What Is Synecdoche?

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Synecdoche occurs when you substitute a part for the whole. For instance, when people use the word “suits,” it’s commonly understood that what they really mean are corporate businesspeople. The suit, just one representational part of a businessperson, characterizes the whole.

In literature, synecdoche functions something like metaphor — it is a comparison of one part of the thing to the whole thing. For instance, when you say, “There are too many mouths to feed,” you reduce a thinking individual to something that swallows up resources. The synecdoche helps to get the proper connotative meaning.

How Do You Distinguish Synecdoche from Metonymy?

Synecdoche is a form of metonymy. The key difference between the two literary devices is metonymy can substitute a term that is not part of the whole for the thing being described. For instance, in the expression, “The pen is mightier than the sword,” there are two metonymies. “Pen” stands for the written word, and “sword” stands for physical combat. Neither a pen nor a sword is part of the whole being described, so this cannot be synecdoche.

However, it is sometimes hard to distinguish between the two terms. In Introducing Metaphor, Murray Knowles and Rosamund Moon note that using the term “plastic” for credit could be synecdoche, since credit cards are made of plastic. But the word “plastic” also means flexible, so the term could refer to the entire system of credit, making the term a form of metonymy, and not synecdoche.

Do you find this confusing? So do many scholars, who have decided it’s more trouble than it’s worth to distinguish synecdoche from metonymy.

Examples of Synecdoche

Synecdoche Example 1. Those are nice wheels you’ve got there. I wish I could afford a such a sweet ride.

Synecdoche Example 2. 9/11 is a powerful use of synecdoche, where part of the whole date — September 11, 2001 — conjures up the terrorist attacks.

Synecdoche Example 3. Could you please give me a hand?

Synecdoche Example 4. “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears;” — Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

Synecdoche Example 5. Pass the ketchup. (What you really mean is pass the bottle that’s holding ketchup.)

Synecdoche Example 6. “The Coiffure was in his usual form.” — Molly Ivins, speaking about Texas Governor Rick Perry.