Career Development

What Is Figurative Language? Definition, Types and Examples

July 29, 2021

Writing is one of the four main communication types, and effective writing means engaging a reader with memorable content. Figurative language is a way for writers to leverage their readers' existing knowledge, cultural and social awareness and common understanding of the different figures of speech. How you use figurative language in writing can help connect you to readers. In this article, we define figurative language, look at the different types along with examples, and discuss how to identify it in reading and writing.

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What is figurative language?

Figurative language is the use of descriptive words, phrases and sentences to convey a message that means something without directly saying it. It is used to build imagery to deepen the audience's understanding and help give power to words by using different emotional, visual and sensory connections.

Figurative language is used to:

  • Compare two unlike ideas to increase the understanding of one
  • Describe ideas that are sometimes difficult to understand
  • Show a deeper emotion or connection
  • Influence the audience
  • Help make connections
  • Make descriptions easier to visualise
  • Elicit an emotion

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10 types of figurative language

Figurative language in writing expresses a meaning beyond the literal definition of words and phrases. There are many ways to create this in your writing. Here are ten common figures of speech and how they are used in writing:

1. Simile

A simile is a comparison between two unlike things using the words 'like', 'as' or 'than'. Often used to highlight a characteristic of one item, similes rely on comparison and the audience's ability to create connections and make inferences about the two objects being discussed, and understand the one similarity they share. Simile often creates a more memorable description for an image rather than describing it literally.

2. Metaphor

A metaphor is a direct comparison without using the comparative words 'like' or 'as'. Metaphors equate the two things being compared to elicit a stronger connection and deepen the meaning of the comparison. Authors might also write extended metaphors, which continue for several lines or an entire piece.

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3. Personification

Personification is attributing human characteristics to non-human things. This personifies objects and makes them more relatable. Writing about these non-human entities by giving with human actions, features or emotions can increase a reader's empathy.

4. Onomatopoeia

Onomatopoeia is the use of descriptive words that help the reader experience specific moments through sound rather than describing how a moment sounds with more extensive language. Onomatopoeia often enhances the musicality and theme of a piece of work.

5. Oxymoron

An oxymoron uses two opposite ideas to create an effective description. The format is often an adjective preceded by a noun. This adds dramatic effect by creating tension between two conflicting ideas. Authors might use this to prompt critical thinking about a particular idea.

6. Hyperbole

A hyperbole is an over-exaggeration used to emphasise an emotion or description. Sometimes hyperbole also involves using simile and comparative words. Hyperbole can seem shocking at first to readers, but it's the extreme exaggeration that gets their attention and encourages them to think.

7. Litotes

Litotes are figures of speech that use understatement to make a point. It's often sarcastic in tone. By introducing a negative into the phrase or by understating, you create irony.

8. Idiom

An idiom is a commonly used expression that has gained a meaning different from its literal meaning. Idiomatic phrases vary by culture and language. They're often difficult to grasp for language learners because the expression's true meaning is so different from what is being expressed. Since idioms translate literally, the information conveyed can be misleading, but they are often aimed at an audience familiar with the idiomatic meaning.

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9. Alliteration

Alliteration is the repetition of the same consonant sound at the start of one or more words near one another. It's often used to emphasise an emotion or reveal a stronger description. Common to writing poetry, alliteration makes a phrase memorable through its sound and can highlight specific images.

10. Allusion

An allusion is a reference to a well-known person, place, thing or event of historical, cultural or literary merit. It requires the audience to use their background knowledge to understand the meaning. Authors often use allusion to connect specific moments to larger, shared experiences.

Examples of figurative language

Types of figurative language can overlap and it helps to see examples to show how authors use figures of speech in many writing genres. Here are examples of each of the ten types of figurative language:

  • Simile: Last night, I slept like a bear. This example highlights how bears hibernate in the winter, implying the narrator slept heavily or for a long time.
  • Metaphor: This house is a shoebox. The reader can assume that the house isn't literally a shoebox, but they can imply both that the house is small and how the narrator feels about it.
  • Personification: The river flowed every day, determined never to stop. As determination is a human quality for persistence, this emphasises the continuous flow of a river even though it's impossible for it to possess determination.
  • Onomatopoeia: The front door slammed with a bang! This emphasises the effect, inviting the reader to experience the noise rather than listening to the narrator describe the sound.
  • Oxymoron: At the park, there was just a small crowd. The word crowd shows many people gathered in one spot, so the adjective small makes this a humorous, but often understood, figure of speech.
  • Hyperbole: My grandfather is as old as the big oak tree. This statement emphasises the age of the grandfather with an exaggerated comparison.
  • Litotes: It was no coincidence that we arrived late. Rather than stating, 'We arrived after the incident' this phrase shows the narrator's expectations juxtaposed with what actually happened.
  • Idiom: The employee's fifth, late arrival was the manager's last straw. From the phrase, 'The straw that broke the camel's back', this common English idiom shows the moment in a series of negative experiences where the manager loses their patience
  • Alliteration: The silver sea shines on the heavenly horizon. The repetition of the consonants 's' and 'h' highlight the images of the sea and the horizon more memorably.
  • Allusion: Her smile was subtle like the Mona Lisa's. Since allusion depends on the reader's external knowledge, this example provides a clear description of someone else's smile.

How to identify figurative language

The more you write and read, the easier it can be to identify figurative language. There are some quick and easy clues like looking for words such as 'like' or 'as', or a little more involved clues when identifying the tone of a piece. Here are some steps you can take to identify figurative language:

1. Read a short piece of text

If literature is extensive, it can contain many examples of figurative text. Take shorter pieces of writing, like a paragraph in a novel or a line in a poem and inspect it. Each word can contain clues as to whether the author is writing figuratively.

2. Look for visual clues

A simile might be the easiest to identify because the words 'like' and 'as' indicate a figure of speech. Similarly, oxymorons (often nouns followed by adjectives) and alliteration (words starting with the same letter) have indicators that show when an author is using figurative language. You can simply scan a page to identify some of these visual clues.

3. Look for unusual images

When reading literature, one way you identify figurative language is to notice any unusual images. Figures of speech often compare an image relative to a narrative to something completely unrelated. For example, if an author describes a car engine 'roaring like a lion', you can see how they are using personification to show the engine's loud noise.

4. Practise writing figurative language

One of the best ways to identify figurative language is to practise writing it yourself. Describe what's happening around you and make comparisons, try to use alliterative descriptions or personify everyday objects. This can help you learn how to incorporate figurative language in your own writing as well.

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