If synecdoche represents when a part of a thing or person refers to the whole, what is it called when the whole is used to refer to a part?

For example, we often hear about what "The American People want". Yet such claims usually refer to what a segment of the people support. What is that rhetorical device called?

Another example, "The students were devastated to hear that the beloved football coach had died." All students? Even those who did not know him? Even those who never watch football? Is this just plain old exaggeration, or is there a word for when the whole is used to refer to a part?

3 Answers 3


Synecdoche is a figure of speech in which a term for a part of something refers to the whole of something, or vice-versa. So you may use synecdoche for both. Please check

  • +1 because you're quite right that synecdoche cuts both ways. But I can't really imagine anyone would apply the term to either of OP's examples. So it comes down to whether OP wants an answer to his question title, or question text. Jan 2, 2014 at 22:40
  • Perhaps a better example would be "The US grieved in the days following 9/11."
    – Bob White
    Jan 2, 2014 at 22:52

Generalisations - statements or opinions which are only partly true because they are based on a few cases or incomplete knowledge.

  • While there is generalization or exaggeration in the examples I gave, I specifically wondered if the whole could be used to refer to a part. Another example might be "With the 13th amendment, the American people finally settled the issue of slavery once and for all." It might more correctly have been said, "Legislators, on behalf of the American people, settled the issue of slavery." In this case, the whole (American people) is standing in place of the part (the legislators) who actually had a choice in settling the matter. This is not mere generalization or exaggeration.
    – Bob White
    Jan 2, 2014 at 22:40
  • @Bob: As it happens, I was commenting against Mustafa's answer while you were posting this. You've now introduced a third dimension to the issue, in that the legislators were acting on behalf of the whole nation (which is a matter of "social/political representation", rather than a rhetorical device). I maintain that all the examples in your question itself are simply generalisations. Jan 2, 2014 at 22:46

*Paraphrasing the Merriam-Webster online entry for synecdoche (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/synecdoche):

Here's something I Googled up. News to me: synecdoche covers the whole lot.

A figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole (as hand for sailor), the whole for a part (as the law for police officer), the specific for the general (as cutthroat for assassin), the general for the specific (as thief for pickpocket), or the material for the thing made from it (as steel for sword).

  • Welcome to ELU.SE. This answer seems to be substantially a verbatim quote from an external source. Mods are instructed to delete on sight without further warning any content that is not properly attributed. Please edit your answer to include the source in plain text; a link is always valuable too.
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    Nov 4, 2014 at 22:38

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