Grammar Lesson: Metonymy & Synecdoche
Today we’re going to tackle two figures of speech you probably remember from school but may never consciously use in your writing: metonymy and synecdoche.
Metonymy is referring to a noun not by its name, but by something associated with it, whether specifically or just conceptually.
Synecdoche is a more specific type of metonymy in that it uses just a part of something to refer to its whole.
When you say ‘the university would frown upon that’ you’re using metonymy, because you’re really talking about the people who run the place. Similarly, referring to the U.S. government as Washington (a location heavily associated with the government) or reporters collectively as the press (a tool essential to their trade) that’s all metonymy.
As for synecdoche, the most common examples you’ll find are things like ‘all hands on deck,’ but remember it’s not limited to human parts. http://grammar.about.com/od/rs/g/synecdocheterm.htm has some better examples of synecdoche than other sites, including one from Updike, ‘a pair of headlights.’
You may be using synecdoche without thinking about it in situations where your characters can only detect part of something. ‘The glowing eyes tracked me from the hedge, and more than ever, I wished I’d never clambered out of the carriage.’
Some uses for metonymy or synecdoche include brevity, description, and to help convey a character’s attitude about something. If your character refers to businessmen or investors as ‘suits,’ you can draw some inferences about that. If you add some air quotes or an awkward laugh to the same word, you’ll produce different inferences.
Both can come in handy when working on furry fiction. While even conventional dialogue includes phrases like ‘get your tail in here,’ they’re more relevant in our genre of choice. Don’t be afraid to follow familiar formulas to create new idioms for your anthropomorphic cultures using synecdoche and metonymy; just keep your story’s tone in mind. It can be a fine line to walk between humor and a plausible example of parallel linguistic evolution, and you don’t want one when you intended the other.
Furry characters also offer more visual variety and more opportunities to use synecdoche. Stripes, spots, antlers, horns, any distinguishing feature can be used as shorthand when referring to respective characters, and can also help convey the fact that the observer only got a vague impression of the character in question, because darkness, motion, or other factors interfered.
These figures of speech help make your writing and dialogue more natural; people use them every day.