Ordinary Language vs. Poetic Language


People do not mean what they say or say what they mean, and this has everything to do with poetic or figurative language. Poetic words and phrases paint pictures and add emotions where ordinary language expresses ideas in black and white. At times, poetic language is appropriate to help the listener or reader see or feel a specific picture, and at times, ordinary language can say it all.

Ordinary Language

  • Ordinary language is factual. It contains no idioms or figures of speech. It is simple and direct. It can be sophisticated and academic but doesn't have to be. It is literally true: "The table is made of wood." This sentence leaves nothing to the imagination. This type of language is used in academic circles and in language where each word is used definitively. Ordinary language can be crafted into figurative or poetic language easily.

Poetic Language

  • Poetic or figurative language allows the reader to see the mundane world through fresh eyes. Poetic language gives more than just the facts. Authentic ideas are found in figurative language, allowing readers to see what they might otherwise ignore. For example, "The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes" -- a colorful line from T.S. Eliot's work, "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock" -- paints a picture that ordinary language could not possibly achieve.


  • Ordinary language is common to all English speakers and remains on the linear level, whereas poetic or figurative language broadens the scope of understanding and involves the senses within the words. Ordinary language is used at job interviews, in technical contexts and in schools for most subjects. Figurative language is almost everything else in between and can be used unwittingly. Examples of ordinary language are abundant, for example: "It is raining outside." Another black-and-white statement might be: "The subjunctive mood is seldom understood by high school students."

    Figurative language is expressed in examples such as: a piece of cake -- meaning something that is easy; tickling his funny bone, which refers to causing someone to laugh or see the humor in a situation; to burn out, which usually means that someone is tired and ready to be done with a task or job; he exploded in anger, referring to someone who might be quite upset but would be unlikely to literally explode because of it.


  • Reading novels can be one source of figurative language, yet such language might pose the hardest task for an adult learning English. Choosing whether to use ordinary or poetic language depends on the context. You can use ordinary language to express straightforward thoughts, while you might use figurative language to enliven sometimes mundane communication -- and make your point in a more memorable way.

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