Figurative Language Definition
Figurative language (fih-gyur-EH-tiv LANE-gwidge) refers to words, phrases, and sentences that go beyond their literal meaning to add layers of interpretation to the audience’s understanding. Instead of relying solely on the dictionary definition of words, figurative language adds nuance, context, imagery, association, and other heightened effects to written or spoken phrasing.
The word figurative first appeared in English in the late 14th century and derived from the Old French figuratif, which means “metaphorical.” The Old French originates in the Latin figurare, which means “to form, shape.” These elements of metaphor and forming or shaping still resonate in the term figurative language as it is used today. The connection of figurative with speech and language also appeared in English in the late 14th century and indicated “allegorical, metaphoric, involving figures of speech,” which is still how the term is used.
Figurative Language and Figures of Speech
Figurative language can broadly be defined as language that employs figures of speech. Figures of speech are rhetorical devices that either play with the arrangement of words or with the meaning of words. All figures of speech fall into one of two categories: schemes and tropes.
Schemes play with the mechanics of language and often involve shifts in the arrangement, order, or patterns of words and phrases. This can be achieved through repetition of letters, words, or phrases; the equal balancing of phrases or sentences through identical grammatical structures; shifting the expected order of words or phrases; and/or omitting expected words or punctuation. Some commonly employed schemes are alliteration, assonance, chiasmus, consonance, and parallelism.
Tropes create meaning beyond words’ literal definitions. They deviate from expected meanings to add greater complexity using association, comparison, and word play. Some common tropes include hyperbole, metaphor, metonymy, personification, simile, and synecdoche.
Types of Figurative Language
There are many ways to produce figurative language. Some of the most common, many of which also qualify as figures of speech, include:
This is the repetition of the same sound in a short sequence of words, which creates musical effects in writing. Examples of alliteration occur in brand names, such as Kit Kat, Rolls Royce, Best Buy, and American Apparel, and children’s tongue twisters, such as “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.”
This occurs when a text references an external text, person, place, or event. Describing a curmudgeonly old skinflint as a “Scrooge” alludes to Charles Dickens’s novella A Christmas Carol. Similarly, the 1960s pop song “White Rabbit” alludes to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
This type of phrasing involves intentionally extravagant exaggeration to heighten the emotional effect of what is being said. “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse” is an example of hyperbole, as the speaker is conveying they are incredibly hungry, though they could not literally consume an entire horse. Likewise, saying “I’m dying of exhaustion” is generally a hyperbolic statement, as people rarely pass away from fatigue.
This figure of speech is an explicit comparison between two different things, used for poetic or dramatic effect. Perhaps the most famous metaphor in English literature comes from William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, when the character Jacques compares life to a theater performance:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts
Metaphors are frequently encountered in literature, particularly in poetry, but they are also utilized in everyday speech. Saying “She’s my rock” to describe a romantic partner or calling someone’s room is “a pig sty” are both prevalent examples.
This occurs when the name of something is replaced with a strongly associated thing. For example, when people say “The White House stayed silent on this matter as events unfolded,” they are referring to the people who work in the White House (such as the president); they don’t mean the building itself. This is an example of metonymy. The phrase “The pen is mightier than the sword” includes two examples of metonymy: “pen” refers to the power of written words or diplomacy, and “sword” refers to the use of military force.
Using words that evoke the sound of the thing they signify is onomatopoeia. For example, the “tick tock” of a clock is an example of onomatopoeia, as is the “splash” of a frog jumping into a pond of water, the “ding dong” of someone ringing a doorbell, or the “boom” made by fireworks, thunder, and bombs.
This device pairs contradictory words or ideas to express a new or more complex meaning. They are frequently seen in casual speech and commercial advertisements. For example, the descriptive phrase “fresh frozen” is oxymoronic. These are often seen in literature. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet tells Romeo that parting from him is “such sweet sorrow.” This oxymoron describes the bittersweet joy of saying goodbye to someone you love.
Conceptually similar to alliteration, parallelism involves the repetition of sentence structure for balance and emphasis. Although this often involves repeating the exact same words, to count as parallelism, only the repetition of grammatically similar elements is necessary.
A list with the grammatical structure of “First buy X, then buy Y, then purchase Z” would be an example of parallelism, as would the phrase “A penny saved is a penny earned.” Parallelism is frequently encountered in speeches and was an intrinsic part of Hebrew and Middle Eastern poetry, as well as the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.
Giving a quality of greater animation to an inanimate or less animate object or element is personification. People often assume this is limited to something being described as if it is a person, but often, personification simply involves describing something in a way that ascribes greater liveliness to it.
In John Donne’s poem “Holy Sonnet X,” he personifies the concept of death: “Death, be not proud.” By ascribing the attribute of pride to death, even though it is something only people can feel, Donne utilizes personification. In the poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” when T.S. Eliot writes “The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes, / The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,” this is also personification. Describing the fog as if it is a cat gives it greater qualities of animation than fog actually possesses, though the animation is not specific to human attributes.
A pun relies on multiple meanings of a word or homophonic or homographic elements. It can be verbal, as in “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.” It can also be visual, such as an image depicting a fork lying on a highway—a clear reference to the phrase “a fork in the road.”
Related to metaphors, similes are explicit comparisons between disparate things. These comparisons are constructed using the words like or as.
Many similes are familiar phrases: “as cold as ice,” “run like the wind,” “eats like a bird,” “as slow as molasses,” and “as tough as nails.” The famous catchphrase from the movie Forrest Gump, “Life is like a box of chocolates,” is also a simile.
Similar to metonymy, synecdoche occurs when a thing is referred to by the name of one of its parts. For example, calling an old man “gray beard” is an example of synecdoche since an old man’s gray beard is a part of the man. Referring to businesspeople as “suits” is another example, as suits are part of the person in the sense that business professionals wear suits.
Frequently, synecdoche and metonymy are confused. The best way to remember the difference is that synecdoche swaps in a part to refer to the whole, while metonymy uses a related term that is not an actual part of the thing being referred to.
Figurative Language and Imagery
People often use the term imagery interchangeably with figurative language, but these concepts are not the same.
Imagery is a literary device that allows the author to create pictures in readers’ minds so they can better imagine the situation, characters, emotions, and settings of the narrative. Imagery can be created using literal or figurative language.
If an author is creating literal imagery, also called descriptive imagery, they describe things exactly as they are. Writers tend to use adjectives to create literal/descriptive imagery. For example, they might describe a maple tree in autumn by saying, “The tall maple tree was covered in bright red leaves.” Here, the image is created through adjectives that accurately describe the tree without embellishment.
The same tree could be described using figurative language: “The maple tree soared tall as a skyscraper and was covered with leaves as bright red as lipstick kisses.” This second image uses similes to create an image that conveys the same idea as the literal example, but it does so in a way that is more poetic.
Literal/descriptive imagery and figurative imagery are both important tools for writers to make their work feels vivid. Figurative imagery is used in poetry more than in other literary forms, as it is particularly open to figurative language’s symbolic and associative meanings. However, both types of imagery are used in all forms of literature.
Linguistic Semantics and Figurative Language
Linguistic semantics are the study of interpretation of signifiers (signs, words, symbols, phrases) and what they really mean, particularly as used by specific communities, circumstances, and contexts. Figurative language relies on associations, comparisons, and other schemes and tropes to create additional levels of meaning for words beyond the literal.
Linguists originally believed in the standard pragmatic model of comprehension, which suggested that, when exposed to figurative language, people would first attempt to comprehend it as literal and then shift to a figurative interpretation to understand the meaning. Since the 1980s, however, research has shown that figurative language is comprehended at the same speed as literal meaning.
Figurative Language in Pop Culture
Figurative language is an intrinsic part of pop culture. Song lyrics regularly utilize tropes and schemes like metaphor, similes, and alliteration. For example:
- In Frank Ocean’s song “Thinking Bout You,” he sings, “A tornado flew around my room before you came,” which is a metaphor for how wild, scary, and confusing his life was before he met this person.
- In Jay Z’s “Big Pimpin’,” he raps, “I’ll be forever mackin’ / heart cold as assassins.” In this couplet, he uses a simile to assert that he will never fall in love because he is as unemotional as a hired killer.
- In the classic 1980s song “Careless Whisper,” George Michael sings “Guilty feet have got no rhythm.” This is an example of personification because feet cannot feel emotions like guilt. It is also a synecdoche because a part—the feet—stands in for the whole—the song’s narrator. This helps convey that the narrator is the one who feels guilty.
Examples of Figurative Language in Literature
1. Emily Dickinson, “Because I could not stop for Death”
Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
Throughout the poem, Dickinson personifies death as a person who picks her up in his carriage to go for a scenic drive.
2. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
In the final sentence of his classic novel, Fitzgerald’s narrator, Nick, describes humanity:
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Nick is using a metaphor. He compares people, particularly Jay Gatsby, to boats that want to move forward (into a new future) but are pushed back (into the past) by powerful forces beyond their control.
3. Dante Alighieri, Inferno
In the first Canto, Dante meets a stranger at the foot of a mountain. After the stranger discloses that he was a poet who sang about the son of Anchises who left Troy when it burned, Dante asks:
Now, art thou that Virgilius…
Thou art my master, and my author thou,
Thou art alone the one from whom I took
The beautiful style that has done honor to me
4. Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Dickens begins his classic novel with a litany:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of
wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it
was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the
season of Darkness…
The recurrent use of the grammatical structure of “it was the….” is an example of parallelism. This repetition gives Dickens’ opening paragraph balance and emphasis, thus drawing the reader in.
5. Toni Morrison, Jazz
The first line of Morrison’s novel contains onomatopoeia:
Sth, I know that woman.
The first word is the onomatopoeic sound of a woman sucking her teeth in disdain as she begins to share information about a character she finds unsavory.
Further Resources on Figurative Language
The University of Colorado at Boulder’s Department of Linguistics published an interesting study about “meaning” in figurative language.
This video provides examples of figurative language used in various movies.
The Writing Cooperative published some tips on how to use figurative language to describe setting.