"Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears." In this familiar Shakespearean line from the play "Julius Caesar," Mark Anthony was not asking if he could literally borrow ears. Metonymy is a figure of speech when one thing -- usually an object or place -- is used to describe something larger than itself. For the above example, "ears" is used to describe an audience's attention. Synecdoche is a special type of metonymy in which the object or concept used to describe the larger is also a part of that larger concept, such as when ears are a part of the larger concept -- the audience's attention.

A Special Comparison

In metonymy, a large or abstract object is described by an object with which the larger or abstract object is affiliated. While these objects being compared are closely associated, they are not the same. For example, “The White House” is an object used to describe the entire executive branch of the United States government. The statement, “The White House released a new policy on terrorism,” is metonymy because the White House is a building and cannot physically state a policy.

Examples of Metonymy

This statement includes two examples of metonymy: “The pen is mightier than the sword.” In the oft-quoted phrase, "the pen" refers to the the written word, which, according to the statement, is a more effective and powerful instrument of change than "the sword," which represents military or physical force. When students say they study “Shakespeare,” they generally do not refer to a study of the man himself, but of his literary works. When we use the term “the press,” we are referring to journalists, not to the actual printing press that produces their work.

Part of a Whole

All poodles are dogs, but not all dogs are poodles. All synecdoche is metonymy, but not vice versa. Synecdoche is a special form of metonymy in which the object or idea used to describe something larger is actually a part or a component of the larger idea. This device may also be used when a smaller group is used to reference a larger group with which it is a part. “Hollywood” refers to the entire American movie making industry, not the suburb that was named “Hollywood.”

Examples of Synecdoche

“I got a new set of wheels” usually means, “I bought a new car,” of which wheels are a part. “Boots” can refer to “soldiers,” and “sails” to an entire ship. A specific brand of a product often comes to be used to describe a larger category. “Coke” is sometimes used to describe all colas, “Band-Aid” to describe any small adhesive bandage, and "Kleenex” to refer to any facial tissue. In "The Face that Launched a Thousand Ships," poet Christopher Marlowe writes, "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships, / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?" The entire Greek military is represented by a part, "a thousand ships," while "the towers" represent the entire city and culture of Troy, and Helen's "face" is a part of her body that refers to her physical beauty as a whole.