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Synedoche

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English

This may sound strange, but synecdoche can be a useful shorthand way of getting a point across, and it is more common than you may think.

What is synecdoche?

Synecdoche is a type of figurative language or a figure of speech, that refers to a thing by either the name of something that is part of it or by the name of something that it is part of. In other words, it is a part that refers to the whole, or a whole that refers to the part.

What are some examples of synecdoche?

In this section, we'll look at examples of synecdoche. We have split these into two sections; synecdoche as a part that refers to the whole, and synecdoche as a whole that refers to the part.

A part that refers to the whole

If somebody were to pull up in a new car and say, "Check out my new wheels", it is unlikely that you would start inspecting the tires - you would probably understand the phrase as, "Check out my new car". They have just mentioned a part (“wheels”) to refer to the whole (the car).

There are quite a few common phrases that use synecdoche in this way - for example, "I've got mouths to feed". Nobody has disembodied mouths floating around on their own that need feeding (we hope!), And so we understand this phrase as “I've got people to feed”; mouths are a part of people. By drawing attention to this particular body part, you are emphasizing that the people need feeding.

Ever heard the phrase “all hands on deck”? Here the word “hands” refers to people - as hands are also a part of people. In this case, you are drawing attention to the hands because you are most likely calling for these people to help with manual work.

If you were to see a man with a moustache walking down the street and yell, “Hey, moustache!” he would know that you were talking to him, not the moustache (disclaimer: please don't try this with any strangers!). The moustache is a part of him because it's attached to his face.

Synecdoche, Mustache man, StudySmarter"Hey Moustache!" (Pixabay)

“Bar” is another common synecdoche, as in, “We had a few drinks in a bar”. Once again, the part (the “bar”, where staff serve drinks) refers to the whole (the entire pub or club).

We often refer to objects by the name of something that they are physically made of; Examples of this include a "glass" that you drink from, or "plastic" in reference to a credit or debit card. These terms are classed as synecdoche, as once again the part (an element that it is made of) refers to the whole (the complete object).

In all of these examples, we are referring to a thing (such an object or a person) by the name of something that is a part of it. You can think of this type of synecdoche as zooming in on a particular detail of a thing.

The whole that refers to the part

"Watch out, the police are coming!" If you heard somebody shout this phrase, you wouldn't assume that the entire police force is coming round the corner - it would be several officers who work for the police. And so in this phrase, there is a whole (the police) that refers to a part (some police officers).

Let's say a parent speaks to their child and tells them, “I've had a word with your school”; we understand this as meaning, “I've had a word with the teachers at your school ”. The school is a whole that contains the teachers.

Are you starting to get the picture? You can think of this type of synecdoche as zooming out to reveal the whole that a thing is a part of.

An extremely common use of this type of synecdoche is using the name of a place (such as a country or city) to represent a group of people or an industry that is based there. One example of this is the term “Hollywood”, meaning the mainstream movie industry. As many major studios are based in Hollywood, California, you could say, "I hope to make it in Hollywood" and we would assume that you are trying to become a movie star.

In any international sports match, people refer to each team by the name of the country they represent, for example: “Germany is playing Italy”. What this means is, "The German football team is playing the Italian football team".

Other examples include:

  • “Broadway” or “The West End” to mean mainstream theater (as in, “She's a Broadway star”, or “It was a West End flop”).
  • “Downing Street” to mean the UK Prime Minister and staff (as in, “Downing Street announces latest budget”).
  • “The White House” to mean the US president and staff (as in, “The White House releases details of climate initiative”).

Synecdoche, New York street signs, StudySmarterSynecdoche in New York (pixabay.com)

Examples of synecdoche: a recap

Hopefully, these examples have given you a good idea of how synecdoche works. See below for a quick reference guide to the examples we've discussed.

Part that refers to the whole ("Zooming in")

SynecdocheMeaningExample phrase
WheelsCarCheck out my new wheels.
MouthPeople that need feedingI've got mouths to feed.
HandsPeople that are needed for manual labourAll hands on deck.
MoustacheMan with a moustacheHey moustache!
barPub or clubWe had a few drinks in a bar.
GlassA vessel for drinking, or the drink within itI drank a glass of orange juice.
PlasticCredit or debit cardAre you paying with plastic?

Whole that refers to the part ("Zooming out")

SynecdocheMeaningExample phrase
The policeSome police officersThe police are coming!
SchoolTeachers or staff at the schoolI had a word with your school.
HollywoodThe mainstream movie industryI hope to make it in Hollywood.
GermanyThe German football teamGermany won the World Cup.
BroadwayThe mainstream theater industryShe's a Broadway star.
Downing StreetThe British Prime Minister and their staffDowning Street announces latest budget.
The White HouseThe US president and their staffThe White House releases details of climate initiative.

Synecdoche vs metonymy - what's the difference?

We have established that synecdoche is a part that refers to the whole, or a whole that refers to the part. Metonymy works in a similar way, but the key difference is this: it refers to a thing by the name of something associated with it. That thing is not a physical part of it, nor is it something that contains the thing; it is something closely associated with the thing.

Earlier we looked at an example of synecdoche to describe a car: “Check out my new wheels ”. If we wanted to turn this into an example of metonymy, we could say, “Check out my new ride”. Why is this metonymy? Because the word that refers to the car, “ride”, is not a physical part of the car like “wheels” are; it is a word associated with cars.

Confusingly, some people class synecdoche as a type of metonymy; for the sake of clarity, we are classing synecdoche and metonymy as two separate things. We recommend speaking to your tutor about their opinion on this.

If you need any more information, see our article on metonymy.

Synedoche - Key takeaways

  • Synecdoche is a type of figurative language or a figure of speech, that refers to a thing by either the name of something that is part of it or by the name of something that it is part of. In other words, it is a part that refers to the whole, or a whole that refers to the part.
  • If a synecdoche is referring to the part as a whole, then it is zooming in on a particular detail of a thing. For example, we understand that the phrase, “I've got mouths to feed” means “I've got people to feed”. This phrase mentions a part (“mouths”) to refer to the whole (people).
  • If a synecdoche is referring to the whole as a part, then it is zooming out to reveal the whole that a thing is a part of. For example, if we hear the phrase, “Germany won the world cup”, we understand that as meaning “The German football team won the World Cup”. The original phrase mentions the whole (“Germany”) to refer to the part (the German football team).
  • Synecdoche is different from metonymy. Synecdoche refers to a thing by the name of something that is part of it, or that it is part of, whereas metonymy refers to a thing by the name of something associated with it.

Synedoche

Synecdoche is the act of referring to a thing by either the name of something that is part of it, or by the name of something that it is part of. In other words, it is a part that refers to the whole, or a whole that refers to the part.

An example of synecdoche is the sentence, “I hope to make it in Hollywood”. Hollywood is a place in California, but because so many major movie studios are based there, we assume that this phrase means, “I hope to make it in the mainstream movie industry”.

Synecdoche is a figure of speech, or a type of figurative language. This means that it is a non-literal way of getting a point across.

You pronounce synecdoche: suh-nek-duh-kee.

An example of synecdoche in Literature is the following extract from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

“For brave Macbeth–well he deserves that name–

Disdaining fortune, with his brandished steel…”

This is an example of synecdoche as it refers to Macbeth’s sword as his “steel” – the part (“steel”, which is what the sword is made of) refers to the whole (the sword). 

Final Synedoche Quiz

Question

Which of the following best describes synecdoche?

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Answer

Referring to a thing either by the name of something that is part of it, or by the name of something that it is part of.

Show question

Question

True or false?


Synecdoche is a figure of speech.

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Answer

True


Show question

Question

True or false?


Synecdoche can refer to something by the name of a material or element that it is made of.

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Answer

True


Show question

Question

True or false?


Synecdoche gives human characteristics to objects.

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Answer

False


Show question

Question

True or false?


Synecdoche is only used in literature and never in everyday language.

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Answer

False


Show question

Question

Which of the following is an example of synecdoche?

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Answer

Jamaica won the gold in the 200 metre sprint.

Show question

Question

Which of the following is an example of synecdoche?

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Answer

The White House makes a statement on new policies.

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Question

How is “synecdoche” pronounced?

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Answer

suh-nek-duh-kee.

Show question

Question

Which of the following is NOT an example of synecdoche?

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Answer

There was music playing.

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Question

Which of the following locations is NOT commonly used as a synecdoche?

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Answer

Dover.

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Question

Which of the following is NOT an example of synecdoche?

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Answer

They extinguished the fire.

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Question

Which of the following is NOT an example of synecdoche?

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Answer

The boxer put up his fists.

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Question

Which of the following is an example of synecdoche?

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Answer

My wheels are parked outside.

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Question

Which of the following nicknames is NOT an example of synecdoche?

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Answer

Big Man.

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Question

True or false?


Synecdoche is different from metonymy.

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Answer

True

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank:


Synecdoche is a ______ of speech.

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Answer

figure

Show question

Question

Which of the following is an example of synecdoche?

Show answer

Answer

Check out my new wheels

Show question

Question

True or false?


Synecdoche refers to a thing by the name of something associated with it. 

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

True or false?


Both synecdoche and metonymy refer to a thing by the name of something else.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

If a synecdoche is referring to the part as a whole, then it is zooming _____.

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Answer

in

Show question

Question

If a synecdoche is referring to the whole as a part, then it is zooming ____.

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Answer

out

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Question

The phrase "I've got mouths to feed" refers to...

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Answer

The part as a whole

Show question

Question

The phrase “Germany won the world cup” refers to...

Show answer

Answer

The whole as a part

Show question

Question

True or false?


Some people class synecdoche as a type of metonymy.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank:


Synecdoche is a type of _________ language.

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Answer

figurative

Show question

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