figurative language


noun

language that contains or uses figures of speech, especially metaphors.

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Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2020

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What does figurative language mean?

Figurative language is language that’s intended to create an image, association, or other effect in the mind of the listener or reader that goes beyond the literal meaning or expected use of the words involved.

For this reason, the word figurative is often thought of as the opposite of literal, which refers to the strict meaning of words. For example, the literal meaning of it stinks is “it smells bad.” The figurative meaning of it stinks is “it’s terrible.”

Figurative language uses figures of speech, which are expressions like metaphors, similes, idioms, and personification, among many others. You know what special effects are in movies, right? Well, figurative language is like the special effects of words. (By the way, that last sentence was a simile—but more about that later.)

Figurative language is used all the time: in poetry and literature for sure, but also in nonfiction writing and everyday speech—just about everywhere words are used. Using figurative language makes the things we say more expressive and more engaging. That’s because it gives us so many ways to express things that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to if we only used words literally.

Why is figurative language important?

It would be hard to get through a day without using figurative language. We might think about metaphors when we’re writing a story or analyzing a novel, but most of the time we don’t even realize we’re using figures of speech. But we do—a lot, and for good reason. Figurative language gets ideas across in ways that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.

Many forms of figurative language connect two separate ideas or things to express a similarity. Others use words in unexpected ways. Here are some of the most common ones:

  • Metaphor: The applying of a word or phrase to something that’s not literally related in order to suggest a resemblance, as in This day is a dumpster fire. 
  • Simile: Like a metaphor, but it spells out the comparison, typically by using the words like or as, as in His arm is like a tree trunk! 
  • Idiom: An expression whose meaning can’t be understood from the literal meanings of the words that make it up, as in raining cats and dogs. 
  • Personification: The applying of human qualities to an animal or object, as in My car just screamed in pain.
  • Hyperbole: An exaggeration used for emphasis, as in We waited for an eternity. 

Some figurative language plays with how certain words or phrases sound. Alliteration is the repetition of sounds at the beginning of the words in a sequence, as in What wonderful words we wizards wield! Sometimes, the sound effect is baked into the word itself. Onomatopoeia is the formation of a word that imitates the sound of the thing it refers to, like how buzz sounds like the sound of a bee buzzing.

These are some of the most commonly used forms of figurative language, but there are many more. And not all forms of figurative language have formal names—there are endless possibilities for using language in creative ways to make it express what you want to express. Figurative language isn’t just for literature class. The more ways we can think up to express our ideas, the better.

Did you know ... ?

One figure of speech with a fun name is a synecdoche. Sometimes, synecdoches use part of something or its material to represent the whole, like when the word steel is used to refer to a sword. They can also use the whole to represent the part, something general to represent something specific, or something specific to represent something general.

What are real-life examples of figurative language?

Figurative language is very common in fictional writing, but it’s used all the time in all types of writing and in everyday conversation.

What other words are related to figurative language?

Quiz yourself!

Which of the following things is NOT an example of figurative language?

  1. alliteration
  2. hyperbole
  3. a metaphor
  4. a literal statement