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Figurative Language

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This article will explore the meaning of figurative language. We will take a look at the different types of figurative language and some examples of each. We will also consider why figurative language is used, both in everyday conversations and in literary texts.

What is figurative language and what does it mean?

Figurative language is a way of using words that is non-literal. Figurative language expresses meaning through figures of speech (such as simile, metaphor and personification); these appear frequently in both literature and everyday conversation.

What are the different types of figurative language?

Figurative language comes in many forms; each classed as a figure of speech. Figures of speech include:

For each of these, we will give an example that you may have come across in everyday conversation, as well as an example from Literature. We also have individual articles on each of these figures of speech if you'd like to read up on them in more detail.

Simile

Simile directly compares two things; it uses connecting words such as “like” or “as” when making these comparisons.

In the race, she was as fast as lightning!

This is an example of simile as it compares two things - the person in the race, and lightning. We are not meant to take this comparison literally, as nobody can really move as fast as lightning - this is why it is a figure of speech.

O my Luve is like a red, red rose

(Robert Burns, "A Red, Red Rose," 1794)

Burns draws a comparison between his love and a rose in bloom to make us think of their similarities - both are fresh, colorful and full of life. His love (which could mean the emotion itself or the person that he loves) is not literally a rose - remember, a simile is an imaginative comparison.

Metaphor

Metaphor refers to something as another thing to make us see the similarities between them.

My brother's a sly fox.

This is an example of metaphor because one thing (“my brother”) is being referred to as another thing (“a sly fox”). We can assume that the speaker is not literally related to a fox, therefore this statement is figurative.

He is a pure spring from which all thirsty souls may drink.

(Khalil Gibran, “The Poet”, 1913)

Gibran refers to the poet as a pure spring to make his point. This metaphor tells us that the poet is vital, like a source of water, and we assume that those who come to him are“thirsty” for knowledge or inspiration.

Personification

Personification gives human qualities to something that is not human. This can help to create imagery, or symbolism.

The fallen leaves danced.

This description of fallen leaves blowing around in the wind is an example of personification because of the term “danced”. Leaves cannot literally dance - this line describes them as having the human trait of being able to dance in order to create a clearer image.

The river walks in the valley singing

Letting her veils blow -

(Ted Hughes, "Torridge," 1983)

In this example, Hughes uses personification to give human traits to the river. This helps us to imagine it (or “her”) with a carefree, relaxed attitude, “singing” and “letting her veils blow”.

Idioms

An idiom is a well-established phrase or expressionthat has a figurative meaning.

To pull someone's leg.

If somebody said, "Are you pulling my leg?" you would most likely understand this as, "Are you joking with me?" Like all idioms, this phrase would only make sense if you were aware of its figurative meaning - it would be nonsensical if you took it literally.

The orator… After he had a while look'd wise / At last broke silence, and the ice.

(Samuel Butler, Hudibras, 1663)

This does not literally mean that the orator smashed a piece of ice - as you may be aware, to “break the ice” is an idiom, meaning “to break the social awkwardness”.

Metonymy

Metonymy refers to a thing by the name of something closely associated with it.

What's your favorite dish?

Most people would understand this as, "What's your favourite meal?" rather than a question about their preferred type of kitchenware. The word “dish” is a metonym for “meal”, as it is something closely associated with it, and it can replace that word in a sentence and still have the same meaning.

The pen is mightier than the sword.

(Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Richelieu , 1839)

This is one of the most famous examples of metonymy. “The pen” is a metonym for the written word, and “the sword” is a metonym for physical violence.

Figurative language, Metonymy, StudySmarterMightier than the sword. (pixabay.com)

Synecdoche

Synecdoche refers to a thing by the name of something that is part of it, or that it is part of.

I hope that my new song grabs as many ears as possible.

By "ears", the speaker means "listeners" (people who might listen to their music). They are mentioning a part (“ears”) to refer to the whole (the listeners).

The western wave was all aflame

(Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," 1798)

In this example, the word "wave" refers to a sea or an ocean. This is an example of synecdoche because Coleridge is mentioning a part (the “wave”) to refer to the whole (a sea or ocean).

Hyperboles

Hyperbole is the use of exaggeration to make a point, usually for rhetorical effect.

I've eaten a tone of pasta.

Here the speaker makes an overstatement to emphasize their point; there's no way they have eaten a literal ton of pasta - what they mean is they've eaten a lot of pasta.

I saw a crowd, / A host, of golden daffodils… /… Continuous as the stars that shine / And twinkle on the milky way / They stretched in never-ending line / Along the margin of a bay

(William Wordsworth, "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud," 1807)

To say that the daffodils extended as far as the stars of the Milky Way in “never-ending” line is clearly an exaggeration; Wordsworth uses hyperbole to create imagery and to make a point about how they seemed to stretch on forever.

Irony

There are several different types of irony, but in all of them, there is a stark contrast between expectation and reality (either for the characters, or for the reader). Below are two examples of verbal irony.

"Lovely day isn't it?" (While standing in the pouring rain).

This statement is ironic because the speaker is saying the opposite of what they really mean.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

(Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice , 1813)

This line is one of the most famous examples of irony in English literature. It makes a statement that is not meant to be taken literally - the contrast between what it says and what we know to be true is what makes it ironic.

Oxymoron

An oxymoron is an expression or phrase that contradicts itself by combining words with opposing meanings.

That's old news.

“News” by definition is “new”. Therefore, “old news” contradicts itself - it is an oxymoron.

O heavy lightness, serious vanity, / Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms! / Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health ...

(William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet , 1591-1596)

Romeo expresses how mixed-up his emotions are through this string of oxymorons.

Figurative language, Oxymoron, StudySmarterRomeo and Juliet. (pixabay.com)

Why do we use figurative language?

Figurative language helps us to express opinions and feelings in ways that plain English sometimes can't. Here are just a few reasons why we use figurative language:

To create imagery.

Metaphor, simile and personification can help to make writing, or speech, more vivid, by drawing imaginative comparisons. We hear and read countless examples of this every day; for instance, if you described somebody as being "built like a tank" (an example of simile), this would help to paint a clear picture in the listener's mind.

As a shorthand way of communicating.

Metonymy and synecdoche can make sentences tidier and more succinct. For example, "I'm going to make it in Hollywood" is a lot punchier than, "I'm going to make it in the mainstream American movie industry".

To make the language more colourful and engaging.

Even though idioms are well-established and familiar, they help to make everyday language more interesting. Idioms can also be subverted and used in creative ways; poets and novelists do this all the time. For more examples of this, see our article on idioms.

To express an opinion.

Hyperbole, irony and oxymoron are useful rhetorical devices. You can sometimes emphasize your point by stating the opposite of what you mean, or by making an obvious overstatement.

To actively engage the reader or listener.

By using figurative terms, we allow the reader or listener to engage more actively with our words. Figurative language can require a certain degree of decoding, which is why some poetry is not clear at first; but once you have read it a few times and allowed it to sink in, the meaning becomes even more powerful.

Figurative Language - Key takeaways

  • Figurative language is a way of using words in a non-literal way.
  • Figurative language uses figures of speech. Figures of speech include simile, metaphor, personification, idioms, metonymy, synecdoche, hyperbole, irony and oxymoron.
  • Figurative language appears frequently in literature and everyday conversation.
  • Figurative language helps us to express opinions and feelings in ways that plain English sometimes can't. It can help to express an opinion or communicate a point; it can also help to make the language more colorful, vivid and engaging.

Figurative Language

Figurative language is a way of using words that is non-literal. Figurative language expresses meaning through figures of speech (such as simile, metaphor and personification).

The 6 most common types of figurative language that you are likely to come across are:


  • Simile

  • Metaphor

  • Personification

  • Idioms

  • Metonymy

  • Synecdoche


Figurative language is not just limited to these types, however. It is also worth knowing about:


  • Hyperbole

  • Irony

  • Oxymoron

Figurative language helps us to express opinions and feelings in ways that plain English sometimes can’t. Figurative language can help to create imagery and make our language more vivid; it can also help to make it more interesting and engaging. Using figures of speech can be extremely useful in expressing an opinion or making a point; they can be powerful rhetorical devices.

All types of figurative language are also literary devices, as they are tools that writers use to express meaning in creative and interesting ways. However, not all literary devices are types of figurative language. Figurative language uses figures of speech to express meaning in a non-literal way, whereas other literary devices such as rhyme, alliteration and onomatopoeia help to make words more aesthetically and sonically pleasing.

Final Figurative Language Quiz

Question

What are oxymorons used for?

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Answer

They are used to show contrast and/or a deeper meaning.


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Question

What is an example of an oxymoron from everyday life?

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Answer

Good grief

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What type of language device is an oxymoron?


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Answer

A figure of speech/figurative language

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What types of literature most commonly have oxymorons?

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Answer

Fiction and poetry.

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What types of literature can include oxymorons?

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Answer

All types of literature

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How can you identify an oxymoron?

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Answer

It uses two words that contrast with each other.

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What other language devices can be confused with oxymorons?


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Answer

Paradox and juxtaposition.

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Question

Which famous Shakespeare play contains the oxymoron sweet sorrow?


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Answer

Romeo and Juliet.

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Question

What could be paired with the word ‘deafening’ to make it an oxymoron?


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Answer

Silence.

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Question

​Define the words in this oxymoron: Melancholy merriment.

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Answer

melancholy = a depression, a gloomy state of mind

    Merriment = light fun, an enjoyable time

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How is an oxymoron different from juxtaposition?

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Answer

An oxymoron uses two words, whereas juxtaposition is not limited by the number of words.

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How is an oxymoron different from a paradox?

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Answer

An oxymoron uses two words, a paradox is a phrase that contradicts itself.

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What is the definition of an oxymoron?

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Answer

Two words next to each other that have very different meanings that end up making sense in a strange way.

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What can oxymorons help writers to do?

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Answer

Oxymorons are a useful tool for showing contrast and for exploring a deeper or secondary meaning.

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Question

Is this an example of an oxymoron? Bad hair day.

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Answer

No.

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Question

What is the definition of a paradox?

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Answer

A statement that contradicts itself

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What are the two types of paradoxes?


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Answer

Logical and literary

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Question

Is the following a paradox or an oxymoron?


Cold fire.

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Answer

Oxymoron

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What is a paradox a type of?

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Answer

​ A figure of speech

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Is this a paradox: I close my eyes so I can see?

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Yes.

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What is the difference between situational irony and paradox?

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Answer

Situational irony is an event or circumstance that defies our expectations but isn’t necessarily illogical or self-contradictory.

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What real-life example of a paradox has this article explored?

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Answer

No one goes to a bar, because it is too crowded.

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What play by Shakespeare contains the paradox "I must be cruel only to be kind"?


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Hamlet

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Why is a dilemma sometimes confused with paradox?

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Because it is a difficult decision that can be tricky to decide on, and which can sometimes be confused with an illogical paradox.

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How can you spot a paradox in a text?

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When you first read over a paradox, it will seem confusing. Before identifying it as a paradox, make sure you check it isn’t a similar language device.

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Which of the following is not a type of language device?


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Dilemma

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What is the difference between logical and literary paradoxes?

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Logical paradox follows the strict rules of paradox, literary paradox has a looser definition.

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Why are paradoxes quite often confusing?

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Because they are illogical and can be very tricky to understand.

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Why are paradoxes considered absurd and self-contradictory?

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Because one part of the paradox often makes the other part false (and vice versa).

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True or false?


The literary paradox is a term referring to paradoxes found in literature.

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False

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Question

What is a pun?

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Answer

A wordplay using words with more than one meaning.

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What is the effect of a pun?

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It creates humour and/or shows double meaning.

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Which of the following is a type of pun?

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Answer

Homographic

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Which of the following is a type of pun?

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Homophonic

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What is the name for a sentence containing multiple puns?


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A compound pun.

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Which playwright uses lots of puns?

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William Shakespeare

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True or false?


Puns are more common in prose than in plays.

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False

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What is the meaning of a 'homophonic' pun?

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A pun that uses a word that sounds similar but has a different spelling and meaning.

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What is the meaning of a 'homographic' pun?

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A pun that uses a word that sounds similar and is spelt the same but has different meanings.

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 Which of the following is a common pun?

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Answer

The tallest building in town is the library - it has thousands of stories.

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Where will you most likely find puns in everyday life?

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In jokes

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What word does Dickens use as a pun in Great Expectations?


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Answer

point

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Which of the following is an example of a homographic pun?

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Answer

The tallest building in town is the library - it has thousands of stories.

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Why are puns used to create humour?

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Because the double meanings can create confusion and a comedic effect.

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What type of pun is better understood when read?

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Homographic pun

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Question

Figurative language expresses meaning in a literal way.

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False.

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Metaphor, simile and personification are examples of figurative language.

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Answer

True.

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Figurative language is only for poets.

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False.

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Question

Which of the following is an example of figurative language?

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His smile is as wide as the universe.

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Question

Which of the following is an example of figurative language?

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Answer

You look like something the cat dragged in.

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