Have you ever heard someone say of their car, “she’s a beauty,” or refer to the winter wind as “harsh” or “unkind?” If you have, you’ve heard examples of personification, a useful literary device that adds color and meaning to your writing.
Personification is a form of figurative language where the writer attributes human characteristics to something that’s not human. It’s easiest for humans to relate to things that are human or have human traits. By using human characteristics to describe an object, animal, place, or occurrence in your writing, you can help the reader better relate to your writing.
Let’s do two quick exercises to practice identifying personification in writing. First, let’s look at a poem by Emily Dickinson, who is famous even today for her personification of nature. She writes:
Where bashful flowers blow,
And blushing birds go down to drink,
And shadows tremble so?
Emily Dickinson is writing about a person’s heart—the hidden thoughts and shy desires that not everyone is keen to share. She does this by comparing the heart to a landscape and using three examples of personification: bashful flowers, blushing birds, and trembling shadows. We know that flowers don’t have emotions, and therefore are incapable of being bashful, but this imagery helps us imagine the drooping flowers and feel some kinship with them. The same goes for the blushing birds and trembling shadows.
Personification is common in literature, but let’s look at it in these famous lines from advertising to make sure we can quickly recognize it in our everyday life.
How about the Oreo cookie slogan?
Oreo: Milk’s favorite cookie.
Or perhaps the slogan for Kleenex facial tissues:
Kleenex says bless you.
Does milk have a mind or personality? Is it possible for milk to literally have a favorite? Not at all, but personification helps the customer feel closer to the product, just as we know Kleenex doesn’t possess the mind or ability to literally bless someone, but we can still feel comforted by this inanimate object because of the advertiser’s clever use of personification.
So when should you use personification in your own writing? It’s the most appropriate in descriptive or narrative writing. As you saw in the earlier example, personification is often employed in poetry, as well as creative fiction. It’s rare to use personification in an essay or report, although a well-crafted example could help grab the reader’s attention.
It’s important to remember that personification isn’t just a way to be creative in your writing. It can add humor, point out truth, and invite the reader to a deeper emotion. When John Milton wrote,
Earth felt the wound
And Nature from her seat
Sighing, through all her works,
Gave signs of woe
He was not just describing Earth in a creative way—he was inviting you as a reader to think about the planet as a living thing, to understand what he was describing as the fall of man in the context of human physical suffering. It gives a reader pause.
One last thing before we go: sometimes personification is mixed up with another long word in literary analysis: anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism is an extreme kind of personification in which animals or objects are described as if they were really people talking, walking upright, and thinking critically. This is stronger than simple personification, which could describe something with human terms without implying it had a consciousness.
For example, if you read, “The wolf accused the moon with his lonely howl,” you might feel sympathy for the wolf but you would hardly jump to the assumption that the wolf had human thoughts. Anthropomorphism, on the other hand, is something like Winnie the Pooh, or the GEICO gecko. Here we see non-human animals and objects that literally walk and talk like humans. It’s stronger than personification and is less subtle.
I hope you found this video helpful!
Frequently Asked Questions
What is personification?
Personification is a type of figurative language an author uses to give human characteristics to something nonhuman. For instance, instead of saying “My alarm clock woke me up this morning,” you could give the alarm clock the human characteristic of yelling: “My alarm clock yelled at me to get out of bed this morning.” Here’s a slightly more complex example of personification:
“The wind howled as lightning danced across the sky.”
What is an example of personification?
Here are some examples of personification:
“The leaves whispered their secrets to the wind.”
“The cold air bit my nose.”
“The stars winked in the night sky.”
Why do authors use personification?
Author’s use personification to make certain aspects of their story more relatable to the reader.