A figurative language is a communication tool we use to help convey complex descriptions or create an emotional connection quickly and effectively. This communication tool is also known as using “figures of speech” can be utilized to help an audience to fully comprehend your intended message with persuasion, connection, or engagement. It’s easy to use common figures of speech incorrectly so it takes some careful thought and close considerations to successfully convey your intended meaning.
In this article we will discuss some types of figurative language and examine the uses of these figurative devices. Figurative phrases or figures of speech do not always translate perfectly in every language, so for the purpose of this article we will only examine figurative language of English language origin.
What is figurative language?
Figurative language is the use of descriptive phrases to help convey a message without saying your meaning literally. Figurative language is also used as figures of speech; creative phrases that help build imagery to show a deeper emotional or sensory connection to the meaning of a sentence. This type of language can help deepen the audience’s understanding of the speaker's words and make some complex ideas easier to understand.
Figurative speech can be confusing because the phrase, if understood literally, might not make any sense; for example if someone says, “It was raining cats and dogs,” they probably do not mean that literal cats and dogs are falling from the sky, but instead it was just pouring very heavily. A new English speaker might not understand this if they aren’t familiar with this figure of speech, but most English speakers will learn this at some point and have an understanding that the literal meaning of the phrase is not the intentional meaning behind the entire sentence.
Figurative language can be used to:
- Compare two different ideas to increase understanding of one
- Express ideas that are sometimes difficult to understand
- Invoke a deeper emotional reaction
- Sway the audience
- Paint a connection in words
- Improve visualization of an idea
Types and examples of figurative language
Figurative language has been used in literature such as poetry, prose and even famous speeches. Literary devices in general are tools a writer uses to hint at larger ideas, themes, and meanings within a sentence or larger piece of writing. Figures of speech are simply literary devices that have been used throughout the history of the English language and help pass on important ideas in a purposeful way.
Here are 10 common figures of speech and some examples of the same figurative language in use:
A simile is a comparison using the words "like," "as" or "than." The reason a simile is a figure of speech is because the two words are usually not very similar, which highlights the one similarity they do share. Similes rely on the comparison and the audience's ability to make inferences and draw a connection between the two objects being discussed. See in the following examples how the literal meaning would not make sense, but figuratively speaking the comparison is understood.
- His mother is as busy as a bee.
- The teams fought like cats and dogs.
- Your child's eyes shine as bright as the stars.
- Our dog has a bark louder than thunder.
- The mother’s love for her children is as constant as the passing of time.
A metaphor is a direct comparison between two objects, however unlike a simile, it does not use the comparative words "like" or "as." Metaphors are a figurative language device because the descriptive comparison allows the audience to imagine an experience with the subject in a way that isn’t literal but instead stirs up an emotional understanding. In prose or literature, some metaphors may continue for several lines or an entire work, these are called extended metaphors.
- Her laugh is contagious.
- It’s the surface of the sun outside.
- The ants soldiered on to overtake our picnic.
- A summer day is a warm hug.
Personification is a figurative device attributing human characteristics to nonhuman things. A personification might help describe a sound an object makes, or make the object seem as though it has feelings, or explain how a nonhuman thing might move like a human. This attribution of characteristics personifies objects and makes them more relatable.
- Our plant was slumped over until it got a drink of water and perked right up.
- The house moaned as we disturbed the entrance way with our work boots.
- My heart jumped when I saw the toddler fall off the swing.
- His laptop argued with him and decided it didn’t want to work.
One effective figurative device is an onomatopoeia, the use of descriptive words that sound or mimic the noise they are describing. Onomatopoeias can be hard to point out when written and much easier to understand when spoken out loud. Try reading the following examples of onomatopoeias aloud to get the full effect of the literary device.
- He splashed the bucket of water all over the tile floor.
- Owls screech through the night keeping me wide awake.
- He was forced to stand down from his position.
- We installed a new wireless cable in the front room.
A hyperbole is an over-exaggerated statement or claim not meant to be taken literally. Hyperboles are used to emphasize an emotion or description with shocking comparisons. Sometimes hyperbole also implements the use of simile and comparative words.
- I am so hungry I could eat a horse.
- There’s enough food in the fridge to feed an army!
- The doctor’s office was so busy I had to wait an eternity.
- The diaper bag weighs a ton.
Litotes are figures of speech that use ironic understatements to make a point. Litotes are also known as using sarcasm so they are often said in a sarcastic tone. This literary device is often used in rhetoric to prompt the listener to carefully consider what is being said. Litotes tend to make the piece more interesting with atypical statements in which affirmatives are expressed by negating the opposite and vice versa.
- I can't say that I wouldn’t try your dessert.
- It’s not rocket science.
- Not bad!
- She wasn’t having the best day.
Figures of speech that are common to certain cultures are called idioms, an expression that has acquired a meaning different from its literal meaning. Idiomatic phrases vary by culture and language so they are often difficult to grasp for language learners since the expression's true meaning is so different from what is being expressed.
- My grandpa’s green thumb helped bring my garden back to life.
- It’s not a good time to play outside, it’s raining cats and dogs.
- When it comes to the game of life you must always play your cards right.
- She threw in the towel before giving the business a fighting chance.
Alliteration is the repetition of the same letter or sound at the start of two or more words near one another in a sentence or poem. An alliteration can be a satisfying and creative way of giving a description or creating imagery in an atypical manner. Sometimes the use of both alliteration and onomatopoeia can help paint the picture of the scenario that a sentence describes.
- I could hear the pitter-patter of paws echoing down the hallway.
- The clamoring clash of clutter on the concrete made me wince.
- He broke open a big barrel of whiskey that smelled of oak and brown sugar..
- Some of my furry friends found a box of dog treats under the bed.
An allusion is an expression designed to call something to mind without saying it explicitly. The expression might refer to a well-known person, place, thing or historical event, with cultural or literary merit. Allusions require the audience to use their background knowledge to understand the meaning behind the sentence.
- Chocolate is my Kryptonite.
- It wasn’t like he chopped down a cherry tree.
- If I don’t get home by midnight I might turn into a pumpkin.
- I wish I could just click my heels and everything would be back to normal.
Figurative language can help an article or story come to life in an interesting way. It’s not a terrible idea to consider adding more figurative language to your writing and correspondences. A satisfying use of a figure of speech is like a fresh drink of water on a hot day and could turn someone’s frown upside down. Can you find all the forms of figurative language in this final paragraph? If you read this article carefully it should be a breeze.
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