What Is Synecdoche? | Definition & Examples

Rhetoric updated on  December 6, 2023 4 min read
Synecdoche is a figure of speech that uses a part of something to refer to the whole (e.g., using the word “wheels” to refer to a car). Sometimes, synecdoche involves using the whole to refer to a part (e.g., referring to the Brazilian football team as “Brazil”).

Synecdoche is an effective literary device for creating memorable images and avoiding repetition. Because of this, it is commonly used in poetry, literature, and everyday speech.

Synecdoche example
My nephew is learning his ABCs. [the alphabet]
Would you like paper or plastic? [types of grocery bag]
Can I buy you a glass? [a drink]
They have boots on the ground for a serious mission. [soldiers]

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What is synecdoche?

Synecdoche is a rhetorical device or trope in which a part of something is used to represent the whole (or vice versa, with the whole representing a part). It’s a figurative way of expressing something by referring to one of its elements.

The most common types of synecdoche are:

  • Part for the whole. This involves using a part of something to refer to the whole. For example, the phrase “mouths to feed” uses a part of the human anatomy to signify the whole person.
  • Whole for the part. This involves using a whole entity to refer to one of its parts. For example, we often use the collective noun “the police” to refer to a single police officer.
  • Container for the contained. This involves using the name of a container to refer to its contents (e.g., “keg” for a keg of beer, “cup” for a cup of coffee). This type of synecdoche is common in everyday speech.
  • Material for the thing. This involves referring to the material that is used to make something, instead of the object itself. For example, “paying with plastic” means paying with a credit card, which is made of plastic.

What is the difference between synecdoche and metonymy?

Metonymy and synecdoche both involve the substitution of one word with another. However, they are distinct literary devices.

Metonymy substitutes a concept or object with a closely related term (e.g., “brain” for “intelligence”).

In contrast, synecdoche uses a part of something to symbolize the entirety (or conversely, uses the whole to represent a part). Therefore, synecdoche establishes a more precise relationship between the original word and its substitute. For instance, the phrase “hired hand” is a synecdoche for a laborer, because a hand is a part of the human body.

Due to their close relationship, synecdoche is sometimes considered a subset of metonymy, although there is no general consensus on this.

Synecdoche examples

Synecdoche is a common literary device.

Synecdoche example in F. Scott Fitzgerlad’s The Great Gatsby
“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

Here, the phrase “retreated back into their money” is an example of synecdoche. It doesn’t only mean money in the physical sense. It also signifies the privilege and decadent lifestyle that their money affords them. In other words, money is used here as a part of Tom and Daisy’s entire way of life and values.

Synecdoche is also common in everyday speech.

Synecdoche example: Using a brand name to refer to a product category
People often use specific brand names to refer to product categories. For example, people may call:

  • Any soft drink or cola a “Coke”
  • Any adhesive bandage a “Band-aid”
  • Any facial tissue a “Kleenex”
  • Any type of vacuum cleaner a “Hoover”
This is a type of synecdoche because the specific brand is just a subset of a broader category of products. However, due to its popularity, the brand name has become the generic term for an entire class of products or services.

Worksheet: Synecdoche vs metonymy vs metaphor

Do you want to test your understanding of synecdoche? In the worksheet below, choose whether the phrase in bold is an example of synecdoche, metaphor, or metonymy.
Do you want to know more about commas, parts of speech, email, or other language topics? Check out some of our other language articles full of examples and quizzes.

US vs UK


Commonly confused words

Modelling vs modeling

Comma before or after so

Into vs in to

Defence vs defense

Comma before or

Awhile vs a while

Favourite vs favorite

Comma before while

A vs an

Theatre vs theater

Comma before which

Its vs it’s

Organisation vs organization

Comma splice

Use to or used to

Frequently asked questions about synecdoche

What is the difference between synecdoche and metaphor?

Synecdoche and metaphor are both types of figures of speech, but they operate in different ways.

While synecdoche replaces a whole with one of its parts (e.g., “heads” to refer to people), a metaphor makes a comparison between two unrelated things (e.g., “he is an open book”).

With synecdoche, there is a literal relationship between the whole and its part that serves as a stand-in. With metaphor, the relationship between the two things being compared is less direct.

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What does metaphor mean?

Metaphor is a figure of speech (or rhetorical device) in which one thing or person is said to be something or someone else. It is a nonliteral (figurative) statement.

For example, in the sentence “My daughter is a little angel,” the daughter is not literally an angel; rather, the metaphor is used to emphasize her innocence and good behavior.

Metaphor differs from simile, in which the thing or person is not directly said to be something or someone else. Instead, a simile compares the two things/people using comparison words such as “as,” “than,” or “like” (e.g., “she behaves like an angel”).

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Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex information into easily accessible articles to help others.

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