Figurative language is one type of literary device or technique that authors use to make their writing more interesting or exciting to keep the reader involved. It is a non-literal phrase in meaning, like Billie Eilish used in ‘No time to die’ which she means no time to be dramatic. Figures of speech are an example of this, such as similes and metaphors.
What’s the difference between literal language and figurative language?
Literal language or speech, you say exactly what you mean. You make no comparison, and you do not exaggerate or understate the situation. Whereas figurative Language – You don’t say exactly what you mean. You do compare, exaggerate, and understate the situation.
There are two main categories of figures of speech: tropes and schemes. Schemes and tropes both have to do with using language in an unusual or “figured” way: Trope: An artful deviation from the ordinary or principal signification of a word. Scheme: An artful deviation from the ordinary arrangement of words.
Figurative language is used in literature like poetry, drama, prose and even speeches. Figures of speech are literary devices that are also used throughout our society and help relay important ideas in a meaningful way. Here are 11 common figures of speech and some examples of the same figurative language in use:
A simile is a comparison between two unlike things using the words “like,” “as” or “than.” Often used to highlight a characteristic of one of the items, similes rely on the comparison and the audience’s ability to create connections and make inferences about the two objects being discussed and understand the one similarity they share.
- My mother is as busy as a bee.
- They fought like cats and dogs.
- My dog has a bark as loud as thunder.
- Her love for her children is as constant as the passing of time.
A metaphor is a direct comparison without using the comparative words “like” or “as.” Metaphors equate the two things being compared to elicit a stronger connection and deepen the meaning of the comparison. Some metaphors, which continue for several lines or an entire piece, are called extended metaphors.
- Her smile is the sunrise.
- Your son was a shining star in my classroom.
- The tall trees were curtains that surrounded us during our picnic.
- The ants soldiered on to steal our dessert.
Related: Commonly Used Rhetorical Devices
Personification is attributing human characteristics to nonhuman things. This personifies objects and makes them more relatable.
- The chair squealed in pain when the hammer smashed it.
- The tree’s limb cracked and groaned when lightning hit it.
- My heart jumped when my daughter entered the room in her wedding dress.
- The computer argued with me and refused to work.
Onomatopoeia is the use of descriptive words that sound or mimic the noise they are describing.
- The water splashed all over the top of the car.
- Owls screech through the night and keep us awake when we are camping.
- My stomach grumbled in hunger as we entered the restaurant.
- Thumping and booming in excitement, my heart pounded to hear the results of the lottery.
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An oxymoron is a description using two opposite ideas to create an effective description. The format is often an adjective proceeded by a noun.
- My father’s thoughtless idea landed him in the middle of the lake without a life jacket.
- The jumbo shrimp is a favorite of customers.
- The loud silence of night keeps him awake.
- An ever-flowing stillness of water, the river cuts through the woods.
A hyperbole is an over-exaggeration used to emphasize an emotion or description. Sometimes hyperbole also implements the use of simile and comparative words.
Elizabeth Bennet, the most free-spirited character in Pride and Prejudice, refuses Mr. Darcy’s first marriage proposal with a string of hyperbole:
From the very beginning, from the first moment I may almost say, of my acquaintance with you, your manners impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form that ground-work of disapprobation, on which succeeding events have built so immovable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.
Elizabeth’s closing statement, that Darcy is the “last man in the world” whom she would ever marry, is an obvious hyperbole. It’s hard to believe that Elizabeth would rather marry, say, an axe murderer or a diseased pirate than Mr. Darcy. Even beyond the obvious exaggeration, Austen’s use of hyperbole in this exchange hints at the fact that Elizabeth’s feelings for Darcy are more complicated than she admits, even to herself.
Jane Austen drops various hints throughout the beginning of the novel that Elizabeth feels something beyond mere dislike for Darcy. Taken together with these hints, Elizabeth’s hyperbolic statements seem designed to convince not only Darcy, but also herself, that their relationship has no future.
- I am so hungry I would eat dirt right now.
- My brother is taller than a skyscraper.
- The concert was so loud the drums echoed in space.
- Racing through the day was a marathon run for me.
Related: How to write satire with examples!
Litotes are figures of speech that use understatement to make a point. It is often sarcastic in tone. The statement is affirmed by negating the opposite.
- I can’t say I disagree with what you’re saying.
- My dog is not the friendliest.
- He’s not even a little tired after staying up all night watching television.
- She’s not unkind.
Popular figurative language often becomes idioms. The word “idiom” comes from the Greek word “idioma,” meaning peculiar phrasing. An idiom is a type of figurative language, a word or phrase that does not have its everyday, exact meaning.” Categorized as formulaic language, an idiom’s figurative meaning is different from the literal meaning.
An idiom is a commonly used expression that has acquired a meaning different from its literal meaning. Idiomatic phrases vary by culture and language. They are often difficult to grasp for language learners because the expression’s true meaning is so different than what is being expressed.
popular figurative language phrases
There are numerous popular figurative language phrases that have made their way into everyday vocabulary, such as ‘to get fired’. And though they can be used interchangeable, they are not to be confused with historical idioms such as the phrase “paint the town red” which most likely owes its origin to one legendary night of drunkenness. In 1837, the Marquis of Waterford—a known lush and mischief maker—led a group of friends on a night of drinking through the English town of Melton Mowbray.
The bender culminated in vandalism after Waterford and his fellow revelers knocked over flowerpots, pulled knockers off of doors and broke the windows of some of the town’s buildings. To top it all off, the mob literally painted a tollgate, the doors of several homes and a swan statue with red paint. The marquis and his pranksters later compensated Melton for the damages, but their drunken escapade is likely the reason that “paint the town red” became shorthand for a wild night out. Still yet another theory suggests the phrase was actually born out of the brothels of the American West, and referred to men behaving as though their whole town were a red-light district.
- My grandmother’s garden is flourishing because of her green thumb.
- The children could not play baseball because it was raining cats and dogs outside.
- You must play your cards right to win at the game of life.
- Some people throw in the towel before they should and never learn the value of working hard for success.
Alliteration is the repetition of the same consonant sound at the start of one or more words near one another. It is often used to emphasize an emotion or reveal a stronger description.
- The pitter-patter of paws echoed down the hallway and woke me from my slumber.
- The clamoring clash of dished cracking on the concrete burned my ears.
- Old creaking crates carry ages of dust within them and are about to burst open.
- The babble of babies brings joy to my ears.
Related: Types of rhyme with examples!
An allusion is a reference to a well-known person, place, thing or event of historical, cultural or literary merit. It requires the audience to use their background knowledge to understand the meaning.
- You stole the forbidden fruit when you took his candy.
- He didn’t do anything as bad as chopping down a cherry tree.
- She was Helen of Troy of the class and made all the boys fight.
- My little girl ran faster than a speeding bullet when she grabbed my lipstick.
Synecdoche is a figure of speech that uses a part of something to refer to its whole. Less commonly, synecdoche can be used when a whole is used to refer to a part. The most common types of wholes and parts include a physical structure and its parts, an object and the material it is made out of, a container and what it holds, and a category and the items in those categories.
- She’s got an awesome set of wheels!
- The company needs more hands on deck to get complete this project in time.
- The White House issued a statement today.
- The captain commands 70 sails.
Metonymy is a figure of speech in which an object or concept is referred to not by its own name, but instead by the name of something closely associated with it. For example, in “Wall Street prefers lower taxes,” the New York City street that was the original home of the New York Stock Exchange stands in for (or is a “metonym” for) the entire American financial industry.
- “the White House” or “the Oval Office”
- “Silicon Valley”
- “The Kremlin”
- “Wall Street”
- “The pen is mightier than the sword” from Edward Bulwer Lytton’s play Cardinal Richelieu. This sentence has two metonyms: “Pen” stands for “the written word.” “Sword” stands for “military aggression.”