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Personification

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English

Personification means giving human qualities to something that is not human. You can use personification when describing nature, everyday objects, or even abstract concepts such as love or death.

What is Personification?

Just look at the word itself - personification. Think of it as meaning “turning something into a person”. Like metaphor and simile, personification is a type of figurative language, or a figure of speech, meaning that it expresses an idea or feeling in a way that is non-literal.

What are some examples of personification?

The best way to understand personification is by looking at examples; In this section, we'll dissect some lines by famous writers, but first, here are a few phrases that you might hear in everyday conversation.

Examples of everyday personification

A raging storm.

In this example, the speaker describes a storm as if it has an emotion - we know that a storm doesn't literally feel rage, but the phrase helps us to picture it as an aggressive force.

The groaning floorboards.

Not only does the word "groaning" help us to imagine the creaking sound of the wood, but it suggests a particular attitude - we get the idea that the floorboards are jaded and miserable - well, wouldn't you be if people kept walking all over you?

A raging storm. (M. Stannage)

This room is crying out for new wallpaper.

We know that if a person is "crying out" for something, they are in desperate need - here, the speaker uses this term to make their point about how badly they feel the room needs new wallpaper.

Examples of personification in poetry

"The modest rose puts forth a thorn"

(William Blake, The Lily, 1794)

By describing the rose as "modest", Blake gives it a personality and explains why it might grow a thorn to keep others at bay.

"The sink chokes on soggy bread"

(Lemn Sissay, Remembering the Good Times We Never Had, 2008)

Here the personification comes from the idea that the sink is choking - we can imagine its clogged plughole as a throat crammed with soggy bread and almost feel sorry for it, despite the fact that it's an inanimate object.

"The frisbee winning the race against its own shadow"

(Roger McGough, "Everyday Eclipses," 2002)

By suggesting that the frisbee is racing its own shadow, McGough adds some playful personification to an everyday trick of the light.

Examples of personification in song lyrics

"Hello darkness, my old friend"

(Simon & Garfunkel, “The Sound of Silence”, 1964)

In this famous line, the speaker is directly addressing the darkness as if it was a person. Referring to darkness as his friend lets us know that he is familiar with it, giving us an insight into his state of mind.

"I met this girl when I was ten years old,

And what I loved most, she had so much soul ”

(Common, "I Used to Love HER", 1994)

This one isn't obvious at first, but the rapper Common is personifying the culture of hip hop as a woman. Throughout the song he talks about how they grew up together and how their relationship changed over the years as she became more materialistic. This song could also be classed as an extended metaphor .

“The sun comes swaggering across the harbor,

And kisses the lady waiting in the narrows ”

(Grace Jones, The Apple Stretching, 1982)

This song describes a morning in New York, and in this line, the swaggering, bold personality of the sun seems to reflect the attitude of the city.

Examples of personification in fiction

"... the brass yaw of the elevator stood mockingly open, inviting her to step in and take the ride of her life."

(Stephen King, The Shining, 1977)

King uses personification to create a creepy, unsettling effect as the elevator appears to mock the protagonist Wendy, daring her to step inside.

"... certain airs, detached from the body of the wind (the house was ramshackle after all) crept round corners and ventured indoors."

(Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 1927)

This refers to the drafts blowing through an empty house; saying that they “crept round corners” makes us imagine them as intruders. Woolf then builds on this imagery, going on to describe them "toying with the flap of hanging wall-paper, asking, would it hang much longer, when would it fall?"

"Would you be in any way offended if I said that you seem to me to be in every way the visible personification of absolute perfection?"

(Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, 1895)

In this line from Wilde's play, the speaker is telling his love interest that if absolute perfection (an abstract concept) was a person, it would be her. To him, she symbolises the idea of perfection. In the next section, we'll take a closer look at this type of personification: using characters (fictional or real) as symbols.

Characters as symbols

Throughout folklore and popular culture, you'll find many characters that represent abstract concepts. Sometimes, even real people become symbolic of certain ideas.

Which characters personify abstract concepts?

An example of a character that personifies an abstract concept is Father Time - often portrayed as a bearded old man, he represents the concept of time. Similarly, Cupid is the personification of love, and Mother Nature is the personification of (you guessed it) nature.

Death is commonly represented as a hooded figure, sometimes known as the Grim Reaper, but there are many variations of this across different cultures. Another example you may be familiar with is Uncle Sam, the symbol of American patriotism who famously appeared on the “I want YOU” posters.

Personification, US army poster, StudySmarterUncle Sam (Wikimedia.org)

Can real people personify abstract concepts?

Sometimes, you might describe a real person as the personification of an abstract concept. For example, you might call somebody who has spent their whole life helping others as "the personification of kindness". Perhaps you'd refer to a cruel dictator from history as "the personification of evil". Or maybe you think of that person who never tidies up their own mess as “the personification of laziness”! Of course, in real life people have many different sides to them - this is just one way of using personification as a rhetorical device.

Why use personification?

Hopefully, the examples from poetry, song lyrics and fiction have shown you how personification can make a piece of writing much more vivid; it can really make the words “jump off the page” (which also happens to be an example of personification!). By giving human emotions to inanimate objects, you can enhance the feel or atmosphere of a piece. Another reason to use personification is to express an idea or opinion - using characters as symbols can be a powerful technique to achieve this effect. Think of personification as another tool in your box of figurative language that can help make your writing more expressive.

Personification vs anthropomorphism - what's the difference?

It can be tricky to distinguish between personification and anthropomorphism, as they have a lot in common.

First, let us define anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism is when anything that is not human (such as animals or objects) is made to act human. Examples include:

  • Cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck wear human clothes, can talk and live human-like lives.
  • Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends, are anthropomorphized trains.
  • The animals in George Orwell's Animal Farm can talk and some of them eventually walk on two legs.

So how does this differ from personification? Well, in their own fictional world, these characters are not figures of speech, they are literal; we are supposed to believe that they are really living and breathing, walking around and acting like humans. Also, they do not necessarily symbolize an idea or abstract concept in the way that personification can.

For further clarity, let's compare the two so that we can see the similarities and differences:

PersonificationAnthropomorphism
Gives human traits to non-human things.Gives human traits to non-human things.
Describes non-human things as having human traits.Makes non-human things act like people.
Is figurative.Is literal.
Creates imagery.Is mostly used to create characters for the purpose of storytelling.
Can be used to represent an abstract concept (eg, Mother Nature represents nature, Uncle Sam represents American patriotism).Does not usually represent or symbolize anything.

Personification, Grim Reaper vs Stevie the Shrew, StudySmarterPersonification vs Anthropomorphism (M. Stannage)

Personification - Key takeaways

  • Personification is what you get when you give human qualities to something that is not human (such as animals, objects or abstract concepts).
  • Personification can make a piece of writing much more vivid; by giving human qualities to things such as the weather or everyday objects, you can paint a clearer picture in the reader's mind.
  • Some characters represent abstract concepts and so they are the personification of that thing. An example of this is the Grim Reaper, who is the personification of death.
  • Personification and anthropomorphism are not the same. Personification is figurative or symbolic; anthropomorphism is literal.

Personification

Personification is a type of figurative language, or a figure of speech, that gives human qualities to something that is not human. Personification can also symbolically represent an abstract concept as a character.

An example of personification is, “a raging storm”; this is an example of personification because it describes a storm as if it has human emotion. Another example of personification is Father Time; he is a character that is used to represent the concept of time.

You pronounce personification: per-son-uh-fi-kay-shun. Note that the second syllable is not pronounced the same as if you were saying the word, “person”; make sure you emphasise the “o” in “son” as if you were saying “don” or “con”.

The effect of personification is that a piece of writing can become more vivid; personification helps to create imagery and make descriptions more interesting. Giving human emotions to inanimate objects can also enhance the feel or atmosphere of a piece. Personification can also help to make an abstract concept easier to understand by using a character to represent it, for example, the Grim Reaper as the personification of death.

Final Personification Quiz

Question

Which of the following best describes personification?

Show answer

Answer

Giving human traits to something that is not human.

Show question

Question

Personification is only ever used when referring to the weather.

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

Mother Nature is an example of personification.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

Which of the following best describes personification?

Show answer

Answer

Figurative language.

Show question

Question

Personification is different to anthropomorphism.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

Which of the following is NOT an example of personification?

Show answer

Answer

Love is a never-ending journey.

Show question

Question

Which of the following is an example of personification?

Show answer

Answer

That kebab didn’t agree with me.

Show question

Question

Complete the following sentence. Personification is - 

Show answer

Answer

Figurative.

Show question

Question

Which of the following is NOT an example of personification?

Show answer

Answer

The rain hammered down.

Show question

Question

Which of the following is NOT an example of personification?

Show answer

Answer

The car swerved to avoid a hedgehog.

Show question

Question

Which of the following techniques is used to make non-human things act like people, but doesn’t usually symbolise anything?

Show answer

Answer

Anthropomorphism.

Show question

Question

Complete the following sentence. Uncle Sam is the personification of -

Show answer

Answer

American patriotism.

Show question

Question

Complete the following sentence. Father Time is the personification of -

Show answer

Answer

Time.

Show question

Question

As soon as he walked into the bakery, John could hear that jam donut calling his name.

What is being personified?

Show answer

Answer

The jam donut.

Show question

Question

As soon as Sarah opened her exercise book, the pen sprinted across the page, finishing her essay in record time. 

What is being personified?

Show answer

Answer

The pen.

Show question

Question

True or false?


Personification is never used in daily conversations.

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank:


Personification is a ______ of speech.

Show answer

Answer

figure

Show question

Question

In the following example, what is being personified?


"The sink chokes on soggy bread"

Show answer

Answer

The sink

Show question

Question

In the following example, what is being personified?


"Hello darkness, my old friend"


Show answer

Answer

Darkness

Show question

Question

In the following example, what is being personified?


This room is crying out for new wallpaper..

Show answer

Answer

The room

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank:


The Grim Reaper is a personification of _____.

Show answer

Answer

death

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank:


Cupid is the personification of ____.

Show answer

Answer

love

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank:


Mother Nature is the personification of ______.

Show answer

Answer

nature

Show question

Question

Fill in the blanks:


_____ ___ is the personification of American patriotism.

Show answer

Answer

Uncle Sam

Show question

Question

True or false?


Personification can be used as a rhetorical device?

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

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