Understanding Synecdoche: Definition, Examples, and Usage
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 6 min read


  1. What is Synecdoche?
  2. How to Identify Synecdoche
  3. Why Use Synecdoche?
  4. Examples of Synecdoche in Literature
  5. Examples of Synecdoche in Everyday Speech
  6. How to Use Synecdoche in Writing

Have you ever heard of a word that refers to a part of something, but is actually used to represent the whole? If you're scratching your head, don't worry. You're not alone. This blog post will help you understand the definition of synecdoche, a nifty linguistic tool that you've probably used without even knowing it. So, let's dive in!

What is Synecdoche?

At its most basic, the definition of synecdoche (pronounced si-nek-duh-kee) is a figure of speech where a part of something refers to the whole, or vice-versa. It's a way of speaking that we often use without thinking. Let's break it down a bit more.

Parts Representing the Whole

One way to understand synecdoche is when a part of something is used to represent the whole. For example, when we say "wheels" to refer to a car. In this case, "wheels" — a part of the car — represents the whole car. Cool, right?

The Whole Representing a Part

On the flip side, synecdoche can also work the other way round, with the whole representing a part. That's when we use the name of a whole entity to refer to just a part of it. For instance, saying "the White House announced a new policy" doesn't mean the actual building made an announcement. Instead, it's a way to refer to the people who work in the White House — a part of the whole entity.

Why It's Hard to Spot

One of the tricky things about synecdoche is that it's so common in our everyday language, we often don't notice we're using it. Whether we talk about "hiring new hands" on a project or "counting heads" at a meeting, we're actually using synecdoche. But don't worry, with practice, you'll start to recognize it more and more.

Now that we've covered the basic definition of synecdoche, let's move on to how you can identify synecdoche when you come across it. Trust me, it's far simpler than it sounds.

How to Identify Synecdoche

So, you've got the basic definition of synecdoche down. But how do you identify it in a sentence or a piece of text? Here are a few tips to help you spot synecdoche like a pro.

Look for Parts of a Whole

Remember, one of the key characteristics of synecdoche is using a part to represent the whole. So, if you see a phrase where a part of something represents the entirety of it, you might be looking at synecdoche. For instance, if someone mentions "boots on the ground," they don't just mean a pair of boots. They're referring to the soldiers wearing them.

Find the Whole in a Part

Conversely, synecdoche can also involve a whole representing a part. If you read a sentence where a larger entity represents just a portion of it, synecdoche might be at play. For example, "Hollywood is buzzing about the new movie." Here, Hollywood—the whole—represents a part, like film industry insiders.

Spotting Everyday Synecdoche

Because synecdoche is so ingrained in our language, we often use it in everyday speech without realizing it. Phrases like "nice wheels" or "all hands on deck" are classic examples of synecdoche. By paying attention to these everyday phrases, you'll become a synecdoche-spotting expert in no time!

Now that you know how to identify synecdoche, let's explore why you'd want to use it. You'll soon see that synecdoche is more than just a fancy language trick—it's a powerful communication tool.

Why Use Synecdoche?

Now, you might be wondering, why would one want to use synecdoche? Isn't it just a fancy language tool? Well, it's more than just that. Let's dive into the reasons why you might want to use synecdoche.

Makes Communication More Interesting

Firstly, synecdoche adds a little flair to your language. Instead of saying, "I love your new car," you could say, "I love your new wheels!" It's the same sentiment, but it sounds a bit more fun, doesn't it?

Improves Reader Engagement

When you use synecdoche, you engage your reader's imagination. Instead of giving them the whole picture, you're giving them a piece and letting them fill in the rest. It's like a little puzzle for their brain to solve, and who doesn't love a good puzzle?

Helps in Emphasizing Points

Synecdoche can also be a tool for emphasis. If you want to highlight a particular element of a larger concept, using synecdoche can be a great way to do it. For instance: "The crown will not tolerate this kind of behavior." Here, the 'crown' is a synecdoche for the ruling monarch, emphasizing their authority.

Now that we've explored why to use synecdoche, let's look at some examples in literature and everyday speech to help solidify your understanding of this figure of speech.

Examples of Synecdoche in Literature

Now that we have a firm grasp on the definition of synecdoche and understand why it's used, let's take a look at some examples from literature. These will help illustrate how authors and poets use this device to add depth and resonance to their work.

Shakespeare's Use of Synecdoche

Considered one of the greatest writers in the English language, William Shakespeare frequently used synecdoche in his plays. In "Macbeth," for instance, he uses the word "sails" to represent a whole ship: "Our ship is in the harbor with her sails full."

The Great Gatsby

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s "The Great Gatsby," the city of New York is often referred to as "the city" - a part representing the whole. This is an example of synecdoche that helps to emphasize the overwhelming enormity and significance of New York in the characters' lives.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

In Herman Melville's classic novel "Moby Dick," the titular whale is often referred to simply as "the whale" or "the white," both examples of synecdoche. In this case, the specific whale, Moby Dick, is used to represent all whales, or even the entire natural world and its mysteries.

These examples from literature should give you a better sense of how synecdoche can be used to create more vivid and engaging writing. Next, let's look at how this device appears in everyday speech.

Examples of Synecdoche in Everyday Speech

While we've seen the definition of synecdoche applied in literature, it might surprise you to know that we often use this figure of speech in our daily communication too. Let's explore some common instances.

Referring to Vehicles

Ever heard someone refer to their car as 'wheels'? Or a boat as 'sails'? These are examples of synecdoche, where a part of the object (wheels or sails) stands for the whole object (car or boat).

Speaking about Groups

When we use terms like 'the police' or 'the team' to refer to a single officer or player, we're using synecdoche. In these cases, the group represents the individual.

Discussing Places

'Hollywood' is often used to represent the entire American film industry. Similarly, 'Wall Street' stands for the financial sector. In both cases, a location represents a larger industry or concept.

So, as you can see, synecdoche isn't just a fancy literary term. It's something we use regularly, often without even realizing it. Now that we've seen how it's used in everyday speech, let's move on to how you can use synecdoche in your own writing to make it more impactful.

How to Use Synecdoche in Writing

After understanding the definition of synecdoche and seeing its use in daily conversation, you might be wondering how to use it in your writing. So let's explore some practical tips.

Creating Vivid Imagery

One of the main ways to use synecdoche is to create vivid and striking imagery. Instead of saying 'the car sped off', you could say 'the wheels spun into the night'. Here, 'wheels' stand for the whole car, making the scene more dynamic.

Making Connections

Synecdoche can help you establish connections between various elements in your writing. For example, referring to a king as 'the crown' not only adds a royal touch but also connects the character to the power and authority the crown symbolizes.

Adding Depth

Using synecdoche can add an extra layer of meaning to your writing. When we say 'Hollywood has lost its charm', we are not talking about the geographical location but the film industry it represents. This gives your writing a deeper, more nuanced meaning.

Remember, the key to effectively using synecdoche is subtlety. Overusing it can make your writing feel forced or overly complex. But with practice, you'll find a balance that works for you and adds a special touch to your writing style.

If you're fascinated by the concept of synecdoche and looking to explore more ways to creatively use language and sensory experiences in your art, check out the workshop 'Synesthesia: Art Collaborations Inspired by the Mind' by Lucy Cordes Engelman. This workshop will delve into the world of synesthesia and help you discover new ways to blend art forms and create unique, multisensory experiences in your work.