Definition of Figurative Language
Figurative language is any figure of speech which depends on a non-literal meaning of some or all of the words used. There are many types of figurative language, including literary devices such as simile, metaphor, personification, and many pun examples, to name just a few. The definition of figurative language is opposite to that of literal language, which involves only the “proper” or dictionary definitions of words. Figurative language usually requires the reader or listener to understand some extra nuances, context, allusions, etc. in order to understand the second meaning. However, figurative language is such a common part of regular speech that adult native speakers of a language can just as easily interpret figurative language as literal language.
Types of Figurative Language
So many literary devices qualify as figurative language that the following list is certainly not exhaustive. These are the main examples of figurative language:
- Simile: A comparison between two unlike things through the use of connecting words, usually “like” or “as.”
- Metaphor: A rhetorical figure of speech that compares two subjects without the use of “like” or “as.”
- Extended Metaphor: Sometimes known as a conceit or sustained metaphor, an extended metaphor is a metaphor that an author develops over the course of many lines or even an entire work of literature.
- Hyperbole: The use of obvious and deliberate exaggeration.
- Understatement: A way of speaking which minimizes the significance of something.
- Metonymy: A figure of speech in which something is called by a new name that is related in meaning to the original thing or concept.
- Paradox: The juxtaposition of a set of seemingly contradictory concepts that reveal a hidden and/or unexpected truth.
- Oxymoron: A figure of speech in which two seemingly opposing and contradictory elements are juxtaposed.
- Allusion: A literary device used to reference another object outside of the work of literature.
- Pun: A play on words which usually hinges on a word with more than one meaning or the substitution of a homonym that changes the meaning of the sentence for humorous or rhetorical effect.
- Personification: The projection of characteristics that normally belong only to humans onto inanimate objects, animals, deities, or forces of nature.
- Onomatopoeia: A word that phonetically mimics or resembles the sound of the thing it describes.
Common Examples of Figurative Language
Most examples of idiom in English are also figurative language examples, such as the following:
- Actions speak louder than words.
- The ball is in your court.
- You can’t judge a book by its cover.
- We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
- I’ll play devil’s advocate.
- Every cloud has a silver lining.
- You’ve hit the nail on the head.
- It happens once in a blue moon.
- She stole my thunder.
Significance of Figurative Language in Literature
Ancient philosophers such as Aristotle (Greek) and Quintilian (Roman) were some of the first to theorize about the use and function of figurative language. Aristotle argued that figurative language was not merely an embellishment, but instead mirror the way humans actually process information, which is to say by comparing it to things we already know. Thus, when we use the simile, “Her fleece was white as snow,” this isn’t to provide a trivial comparison but instead to help the reader or listener imagine the purity of Mary’s lamb’s fleece.
We can find examples of figurative language in the majority of literary works. This is both because there are so many literary devices that qualify as figurative language and also because the human mind responds well to different types of figurative language. Indeed, many studies have shown that figurative language comes naturally to children and that it helps them understand new concepts. Therefore, when authors use examples of figurative language, they are trying to provide fresh or unique new ways of explaining things. However, they are also triggering a very important part of the human mind and creating new synapses.
Examples of Figurative Language in Literature
Example #1: Allusion
Are you then Virgil, the fountainhead
that pours so full a stream of speech?”
I answered him, my head bent low in shame.”
O glory and light of all other poets,
let my long study and great love avail
that made me delve so deep into your volume.
You are my teacher and my author.
You are the one from whom alone I took
the noble style that has brought me honor.”
(Inferno by Dante Alighieri)
Dante’s Inferno is filled with examples of allusions, as one of the main purposes was to condemn contemporary Italians from Dante’s day. The main allusion is to the poet Virgil, who serves as the guide to the underworld. Dante introduces Virgil in the above excerpt from the epic poem. Readers have to understand the character and importance of Virgil to understand the true meaning of this alliance; without this piece of figurative understanding the reader would miss out on many key aspects of the poem.
Example #2: Metaphor
JAQUES: All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances
(As You Like It by William Shakespeare)
William Shakespeare used numerous examples of figurative language in his plays and poetry. Indeed, most literary devices can be found somewhere in his texts. The above quote from his comedy As You Like It is one of the most famous examples of metaphor in all of literature. The character of Jaques is explaining to the Duke that life is much like actors in a play. Indeed, Jaques doesn’t just say that the world is “like” a stage; he avers that life is indeed a stage. This is a powerful metaphor from Shakespeare’s works as it explains what was most likely a truism for Shakespeare’s own life.
Example #3: Metonymy
MARC ANTONY: Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
(Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare)
Metonymy uses a part of the whole to refer to the whole. In this case, Marc Antony asks friends and Romans to “lend [him their] ears.” He is using the metonymic understanding of “ears” to refer to the entirety of their attention. He is, perhaps, being a bit humble in this request, as his eulogy for Caesar turns out to be a feat of rhetoric. Marc Anthony uses many different examples of figurative language to build his emotional appeal and connect with the listeners.
Example #4: Personification
But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing farther then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered—
Till I scarcely more than muttered “Other friends have flown before—
On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.”
Then the bird said “Nevermore.”
(“The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe)
Edgar Allen Poe’s diabolical bird in his famous poem “The Raven” is a good example of personification. The bird takes on emotions such as loneliness and concepts like a soul, as well as the ability to speak. This bird ends up being a window into the narrator’s mind as he begins to go a bit insane. The personification is to show that not all is right with the narrator’s world.
Example #5: Hyperbole
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
(“As I Walked One Evening” by W.H. Auden)
W.H. Auden uses many examples of hyperbole to describe his love in his poem “As I Walked One Evening.” It is popular to use hyperbole in love poetry, as it demonstrates the depths of the speaker’s love.
Test Your Knowledge of Figurative Language
1. Which of the following statements is the best figurative language definition?
A. Archaic language that was only used for embellishment.
B. A figure of speech that relies on the literal definitions of the words involved.
C. A statement that uses non-literal meanings of words.
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2. Why might an author choose to use an example of figurative language?
A. To confuse their readers and challenge them to use parts of their brain they rarely use.
B. To explain things in a new and fresh way that might help readers compare what they already know to the new concept.
C. To create a way of defining things that is very alien to the way humans actually think.
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3. Which of the following types of figurative language is displayed in the following quote from Shakespeare’s Romeo?
But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
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