Literal language means only what it says, typically according to dictionary meaning. On the other hand, figurative language adds an extra dimension by expressing meaning beyond the actual words. Devices of figurative language are called figures of speech, and play a special role in the written word, especially poetry. However, many common types of figurative language also appear in everyday speech.
Making Implicit Comparisons
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two things and shows their similarities without using any specific comparison word, such as "like" or "as." For example, "Aunt Doris is the anchor in this family," doesn't literally mean that Aunt Doris keeps a boat in the port from blowing out to sea, but that she's a source of stability. Many metaphors have come into everyday language as idiomatic expressions, such as "My new raise was the icing on the cake."
Using Comparison Words
When writers and speakers use words such as "like," "as," or "similar to" to make a comparison, the figure of speech is a simile. An example using "like" as the comparison word is "He's like a pit bull. Once he gets hold of something, he never lets go." "As" is frequently used in similes with adjectives, for instance, "She was as red as a beet." Similar to metaphors, many similes have become tried-and-true idioms in daily conversation.
Stretching the Truth
The figure of speech that makes a gross exaggeration is called hyperbole. Hyperbole serves to express strong emotions or make a statement more emphatic. For example, "I died a thousand deaths" or "She was so frightened she jumped out of her skin." These statements are so extreme that no listener could take them at face value.
Minimizing the Facts
When an author or speaker says less than she actually means, she uses understatement, the opposite of hyperbole. For example, "Last week wasn't my best week. My car was stolen and I got fired." Understatement often adds humor. In this case, it adds comic relief by making light of a situation that's not normally funny.
Making Things Come Alive
Personification is giving the attributes of human beings to something that's not alive. Because this figure of speech adds vividness to descriptions, it's often used in poetry. "The sky wept great falling tears" is an example of personification, used to describe rain. Personification can also make an everyday object come alive. For example, "The doorbell sang out loudly when I was still asleep in bed." In both of these examples, the personification comes through the verb.
Playing With Sounds
Some figures of speech use the sounds of language for special effects. In onomatopoeia, the sound of the word is the same as the meaning. For example, "We heard the buzz of the saw." Animal sounds are common examples, such as "The cows mooed in their stalls." Another sound device is alliteration, the repetition of consonants. The repeated sounds are usually, but not always, the first sounds of each word. For example, "The boat sails swiftly in the sun." Alliteration adds musical interest and emphasizes the words with the repeated sound.
- Purdue Online Writing Lab: Using Metaphors in Creative Writing
- Reed College: Doyle Online Writing Lab -- Figurative Language
- The University of West Georgia: Figurative Language
- Montgomery College: Figurative Language
- California Polytechnic State University: Figurative Language and Rhetorical Devices
- Photo Credit TongRo Images/TongRo Images/Getty Images
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