Figurative language for teaching: Personification

We continue again today in looking at different usages of figurative speech that are helpful for the teacher/preacher. We’ve already looked at the simile and the metaphor. Now, our interest is in personification.

Joseph Delvin, our teacher on the subject, and the writer of the free ebook How to Speak and Write Correctly, says this:

Personification (from the Latin persona, person, and facere, to make) is the treating of an inanimate object as if it were animate and is probably the most beautiful and effective of all the figures.

“The mountains sing together, the hills rejoice and clap their hands.”

“Earth felt the wound; and Nature from her seat, Sighing, through all her works, gave sings of woe.”

Personification depends much on a vivid imagination and is adapted especially to poetical composition. It has two distinguishable forms: 1) When personality is ascribed to the inanimate as in the foregoing examples, and 2) when some quality of life is attributed to the inanimate; as a raging storm; an angry sea; a whistling wind, etc.

* * * Application for the teacher* * *

John Piper is a notable preacher who often uses personification. He describes himself as “romantic rationalist”, and his books and sermons often reflect his poetical inclinations. For example, take this section from his book, Don’t Waste Your Life:

Affliction raised his sword to cuff off the head of Paul’s faith. But instead the hand of faith snatched the arm of affliction and forced it to cut off part of Paul’s worldliness. Affliction is made the servant of godliness and humility and love. Satan meant it for evil, but God meant it for good. The enemy became Paul’s slave and worked for him an even greater weight of glory than he would have ever had without the fight. In that way Paul– and every follower of Christ– is more than a conqueror.

Instead of saying something like: God used affliction to grow Paul’s faith, and that makes us more than conquerors– Piper creates the image of a battle scene. Affliction is raising its sword. Faith, pinned against the ground, not only escapes the attack but uses it for his benefit. Intangible concepts are given concrete actions, and in doing so an image is created. Personification resurrects what could be a dry dead concept into a living battle scene that captures the mind.

When thinking through concepts, think of scenes that capture truths. Give truths life by ascribing personhood to them. Make justice stare unflinchingly. Make love into a relentless prince. Make mountains cry out for mercy and forests rejoice over grace. Take the dust of your dry language and breathe life into its nostrils, and behold a living sentence.

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