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What is the difference between metonymy and synecdoche?

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2 Answers 2

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In practice, there isn't much difference: you could arguably pick just one of the terms and use it to describe both types of rhetorical substitution. (I like metonymy: it's easier to spell, more spelling checkers know it, and the meaning is more apparent to me: meta+name.)

The difference, to the extent that it exists at all, is whether the attribute that is substituting for the whole is part of the whole (synecdoche), or merely associated with it (metonymy). So "suits" instead of "officials" is metonymy (officials wear suits, but last I checked, the clothing is not permanently attached to their skin), while "hands" for "workmen" is synecdoche.

You could also make a case for using metonymy for any example where a smaller part or attribute substitutes for a larger part or attribute, and reserving synecdoche for examples where the larger stands for the smaller, or the container for the contents. Under this interpretation, both "suits" and "hands" could be considered metonyms, and synecdoche would be something like "General Motors announced cutbacks" — it was presumably a spokesperson who issued such a statement on behalf of the CEO or board of directors, since General Motors is not a single entity and does not possess speech capabilities.

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Metonymy is the substitution of the name of an attribute or adjunct for that of the thing meant; synecdoche is a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa.

Maybe now the suits in Washington will listen. [metonymy]
I liked to watch the track. [metonymy]
Cleveland won by six runs. [synecdoche]

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Um, I don't think your synecodoche example is a real synecdoche. –  Robusto Mar 7 '11 at 18:09
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That is the example given by the NOAD. It is a synecdoche if the sentence means "The Cleveland's baseball team won by six runs." –  kiamlaluno Mar 7 '11 at 18:18
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I still think it's rather loose. By that reasoning, it would be a synecdoche to say "the Allies won World War II" or "the club is having a party Friday night". –  Robusto Mar 8 '11 at 1:37

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