What is Synecdoche?

Synecdoche is when a part of something represents the whole, or vice versa.

"Can I have your hand in marriage?"


We take all kinds of shortcuts in life, but we take shortcuts with language too. Nope, we’re not just talking about texting LOL and ROFL because we’re too lazy to type out the whole phrase. We, users of the English language, are so lazy that instead of referring to a whole something, we refer to just a piece of it and assume everyone knows what we’re talking about. Sound too strange to be true? Not so much. How many times have you asked someone for a hand when you really need more of them than just their hand? Or said that the whole world is against you when you meant that just someone or something isn’t going your way and not that the entire planet Earth has rebelled against you? What about this one- you compliment someone on their threads when you aren’t in awe of every single thread they are wearing but like their entire outfit. Guilty yet? Yup, we thought so. This type of language shortcut is called a synecdoche, and it is when a part of something represents the whole, or vice versa. Aside from condensing ideas, you might use synecdoche if you call an object what it is made out of instead of its actual name. For example, you might say “wheels” instead of “car” or use “silver” or “china” in place of a name for your fancy dinnerware. Not so weird now, huh?


Now see if you can sight the synecdoches in these poems.


The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Excerpt)


The western wave was all a-flame,

The day was well nigh done!

Almost upon the western wave

Rested the broad bright sun;

When that strange shape drove suddenly

Betwixt us and the sun.


And straight the sun was flecked with bars,

(Heaven's Mother send us grace!)

As if through a dungeon-grate he peered

With broad and burning face.


Alas! (thought I, and my heart beat loud)

How fast she nears and nears!

Are those her sails that glance in the sun,

Like restless gossameres?


Are those her ribs through which the sun

Did peer, as through a grate?

And is that Woman all her crew?

Is that a Death? and are there two?

Is Death that Woman's mate?

Outside History


These are outsiders, always. These stars—

these iron inklings of an Irish January,

whose light happened

thousands of years before

our pain did; they are, they have always been

outside history.

They keep their distance. Under them remains

a place where you found

you were human, and

a landscape in which you know you are mortal.

And a time to choose between them.

I have chosen:

out of myth in history I move to be

part of that ordeal

who darkness is

only now reaching me from those fields,

those rivers, those roads clotted as

firmaments with the dead.

How slowly they die

as we kneel beside them, whisper in their ear.

And we are too late. We are always too late.

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