4 Examples of Synecdoche From Literature and Everyday Speech

By studying examples of synecdoche, you will be able to implement this literary device in your own writing or spot it in the writing of others more easily.

Figures of speech make their way into English writing all the time. Many of these make it difficult for language learners to embrace the nuances of the language, but once you can understand them, you can better understand the language. Synecdoche is one such figure of speech.

To understand what this figure of speech is, you will need to study different examples of synecdoche and how they are used in writing. This literary device can be quite effective when wielded well, so take the time to understand it.

What Is Synecdoche?

Examples of synecdoche

Before studying examples of synecdoche, you must first define the terms. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines synecdoche as “A figure of speech by which a part is put up for the whole or the name of a material for the thing made.”

This definition of synecdoche is a literary element that’s difficult to understand. However, it’s best understood as part of something being substituted for the whole.

Synecdoche is so common in the English language that native English speakers and writers don’t even think about it. However, understanding what it is and the proper use of synecdoche is helpful.

Different Types of Synecdoche

Synecdoche comes in several forms. These synecdoche examples broken down by type will help you understand this use of figurative language better. Here are the forms of synecdoche you may run across in your reading.

Parts Representing a Whole

Sometimes, synecdoche shows up when the writer uses part of something to represent the whole of something. Some examples in everyday English include these:

  • “Hired hands” to refer to workers, as workers bring more than just their hands to the job.
  • “Wheels” in reference to a car, as a car has more than just wheels.
  • “Head count” when counting people or animals, as you are counting more than just heads.
  • “Bread” used to represent food, as bread is food, but often the reference is to more than just baked goods.

Whole Representing a Part

While synecdoche can be part representing a hole, vice versa is also true. If you use a word that refers to the entirety of an item, when really you just mean part of it, you are using this type of synecdoche. Here are some examples:

  • “I feel like the world is against me today.” In this sentence, “the world” does not mean the entire globe, but rather the parts you interacted with today.
  • “We went to the movies.” While some people may go to more than one movie, this phrase is often a use of synecdoche by using “the movies” to refer to just one film.
  • “The White House called a press conference.” In this statement, the entire White House is not calling the conference, but rather the press secretary or some similar part of the presidential staff.

Using a Class to Represent a Whole

This type of synecdoche shows up often in everyday speech, especially when a brand name becomes synonymous with the larger time it represents. Here are some examples:

  • “Band-Aid” is a common term used for adhesive bandages of any brand.
  • Many people use “Kleenex” to refer to any type of facial tissue.
  • “America” has become synonymous with the United States of America, even though the Americas are actually most of the western hemisphere.
  • “Styrofoam” is a brand name, but most people use it any time they are referring to polystyrene, the material it represents. 

Naming an Object by Its Material

Examples of synecdoche
Most people will refer to their cutlery as “silverware,” even though it is not made from silver

This type of synecdoche can be particularly confusing to non-native English speakers. Here are some examples:

  • Today, most people will refer to their cutlery as “silverware,” even though it is not made from silver.
  • You may pay for your purchase with “plastic,” which means you are using a debit card or credit card, not cash or check.
  • “Tickling the ivories” means playing piano, even though only the piano keys were once made from ivory.

Examples of Synecdoche in Literature

Synecdoche is a popular tool used in writing. Many famous poets as well as William Shakespeare use it frequently. Here are some examples:

1. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Coleridge

In his famous poem, Coleridge uses synecdoche when he writes: 

“The western wave was all a-flame

The day was well nigh done! 

Almost upon the western wave

Rested the broad, bright Sun”

Here, he uses just a part, the “western wave,” to represent the entire western horizon of the ocean. This is obviously much more than just one wave. 

Sale
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
  • Samuel Taylor Colefidge (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 77 Pages - 08/18/1970 (Publication Date) - Dover Publications (Publisher)

2. “I Heard a Fly Buzz – When I Died” by Emily Dickinson

In the second stanza of this particular poem, Dickinson employs synecdoche when she says:

“The Eyes around – had wrung them dry-

And Breaths were gathering firm

For that last Onset – when the King

Be witnessed – in the Room -“

In this stanza, she uses the word “eyes” to represent the people in the room. She needed to use synecdoche to keep the meter and rhythm of her poem, because “eyes” has one syllable while “people” has two.

I heard a Fly buzz ? when I died ?: Shmoop Poetry Guide
  • Shmoop (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 32 Pages - 06/16/2010 (Publication Date) - Shmoop University Inc (Publisher)

3. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot

In this stream of consciousness piece, T.S. Eliot uses synecdoche several times. These lines show some examples:

“There will be time, there will be time

To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;

There will be time to murder and create,

And time for all the works and days of hands

That lift and drop a question on your plate;”

Two lines here, “a face to meet the faces that you meet” and “all the works and days of hands” represent the people in the speaker’s life, without actually talking about them as a whole person. 

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and Other Works: Includes MLA Style Citations for Scholarly Secondary Sources, Peer-Reviewed Journal Articles and Critical Essays (Squid Ink Classics)
  • Eliot, T.S. (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 46 Pages - 11/12/2015 (Publication Date) - CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (Publisher)

4. Hamlet by William Shakespeare

In this line from Hamlet, Shakespeare uses synecdoche well:

“Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,

A serpent stung me; so the whole ear of Denmark

is by a forged process of my death

Rankly abused: but know, thou noble youth,

The serpent that did sting thy father’s life

now wears his crown.”

“The whole ear of Denmark” refers to the people of Denmark, and it is an example of synecdoche because it refers to just part, the ear, rather than the whole population.

Hamlet
  • Shakespeare, William (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 134 Pages - 10/16/2021 (Publication Date) - Independently published (Publisher)

Synecdoche vs. Metonymy

Synecdoche is very similar to metonymy, but these figures of speech are not the same. Where synecdoche is the part of something substituted for the whole, metonymy refers to a word associated with something used to represent the thing itself.

Using the word “crown” to represent a king or a queen, for instance, is an example of metonymy. Similarly, William Shakespeare’s quote “lend me your ears” is another example, as ears have an association with paying attention, but they are not actually a part of attention. 

Metonymy and synecdoche have a close link. It’s possible that some examples may fit both categories, depending on how you perceive them. Regardless, using these figurative language options in your writing will make it richer and more engaging. If you liked this post, you might find our oxymoron examples helpful.

A Final Word on Synecdoche Examples

Synecdoche is one of the literary devices that is so common, many people don’t even think about it. When you tell someone that there are “boots on the ground” when referring to soldiers on the ground, you are using this device. When you say, “I had my friends over,” you don’t mean all of your friends, but just a portion of them, and this is synecdoche.

Like many literary terms, synecdoche is best understood by studying examples. The more examples you read, the better you will be able to understand what synecdoche is and how it shows up in the literature you read.

Want to learn more? Check our guide to literary realism.

FAQs on Synecdoche Examples

What is synecdoche in literature?

Synecdoche in literature is a literary device that occurs when part of something is used to represent the whole or vice versa. Using the word “lead” to represent bullets would be an example.

What is synecdoche in poetry?

Poets often have to substitute words in their poems to fit the meter or rhythm of their poetry. Using synecdoche to supplement a word to represent part of a whole can accomplish this. For example, saying “sword” instead of “battle” would be an example of synecdoche, but would also eliminate a syllable in a poem to keep the meter.

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