figure of speech where one word is substituted for another with which it's closely associated. It adds richness and depth to language by allowing writers to evoke broader concepts or ideas indirectly. For example, using "the White House" to refer to the U.S. government or “Silicon Valley” to refer to the tech industry. Recognising metonymy shows an ability to understand and interpret symbolic language, revealing a deeper understanding of cultural references and connotations. It reflects advanced language proficiency and cultural literacy.


Hyperbole involves exaggerating statements to the extreme for emphasis or effect. It magnifies reality to convey intense emotions or highlight important points. For example, "I've told you a million times!" exaggerates the frequency of an action to express frustration or exasperation while at the same time remaining unrealistic, as it would be almost impossible to tell someone something a million times.

Incorporating hyperbole in your writing adds flair and drama, grabbing readers' attention and eliciting emotional responses. When using hyperbole in your IELTS test, be sure to over-exaggerate the comparison and use creative language to take it even further. For example:

  • No hyperbole: “I’ve been waiting here for an hour!”

  • With hyperbole: “I’ve been waiting here for years!”

  • With hyperbole and creative language: “I’ve been waiting here since Facebook was created!”


An oxymoron is a figure of speech that combines contradictory terms for dramatic or ironic effect. It adds complexity and depth to language by highlighting paradoxes and tensions. For example, "bittersweet" combines the conflicting tastes of "bitter" and "sweet" to convey mixed emotions. Incorporating oxymorons enriches writing, provoking thought and eliciting emotional responses. It can signal your proficiency with linguistic subtleties and rhetorical devices, showing the examiners your advanced language proficiency through creative expression.


A euphemism replaces a harsh or unpleasant word with a milder or more indirect expression. It's often used to soften the impact of sensitive or taboo topics. For example, saying "passed away" instead of "died" is a euphemism. Employing this figure of speech shows tact and consideration for the feelings of others, indicating an ability to navigate delicate subjects with sensitivity and diplomacy. Recognising and using euphemisms in English not only demonstrates linguistic maturity but also a cultural or emotional awareness, highlighting a higher level of language proficiency.


A pun is a play on words that exploits multiple meanings or the sound of words for humorous or rhetorical effect. Puns add wit and cleverness to language, often eliciting smiles or laughter from readers.

Take for example, the pun "I used to be a baker, but I couldn't make enough dough". The word “dough” here has two meanings:

  • Literal meaning: “Dough” refers to a mixture of flour and water used to make bread. A baker needs to make enough dough to bake their goods and pastries, or their business will not succeed.

  • Figurative meaning: “Dough” also has a colloquial meaning of money, so the phrase “couldn't make enough dough” suggests one is not making enough money to survive.

Therefore, the pun implies that because the baker could not make enough dough (literal) and/or dough (figurative) to get by, their business failed.

Incorporating puns in your writing showcases your linguistic dexterity and creative wordplay, making your content more engaging and memorable. It also demonstrates your sensitivity to language nuances and humour, signalling advanced English proficiency. However, puns can also be one of the harder figures of speech to use during your IELTS test, as it requires both you and the examiner to understand the multiple meanings conveyed. If done unsuccessfully, a poorly written pun may seem like a bad joke at best or poor English proficiency at worst.


Next to puns, irony is another figure of speech that can be notoriously difficult to understand and execute. Irony is when there's a contrast between what's expected and what actually happens, often for humorous or dramatic effect. It adds depth and complexity to language, conveying subtle layers of meaning.

For example, saying "What a beautiful day" when you’re caught outdoors in a thunderstorm is ironic as a thunderstorm would be understood as creating an unpleasant experience. Recognising irony requires understanding context and underlying implications along with an ability to grapple with sarcasm to some degree. Using irony successfully demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of language nuances and cultural contexts, showcasing advanced language proficiency and critical thinking skills. However, like puns, using irony unsuccessfully can seem awkward.

Master figures of speech and more to excel in your IELTS


If you’re watching movies to boost your English language mastery or consuming other forms of creative media in English, you will eventually encounter and have to understand figures of speech. Mastering figures of speech will help to elevate your command of the English language and enhance your communication skills. So whether you're crafting essays, engaging in conversations, or tackling assessments like the IELTS test, you’ll be able to open doors to nuanced expression and deeper comprehension.

To further support your language journey, explore comprehensive, official online IELTS preparation materials, including IELTS classes, and free online IELTS tests, by IDP, a co-owner of IELTS, and watch your language skills soar to new heights!

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