Figurative Language Definition and Examples
Language is the means by which we communicate. And for you to understand and use any language properly, you must know some literary devices.
Literary devices are the techniques used by writers to create a special effect or help readers better understand what is being communicated.
Before we go any further, let’s first of all differentiate between the terms “literary” and “literally”.
“Literary” comes from the word literature.
When you talk about literature, you’re referring to books. On the other hand, “literally” means exactly what has been said.
The exact meaning of the word spoken is what is meant by the speaker.
One of the literary devices used in the English language (and other languages too) is called a figure of speech.
You may have heard someone say “figuratively speaking.” What that meant is that the statement contains one or several figures of speech.
The use of figures of speech creates figurative language. The opposite of this is literal language.
When someone says “literally speaking,” he means that what he just said is to be understood exactly as said.
If for example he said that he had to drag someone along, then it means exactly that. He dragged the other person on the ground from one place to another.
Whereas literal language means the very thing said, figurative language refers to a meaning that is not what the words imply.
For example, you may say that someone is a giraffe. You won’t be meaning that the person suddenly grew two extra legs, a long slender neck and patches all over his body. You’ll simply be saying that he is tall.
TYPES OF FIGURES OF SPEECH
Figurative language is however not limited to the change in meaning of sentences by use of certain words.
There are figures of speech which instead of changing the meaning of sentences, they play with the structure of those sentences.
These are very common in poems and they are mostly responsible for the musical rhyme of the words.
There are two main types of figures of speech.
- Tropes – these are the figures of speech which make changes to the meaning of sentences. A word said might mean a different thing. As such, if you’re not aware of the figure of speech, you’ll be confused.
- Schemes – these don’t change the meaning of sentences but the structure. These will often replace words, ensure certain letters appear in certain places etc. They bring about unique sounds in speech.
Sentence structure is affected by changing the order in which words should flow, the pattern of words written or spoken etc. If you’re listening or reading material which uses schemes, it will be sweet to the ear.
You’ll love the flow of words or sound of certain words.
REASONS FOR USING FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE
There are some good reasons why figurative language is used. In fact, it’s not so much a selection of unique words for the sake of an interesting conversation.
Figurative language is very much a part of our everyday life conversations. You may not have known what they’re called but once you see some examples, you’ll realize they are things you use every day.
Here are a few reasons why in some cases, figurative language is preferred over literal language.
1. Extra beauty – as mentioned, figures of speech can make changes to the structure of a sentence. They can change the arrangement of words and often help create a unique sound despite the words used not necessarily being related.
An example of how this works is by ending the lines in a poem’s verse or song using rhyming words. This creates a musical sound which makes the poem or song sweeter to the ear. The overall experience of interacting with the material is then enhanced.
2. Emphasis – another reason for using figurative language is for emphasis. When you want to describe or explain something, it sometimes requires more effort. This could be in terms of using more words or having a better vocabulary.
However, using figures of speech can help you accomplish your goals faster. Instead of creating a sentence which uses many words to explain something, a figure of speech can be used to bring out the right meaning of words in the sentence.
3. Added complexity – sometimes it’s not about making the material more interesting but about serious matters. In these cases, figurative language can be used for training your mind.
In this, the use of figures of speech results in more complex sentences as compared to when not used.
This is often used in poetry where the structure of sentences changes so much as to seem grammatically wrong. However, a careful following of the poet’s line of thought will show you the idea being communicated or feeling being expressed.
4. Humor – figurative language is often used to bring out humor. This usually happens through the use of exaggerations and contradictions. Some of the figures of speech used in this way are discussed below.
5. Explain the abstract – some things are pretty difficult to explain. For example, how would you explain love without using very many words? As much as you can do it well enough to help someone understand what you’re talking about, figures of speech can make your work easier.
Take for instance the apparent mismatch between a beautiful lady and a not-so-good-looking man. Explaining how the lady fell for the man can be difficult.
But if you say that love is blind, you have sufficiently explained it all. “Love is blind” is an example of figurative language.
COMMON FIGURES OF SPEECH
Figurative language makes language fun and interesting. The monotony of words used over and over is broken. Creativity is also given a big opportunity to express itself.
Although the creative person can find ways of making his content interesting without figures of speech, rarely do creatives avoid these.
These are a great addition to what is already available in the language and they serve the purpose of storytelling very well.
Here is a list of common figures of speech and examples of their usage. You can add these to your language for a richer communication experience.
Our first figure of speech is all about sound. Alliteration is the use of same-sounding consonant sounds at the beginning of words which appear close to one another.
It’s not difficult to identify the use of alliteration in sentences because the consonant sounds will easily be picked up by your mind.
Here are some example sentences which show the use of alliteration.
- The big bad boy took away the small boy’s bag (consonant sound of letter “b”)
- Please get the dishes done right after dinner (consonant sound of letter “d”)
- Go get the groom (consonant sound of letter “g”)
Alliteration can also show up in brand names. There are many brands which employ alliteration in their names. This is to make it easy for people to remember the brand. It’s one of the ways of branding your business.
Some examples are:
- Range Rover
Some people’s names also show alliteration. This may not have been intended, though we can’t be sure it was coincidental either. A good example is the former US president Ronald Reagan.
Another area of language where alliteration occurs is in tongue twisters.
These are sentences which heavily employ alliteration in order to make it difficult to correctly repeat the sentences.
If you were to say a tongue twister slowly, you’ll probably be able to.
But doing it fast and accurately is quite a challenge.
The above tongue twister has some alliteration from the consonant sound of letter “b.” It also has another figure of speech which we will look at next. The two are closely related because they’re all related to sound.
Other examples of tongue twisters using alliteration are:
- Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers
- She sells sea shells at the sea shore
- Can you can a can as a canner can can a can?
Just as alliteration relates to sound, so does assonance. The difference is in the type of sound. Whereas alliteration comes from consonant sounds, assonance comes from vowel sounds.
The vowel sounds which make up assonance must be in words appearing near one another. The words however don’t have to be next to each other.
In the above tongue twister, “Beebee,” “Phoebe,” “Fee be” are all examples of assonance.
This is often used for humor purposes though it can also be used for emphasis. However, even when used for emphasis, hyperbole will often bring out a humorous result.
Hyperbole is very common in normal language and is not a preserve of poetic creatives. Some examples of the use of hyperbole are so common that they don’t even sound like exaggerations.
Hyperbole is basically the exaggeration of a situation. Exaggeration is widely used in writing. It turns the plain and boring into rich, funny and entertaining.
Here are some everyday use that you may not recognize unless you take a literal look at the words. Remember we said that figures of speech are not literal. So, in taking a literal view, you’ll be able to identify hyperbole.
- It’s been ages since we last met (it’s probably just months or a few years)
- She is dying for recognition (she’s desperate but obviously can’t die in order to get recognized)
- I’m so hungry I could eat a whole elephant (I probably can’t even finish a quarter of an elephant’s ear but hey, I’m pretty hungry)
An idiom is a phrase which means something very different from what the individual words mean. For this reason, idioms can be greatly misunderstood especially because of how they get included in sentences.
In many cases, the context of the sentences which idioms are a part of can make you take them literally.
Take for instance the idiom “cold feet” in the sentence, “Once in the interview room, she developed cold feet and her speech faltered.”
Naturally, interviews make people anxious and unsure of their answers.
Looking at it from that perspective can make you take the words literally. You could end up thinking that the same way some people sweat in their palms when anxious, maybe the said lady gets affected by her feet becoming cold.
The idiom however is just a different way of saying that she became anxious.
Some more examples of idioms include:
- Have a change of heart (change your mind)
- It’s raining cats and dogs (it’s raining heavily)
- Once in a blue moon (something happens rarely)
Similes are very common and are even introduced to children early in their education.
Similes offer a means of comparison using the word “as” or “like”. This makes it very easy to understand the meaning behind the comparison.
This kind of comparison is very direct. It shows that one things is just like another in regards to certain aspects.
Some examples are:
- Tim is as slow as a snail (Tim is moving very slowly)
- Mike runs fast just like a cheetah (Mike’s running speed is comparable to that of a cheetah)
- Mary is as brave as a lion (Mary’s bravery is like that of a lion)
The direct comparison is easy to spot and understand.
Metaphors are similar in function to similes in that they’re also used to make comparisons. The difference between them and similes is that while similes make a direct comparison, metaphors make an indirect one.
Metaphors make comparisons by saying that one thing is another. In other words, instead of saying that one thing is like another (simile), they use the name of something else to talk about the subject.
The two things cannot be normally compared since they are unrelated. But when metaphors are used, the comparison is understood to mean that the characteristics of one item are being used to describe something else.
To better differentiate between similes and metaphors, let’s use the examples we have of similes.
Changing the above sentences to use metaphors instead of similes, they would become:
- Tim is a snail (obviously, Tim is not a snail but is moving very slowly, just like a snail)
- Mike is a cheetah (Mike runs very fast. His speed is like that of a cheetah)
- Mary is a lion (Mary’s bravery is extraordinary. It’s like that of a lion)
Metaphors cannot be taken literally. And unless you know the characteristics of what is being used to describe the subject, you may not understand what is being communicated.
The word metonymy might sound new and even strange but what it describes is very common. Metonymy is a word used to replace something’s name with the name of something else closely associated with it.
The main thing therefore gets referred to by the name of a different thing. A good example can be seen in cars.
Let’s say that you bought a new car. You are driving it around town and suddenly see a friend of yours.
Instead of telling him, “Check out my new car,” you tell him, “Check out my new ride.”
The car is not a ride since a ride is what you get when driving or being driven in a car. However, there is a close association between a car and a ride.
They are both related and so when you refer to the car as a ride, the word “ride” is said to be a metonymy for car.
Some examples of this include:
- The pen is mightier than the sword (pen stands for written words while sword stands for military power)
- The White House will not budge (White House could mean the president or the people working in that building)
- The office corner earns a lot of money (office corner means the manager)
Synecdoche is related to metonymy in that they both replace the original words with others. The difference is in the relation between the new word and the one being replaced.
Whereas metonymy is a word closely associated with the thing being described, synecdoche is the name of something that is a part of what is being talked about.
Staying with our example of a car, instead of saying, “This is my new car,” you will say, “These are my new wheels.” Wheels are a part of the car and that makes the word “wheels” a synecdoche for “car.”
See these other examples.
- The captain couldn’t control the sails (sails refer to the ship)
- We’ll have some boots on the ground (boots refer to soldiers)
- We need more hands here (hands refer to people)
Watch this short video to further see the differences between metonymy and synecdoche. Some more examples are also given to help understand these two figures of speech.
Probably the most weird-looking and difficult-to-pronounce figure of speech is onomatopoeia.
This figure of speech is not as common as others like idioms and similes. All the same, it gets used a lot especially in storytelling.
Onomatopoeia is a word which resembles the sound it describes. When the word is written and you read it, the pronunciation of the word is similar to the sound being described.
These are commonly used in comic and cartoon magazines. You will also see them in videos as the word flashes on the screen when the sound is made.
An oxymoron is a figure of speech that often gets used to make a statement or situation appear contradictory and confusing.
An oxymoron is formed when opposite words or ideas are joined together. The fact that the words mean the opposite of each other is what makes them stand out.
In some cases, they produce a humorous or clever-sounding effect and they can quickly become common as people use them for fun.
Some examples of oxymorons include:
- Agree to disagree
- The difference is the same
- Deafening silence
Closely related to an oxymoron is a paradox. This also describes a contradiction though it’s slightly different from an oxymoron.
A paradox is not necessary a few words as it can be part of a long sentence. The uniqueness of a paradox comes in the fact that the contradiction can actually be true or make sense.
The word paradox is used to describe situations which are difficult to understand. These are situations which despite being expected to be described in a certain way, the opposite is actually what happens.
Here are some examples:
- I love to hate you
- All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others
- I must be cruel to be kind
This is giving human attributes to a non-human thing. It’s often used when describing an action which is communicated as if the non-human thing did it. In doing so, the non-living thing is shown to have taken action yet it cannot take action.
An example of personification is a common statement spoken to encourage someone to take some action. When someone says that “opportunity is knocking at your door,” is it literal?
Of course no opportunity has the hands to knock on a door. But the meaning is that there’s an opportunity available for the benefit of the person being spoken to.
Other examples of personification include:
- The sun smiled at me
- The cake is calling my name
- The city never sleeps
Here is a video showing this in music form.
Symbolism is quite different from the rest of the figures of speech we have discussed. This is because symbolism is the use of symbols to represent certain qualities or ideas.
Some of the most common uses of symbolism are:
- The heart as a symbol of love
- The color blue as a symbol of cold and red of hot
- A red exclamation mark as symbolic of danger
Symbolism is often used in chatting programs. The use of emojis is symbolism. A red face symbolizes an angry person whereas an emoji of a boy and girl with a heart between them symbolizes their love relationship.
EVERYDAY USE OF FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE
Figurative language is used every day in our communication. As you have seen in the above few examples of each figure of speech, those statements are pretty common.
But apart from these examples, are there instances where these appear in large-scale?
Yes there are and here are two of them.
Figurative Language in Literature (Hyperbole)
Literature is very rich with examples of figures of speech being used. Poets are known to use them extensively to make their work more beautiful and emphasize on specific points.
Here is an example of figurative language using hyperbole. It’s part of a poem by W. H. Auden titled, “As I walked One Evening.”
“I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,
I’ll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry.”
Figurative Speech in Music (Metaphor)
Music is another area of creative work where lots of figures of speech can be found. An example is the metaphor used by Israel & New Breed in the song “Your Presence is Heaven to Me.”
In the song, he doesn’t say, “Your presence is like heaven to me.” Instead, he makes a direct comparison and says, “Your presence is heaven to me.”
Figurative language is a central part of everyday communication. But more than that, it plays a major role in making communication more beautiful and interesting.
Apart from the more common ones like similes and idioms, the list presented here gives you an opportunity to add to your knowledge and spice up your communication.
Share this with your friends and bring some change in your communication.