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What Is Figurative Language?
Figurative language is phrasing that goes beyond the literal meaning of words to get a message or point across. This definition dates back to the mid-nineteenth century and comes from the Old French word “figuratif,” meaning “metaphorical.”
Writers create figurative language through figures of speech such as:
- Literary devices that heighten imagery, such as alliteration, assonance, and onomatopoeia
10 Types of Figurative Language
Writers favor a handful of common types of figurative language. Among these are:
- Simile. A simile is a figure of speech that compares two separate concepts through the use of a clear connecting word such as “like” or “as.” Examples of simile are phrases such as “He was wily as a fox,” or “I slept like a log.”
- Metaphor. A metaphor is like a simile, but without connecting words. It simply posits that two separate things are the same. For example, “He was a wily fox,” or “She cried a river of tears.”
- Implied metaphor. Metaphor takes a few different forms. Sometimes the object of comparison is purely implied rather than directly referenced, such as in the phrase, “He barked commands at the team,” which implies comparison to a dog.
- Personification. Personification projects human qualities onto inanimate objects, or perhaps animals or natural elements. “The wind howled,” “The words leapt off the page,” and “Time marches on” are all examples of personification.
- Hyperbole. Hyperbole is extravagant, intentional exaggeration. “I have a million things to do today” is a common example of hyperbole.
- Allusion. Allusion is when a text references another external text—or maybe a person, place or event. It can be either explicit or implicit. “We’ve entered a Garden of Eden” is an allusion to the biblical place, for instance.
- Idiom. Idioms are non-literal turns of phrase so common that most people who speak the same language know them. English examples include, “He stole her thunder” and “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
- Pun. A pun is a play on words. It exploits the different meanings of a word or its homonyms, usually to humorous effect. A well-worn example of a pun is: “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.”
- Onomatopoeia. In onomatopoeia, words sound like the thing they describe. Sound effects like “tick-tock” and “ding-dong” are everyday examples, as well as words like “zap” and “hiccup.” Sometimes individual words are not onomatopoeic, but they will become so in the context of the words around them, as in Edgar Allan Poe’s “suddenly there came a tapping, as of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.”
- Alliteration. Many experts also consider alliteration an example of figurative language, even though it does not involve figures of speech. Rather, alliteration is a sound device that layers some additional meaning on top of the literal language of the text. It occurs when a series of words start with the same letter sound, such as “wicked witch” or “from forth the fatal loins of these two foes.” This can help build imagery or mood, hence the connection to figurative language.
What Is the Function of Figurative Language?
The chief function of figurative language is to communicate the writer’s message as clearly as possible.
- That might be by putting a foreign concept into familiar terms that a reader or listener can easily grasp, or it might be by creating imagery that’s vivid and visceral.
- Some types of figurative language also have other uses unrelated to their role in creating imagery. For example, writers use alliteration, consonance and assonance alongside rhyme to give words rhythm and musicality.
What Is the Difference Between Figurative Language and Imagery?
Imagery and figurative language are related concepts in English literature, but they are not the same.
- Writers use figurative language to create imagery, which is a strong mental picture or sensation.
- It might help to think of figurative language as the tool and imagery as the product it builds.
2 Examples of Figurative Language in Literature and Poetry
Figurative language is a staple of writing in the English language. The plays of William Shakespeare are a good place to start. As You Like It features a famous example of figurative language:
Jaques: All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts
This is an example of metaphor. Jaques compares life to the world of theatre, directly and without the use of a simile’s connecting words “like” or “as.”
A type of figurative language that is harder to find in poetry is personification. “She Sweeps with Many-Colored Brooms” by Emily Dickinson is a great example:
She sweeps with many-colored brooms, And leaves the shreds behind; Oh, housewife in the evening west, Come back, and dust the pond!
It is probably obvious by now that Dickinson is not talking about a literal person. Instead, she is ascribing the properties of the housewife to a non-living thing—the sunset. Her imagery has strong cleansing associations.
Learn more writing techniques in Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass.