Figurative Language

Figurative Language

Figurative language is the use of words in an unusual or imaginative manner.

Figurative language often involves one of the following:
  • metaphor
  • simile
  • alliteration
  • anastrophe
  • assonance
  • consonance
  • euphemism
  • hyperbole
  • idiom
  • logosglyph
  • onomatopoeia
  • personification
  • pun

Examples of the Figurative Language

When most people think of figurative language, metaphors and similes spring to mind. However, the term figurative language covers a wide range of literary techniques.

Metaphor. A metaphor asserts that one thing is something that it literally is not.
  • An icy stare
  • Time is money.
  • He's a real gannet.
  • This bedroom is a prison.
  • He listened with a stone face.
  • Her eyes were darting torches.
  • I have no patience with dinosaurs. (Actor Adam West)
  • Google's not a real company. It's a house of cards. (Businessman Steve Ballmer)
Simile. A simile likens one thing to another (usually achieved by the use of the word like or as).
  • Ghost-like eyes
  • He eats like a gannet.
  • She sings like an angel.
  • He swims like a torpedo.
  • She is as cute as a kitten.
  • This cake is as dry as a bone.
  • I let that negativity roll off me like water off a duck's back. (Boxer George Foreman)
  • If you've ever done something you love and then do something you like, it's like chewing on sawdust. (Entrepreneur Kimbal Musk)
Alliteration. Alliteration is the repetition of the same initial letter in successive words for effect.
  • Smile. Speak. Serve.
  • Those purple pigs are preposterous.
  • She sells seashells down by the seashore.
Anastrophe. Anastrophe is the deliberate changing of normal word order for emphasis.
  • Ugly she was not.
  • She is always right…not.
  • When 900 years old you reach, look as good you will not. (Yoda from Star Wars)
  • Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing. (Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven")
Assonance. Assonance is the repetition of the same vowel sound in neighbouring words.
  • Cats bat at yarn balls.
  • We received three emails.
  • Hear, not fear, the wisdom of wizards.
  • The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain. (from the musical "My Fair Lady")
Consonance. Consonance is the repetition of the same consonant sound in neighbouring words.
  • Think tank
  • The big dog dug a hole.
  • She swung her fist in angst against the beast.
  • Increasing store with loss and loss with store. (Playwright William Shakespeare)
Euphemism. A euphemism is the use of agreeable or inoffensive words to replace rude or offensive ones.
  • exotic dancer = stripper
  • didn't make it = has died
  • lost his marbles = is mad
  • knocked up = is pregnant
  • letting you go = you're fired
  • between jobs = unemployed
  • Listen, I must be 110 by now. Granny is going to kick the bucket at some point. (Dame Maggie Smith)
  • I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs. (William Shakespeare's Othello)
Hyperbole. Hyperbole is an exaggeration or extravagant statement used for effect.
  • We won a tonne of cash.
  • I could eat a scabby horse.
  • They've got truckloads of money.
  • I write for the same reason I breathe: if I didn't, I would die. (Writer Isaac Asimov)
  • The problem with ratings is that you can give yourself a million reasons why they are what they are. (Actress Julie Plec)
Idiom. An idiom is commonly used expression whose meaning does not relate to the literal meaning of its words.
  • It's a piece of cake.
  • This is the last straw.
  • I'll be pushing up the daisies.
  • Do not let the cat out of the bag.
  • You can't pull the wool over my eyes.
  • Every woman feels she is too old and has missed the boat. (Actress Felicity Kendal)
  • Whoever does not know how to hit the nail on the head should be asked not to hit it at all. (Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche)
  • A politician is an animal which can sit on a fence and yet keep both ears to the ground. (Journalist Henry Mencken)
Logosglyph. A logosglyph is a word that looks like what it means.
  • She had eyes like pools.
  • Have you tried the online moobs or boobs test?
Onomatopoeia. Onomatopoeia is the use of a word which sounds like what it represents.
  • The rocket whooshed in the sky.
  • Are they sausages I can hear sizzling?
  • The dish clattered against the floor tiles.
  • From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells. (from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Bells")
Personification. Personification is when non-human objects are given human traits.
  • Creeping time
  • Autumn's icy touch
  • Summer's healing rays
  • The tide waits for no man.
  • The leaves danced in the wind.
  • Fortune favours the bold. (Roman poet Virgil)
  • Comfort favours the bothered. (British Army saying)
  • My computer throws a tantrum at least once a day.
  • Don't give up on your dreams, or your dreams will give up on you. (Basketball coach John Wooden)
Pun. A pun is a witticism that plays on the different meanings of a word or two words that sound alike but have different meanings.
  • I'm an honest cheetah.
  • It's hard to beat a boiled egg.
  • Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana. (Comedian Groucho Marx)
  • Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt. (possibly Writer Mark Twain)
  • We must all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately. (Founding Father Benjamin Franklin)

Why Should I Care about Figurative Language?

Figurative language is used to express an idea more clearly or more interestingly.

Of note, figurative language will often feature a figure of speech, which is an expression that includes words that are not used in their literal sense. A figure of speech (typically a metaphor, simile, idiom, personification, hyperbole or euphemism) usually makes a comparison, framing a point as something else in order to explain it.
  • A man who waits for roast duck to fly into mouth must wait a very, very long time. (French author Jules Renard)
  • (This quotation uses a metaphor to explain that good things must be earned.)
  • Love is like an hourglass, with the heart filling up as the brain empties. (Jules Renard)
  • (This quotation uses a simile to explain that love clouds the mind.)
  • On Earth, there is no heaven, but there are pieces of it.
  • (This quotation uses hyperbole to explain that there's joy to be had. Interestingly, it appeals to both theists and atheists.)

    Remember, the term figurative language includes techniques that can use the literal meanings of words (e.g., anastrophe, alliteration, assonance).
  • Patient I am not.
  • (The words are used in their literal sense. The anastrophe provides emphasis.)
  • The best sushi chefs spot the finest fresh fish instantly. (Chef Nobu Matsuhisa)
  • (The words are used in their literal sense. The alliteration creates not only rhythm but also a focus on the words.)

Key Points

  • Use figurative language to:
    • Explain your idea with a comparison.
    • Emphasise your idea.
    • Make your writing more aesthetic (e.g., rhythmic).
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