This time around, we take a look at two related figures of speech that can also make for more interesting writing. Don’t be intimidated by what they are called, because synecdoche and metonymy are actually much more straightforward than they sound.
Synecdoche: A Part for the Whole
In general, synecdoche is a figure of speech wherein a part stands to represent the whole. It can also be utilized in reverse and in some other slight variations, but the part representing the whole is the common application. You’ll find that synecdoche is used extensively in fiction. For example, the foot soldiers in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are oftentimes referred to simply as “the foot.”
Other common examples:
All hands (personnel) on deck.
Stephen puts everything on plastic (credit card).
I like your new wheels (car), John.
Metonymy: One in Place of Another
Very similar to synecdoche is the figure of speech known as metonymy. This is when you substitute one thing or concept with something that is intimately associated with it. Unlike a true metaphor, the qualities of the two things are not meant to be transferred. Using “the crown” in place of the Queen is a common metonym, but this does not imply she has any crown-like characteristics. Queen Elizabeth is still a woman and not a fancy jewel-encrusted hat.
Other common metonyms:
The suits (executives) met with overseas investors.
It took a lot of sweat (work/effort) to build that cabinet.
Wall Street (the banking industry) got a lot of bailout money.
Moderation is the Key
When used well, synecdoche and metonymy can make for a great poetic effect. They are much more expressive than referring to a thing or concept directly, but as with so many other rhetorical techniques, their overuse can also diminish their impact. Like using short fragments as sentences. Or italicizing everything. Just as you don’t want to use a metaphor in every line, you shouldn’t use synecdoche at every turn either.
The next time you pick up a book, keep an eye out for any clever usage of synecdoche or metonymy. It may start with emulation, but you will soon be developing a unique writing voice of your own.