What Is Figurative Language? Explained

What is figurative language? In the simplest terms is writing that is not to be taken literally. Learn more about it in this article.

It’s likely that you already use figurative language all the time. When you say “this conference room is an icebox,” you’re comparing it metaphorically to a freezer.

Likewise, you probably use hyperbole, personification, and other figurative languages when working to paint a more vivid picture and help people understand what you mean. Read over the types of figurative language below to get a better understanding of these tools and to use them more purposefully in your writing.

What Does Figurative Language Mean?

What is figurative language?

Figurative language refers to words and phrases whose meaning is not completely congruent with their literal meanings. A person might be imbued with non-human characteristics, such as describing them as being as sleek as a cat. By the same token, we may assign an animal or object human qualities in examples of personification.

As a reader and a writer, an appreciation of these tools can deepen your understanding and your ability to communicate.

Why We Use These Literary Devices

Metaphors are used, foremost, to help the reader understand. If you describe someone as someone who oozes when he walks, you are clearly describing an unsavory person. But, even more important than helping us see, metaphors help us feel. When we consider a person who oozes, it evokes a sensation of disgust. The image of a woman as the sun makes us see her in our minds as radiant.

Common Types of Figurative Language

Figurative language can be roughly broken down into different types of words and phrases. These types of figurative language are ones many writers find useful:

Simile and Metaphor

Simile and metaphor are related, but the mechanics are different. In a simile, an object and what it’s being compared to are linked with “like” or “as.” 

A few examples of similes include:

  • That runner is “fast as a cheetah.”
  • In his suit, he stood out like a sore thumb.
  • Like a babe in the woods.

Metaphors, by contrast, use the comparison more directly, characterizing without like or as.

Examples of metaphors include:

  • In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare describes Juliet as “the sun.”
  • Her brother is a couch potato.
  • His eyes were chips of ice.

Read our guide to metaphor examples from literature

Hyperbole

What is figurative language?
Hyperbole example: It was literally 1000 degrees in there

Hyperbole replaces the literal meaning of a word with a figurative one that is exaggerated for emphasis. When you say, “it took him a million years,” you don’t mean that literal span of time, just that he was late.

Other examples of hyperbole include:

  • It was literally 1000 degrees in there.
  • He cooked enough for an army.

Onomatopoeia

Onomatopoeia describes figures of speech where the words evoke the actual sound of the thing that they describe.

Examples include:

  • the “ring” of a telephone
  • a clock’s “tick,”
  • a “knock” on the door.

Synecdoche

Synecdoches are a type of shorthand, where we use a part of something to stand in for the whole. If someone says “Chicago is going to the playoffs,” they mean a sports team from Chicago, not the city itself. 

Other examples include:

  • Legal will have to look it over.
  • I’ll get this to post.

A closely related type of word is metonymy. A metonymy substitutes the name of an attribute or part of a thing for the thing itself. Someone may describe their car as their wheels, by example. 

Other metonymy includes:

  • Give me a hand.
  • She swore an oath to the crown.

Personification

Personification is a subset of metaphors that gives inanimate objects human characteristics. Objects can be imbued with their own emotions, motivations, and movements in this figure of speech.

Examples can include:

  • a stubbornly stuck window.
  • an angry, red rash.
  • a howling wind.

Alliteration

Alliteration is the use of the same letter or sound at the beginning of words that are used closely together in a sentence. This is one of the literary devices whose purpose is to make language more pleasing. It catches readers’ attention and encourages them to continue. It can also sometimes be used to link two ideas thematically.

An example of the latter is the “5 Ws” of journalism: who, what, when, where, why. The alliteration makes them memorable and links them in the readers’ minds. 

Other examples include:

  • the whistling wind.
  • A bad bag of beef jerky not worth the mandibular manipulation to masticate it.

The Final Word on What Is Figurative Language

The more you look, the more examples of figurative language you will see. Closely study works that resonate with you, whether they are blog posts, novels, or articles in the newspaper. Look at each sentence, and you will likely find many examples of this literary tool. 

FAQs About What Is Figurative Language

What does “figurative language” mean?

Figurative language refers to language that is not meant to be taken literally. Rather, it is intended to be understood through comparisons or references.

Why do we use figures of speech?

On the surface, it may seem like you’ll be more easily understood speaking plainly and factually. However, having comparisons to other phenomena, objects, and experience makes it easier for your reader or listener to understand you.

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Author

  • Lara is a freelance writer currently located in the Florida Keys. She frequently covers health, wellness and how-to topics.

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