What Is Figurative Language? (With Examples)

By Sky Ariella - Jun. 20, 2021
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When reading a good book or an intriguing article, most people have experienced the feeling of getting lost in the imagery and details of the writing. This vivid sense of feeling from the written word is often attributed to the writer’s use of figurative language.

Figurative language takes words or phrases we’ve become familiar with beyond their literal sense into a broader definition by using figures of speech. It’s common to see figurative language woven into poetry and fiction, but it can also be valuable for daily communication.

What Is Figurative Language

Figurative language is when words or phrases are amplified from their literal meaning to provoke more intense imagery, stylize, and create writing that’s engaging for the reader. More than being one quality, in particular, figurative language relies on a variety of tools to further a reader’s grasp of complex topics.

As expected, figurative language is often seen in the written arts to convey ambiguous or intangible concepts that may be difficult to articulate with literal meanings of words and phrases alone. It establishes a connection with the reader.

Why Is Figurative Language Useful?

Whether it be a novel or a persuasive email, figurative language can be a useful mechanism for communicating more clearly and creatively when writing in any capacity. People are more likely to respond to your message when they’re interested in what you have to say.

Using figurative language devices is a strategic and effective way to capture an audience’s attention and develop a deeper mutual understanding of what’s being said.

Additionally, connecting with an audience can be crucial in roles where public speaking at any level is critical, such as teaching. Whether small or large scale, individuals who are successful in speech-dependent roles implement tactics of figurative language to identify with their audience.

11 Types of Figurative Language

Figurative language is a summation of many different strategies that can help bring the words you write or speak alive. Utilizing a rotation of effective language devices can improve communication in both written and spoken contexts.

Consider the following types of figurative language tools that can strengthen a reader’s understanding of information:

  1. Hyperbole. Hyperbole is when a turn of phrase is exaggerated for emphasis. It’s not a lie, but rather an overextension of an existing feeling. This figure of speech is commonly seen throughout daily conversation because it’s effective and can even be humorous in some cases. An essential distinction of hyperbole is that it doesn’t aim to make a comparison; it is simply an exaggeration for effect.

    Examples of hyperbole:

    • I haven’t seen you in forever!

    • He’s dying of laughter.

    • She has been to Florida a million times.

    • I can smell pizza from a mile away.

  2. Idiom. This language technique uses a phrase with a universally understood meaning that’s different from the literal usage. Idioms can be unique to a particular culture and confusing for non-native speakers since it deviates drastically from the literal translation. Usually, the phrase would appear nonsensical without this context and understanding.

    Examples of idioms in the English language include:

    • Break a leg during your performance tonight.

    • Restaurants like that are a dime a dozen.

    • I think he’s been cutting corners at work.

    • Hang in there.

    • Speak of the devil, John just mentioned you.

  3. Allusion. When writing or television refers to a famous situation, person, or event, it is an allusion. It’s similar to a subtle shoutout. Applying an allusion to your written or spoken word can be a little more challenging than some of the other tactics because it requires your audience to have outside knowledge of your reference.

    However, if you’re able to make an allusion that’s witty and about a subject that most people know, it can be impactful.

    Examples of allusion include:

    • I was lost when I first got here, but a good samaritan gave me directions.

    • You don’t have to be Albert Einstein to understand that.

    • They’re like a modern-day Romeo and Juliet.

  4. Simile. A simile uses the words “like” and “as” to function as a bridge between two ideas, objects, or characteristics.

    In a simile, one of the concepts is used to highlight or describe the other. Even though these two things can initially seem incompatible, the comparison of the two provides a deeper explanation and meaning to the reader.

    Similes are useful in literature and speaking engagements alike because they provide greater insight and develop imagery for a receiver. Telling someone that your house is as clean as a whistle, instead of merely mentioning that it’s tidy, adds emphasis and furthers clarification of just how clean it is.

    Examples of similes include:

    • My siblings fight like cats and dogs.

    • Listening to that lecture is like watching grass grow.

    • He’s as tall as a tree.

    • This jacket is as cheap as dirt.

  5. Metaphor. While similes and metaphors will often get confused for one another, they are different in delivering their messages. Metaphors don’t use comparison words, such as “like.” It simply states two things in conjunction with each other. Metaphors will commonly have more depth and certainty in it’s meaning.

    Examples of metaphors include:

    • His stare was ice cold.

    • The company is drowning in debt.

    • Our boss is an early bird.

    • Her heart is made of gold.

  6. Imagery. A considerable part of figurative language is about strengthening imagery. In itself, imagery is a device that can help convey complex conditions and appeal to a receiver’s senses. Imagery puts people in places with only the use of words.

    Consider some of the impressive descriptions of environments and scenarios in your favorite books and how it felt to read them. A great deal of imagery is probably used to convey this scene to the reader.

    While imagery is known for being embedded in poetry and prose, it can also be a useful tactic in nonfiction and professions that require a lot of public speaking, like teaching or politics. An audience will receive a speech or point of view more favorably if it can engage them with vivid imagery.

    Examples of imagery include:

    • The sound of distant music attracted him to walk farther down the dark street.

    • The sky against the setting sun was a spectacular blend of pastel pinks and oranges.

    • The turtleneck sweater was tight around my neck and infested my skin with itchiness.

    • The summer night air in Los Angeles is hot and wet.

  7. Personification. While imagery is all about bringing words to the reader’s senses, personification involves bringing human-like qualities to emphasize inanimate objects or concepts. A lot of poets make use of personification to describe objects in ways that people can relate to.

    Implementing personification to writing of any kind can spice it up for the reader.

    Examples of personification include:

    • New York is the city that never sleeps.

    • The sun smiled down on them.

    • My bed is calling my name.

    • The camera loves her.

  8. Onomatopoeia. This funny and unusual word has a definition that suits it well. Onomatopoeia refers to words that sound like the concept or scenario they represent. Usually, these will be words of action. That may sound strange reading it the first time, but if you read a few examples of this device in real-time, you’ll begin to get a clear sense of what it means.

    Think of bees buzzing, cats meowing, and engines whirring. Onomatopoeia is also commonly used in advertisements, like Rice Krispies’ “snap, crackle, pop.” Also often seen in comic books, with Batman punching bad guys alongside a bubble with a word like “thwump” to stand in for the sound of combat.

    Other examples of onomatopoeia words include:

    • Zap

    • Splash

    • Thump

    • Screech

    • Crunch

    • Hiccup

  9. Symbolism. You probably heard the term symbolism a lot in your high school English classes. While it’s true that this mechanism is often used in literature, it’s a figurative language technique that can also be used in different settings.

    Symbolism means when an object, word, or even something as simple as a color represents something much more complex and profound than what it seems on the surface.

    Examples of common symbolism include:

    • Red roses representing love and passion

    • A bridge representing connection and union

    • A butterfly representing transformation

    • Storms representing chaos and turmoil

  10. Synecdoche. The word “synecdoche” comes from a Greek phrase that translates to “simultaneous meaning.” It is used in figurative language when a word or phrase represents a much broader notion in its understood meaning. This can sound similar to an idiom.

    They differ in that a synecdoche usually is interchangeable with another phrase because it’s a part of the whole concept, while an idiom phrase stands on its own. It can be useful to consider synecdoche usage when you want to phrase a familiar concept in a new way that will still be generally understood.

    Examples of synecdoche include:

    • Pearly Gates vs. Heaven

    • Ask for their hand vs. Propose

    • The White House vs. Statements by the government

  11. Oxymoron. The figurative language device of oxymorons takes two seemingly incongruent concepts or subjects and places them together to illuminate reasoning in the absurdity. While the components appear to be opposite, they produce a unique and comprehensive description when put together. Oxymorons instruct the reader or listener to think outside the box.

    Sometimes, combining two qualities that seem odd together can elicit the deepest engagement and understanding.

    Examples of oxymorons include:

    • The job offer was bittersweet for the applicant because he would have to relocate.

    • She was the living dead after working overtime.

    • The silence in the house was so incredibly loud.

    • They wanted to be alone together on their date.

  12. Pun. A pun is a bit of wordplay that exploits the different interpretations of a various word or the similar sounds of two words with different meanings.

    Several people find puns exhausting and immature, but then, another camp finds them endlessly hilarious. Puns often fall under the category of “Dad jokes” but can be really compelling in the right context.

    Examples of puns include:

    • A boiled egg every morning is hard to beat.

    • A chicken farmer’s favorite car is a coupe.

    • Bikes can’t stand on their own because they’re two-tired.

    • If you read while sunbathing, you’ll be well red.

Other Figurative Language Devices

The above types of figurative language cover figures of speech, but there are other linguistic devices that can make your communication sharper.

Some examples include:

  • Alliteration. When several words in quick succession begin with the same consonant sound, that’s alliteration. For example “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.” Of course, alliteration goes beyond tongue twisters.

    Big companies use alliteration in their names and advertisements because it sticks out in people’s minds. Consider Coca-Cola, Krispy Kreme, and Paypal, or the Geico Gecko and Intel Inside.

  • Assonance. Assonance is similar to alliteration, but with internal vowel sounds instead of consonant sounds. Many everyday phrases use assonance, like “son of a gun” or “keep your eyes on the prize.” Assonance introduces a sense of rhythm into speech or written work, which can work to create the desired mood.

    Both assonance and alliteration are commonly used in poetry and literature, but they’re also commonly employed in the language of business, marketing, and just plain speech. Any time you’ve had one of those “you’re a poet but you don’t know it” moments, it’s likely due to accidental use of alliteration of assonance.

  • Meter. A pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables, we often think of meter as something entirely to do with poetry. But it’s used in songwriting, jingles, advertisements, slogans, and anything else you want to get stuck in people’s heads.

    People don’t automatically pick up on meter the same they do on rhymes, but it acts as a rhythm for the rest of the speech or written word.

Final Thoughts

Rhetorical, literary, and figurative language aren’t reserved for the likes of Shakespeare. As a creative species, we’re not bound by literal language all of the time. In fact, one of our greatest strengths is rooted in our ability to think metaphorically and make connections between apparently disparate concepts.

Figurative speech is more than just a series of stylistic devices referring to dry terms like metonymy and anaphora. It’s a way of expressing oneself in a way that’s more compelling for listeners and readers and more effective for you.

Start listening for figurative language in your everyday life and be more deliberate about employing it yourself, and you’ll see an improvement in the quality of your communication skills.

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Author

Sky Ariella

Sky Ariella is a professional freelance writer, originally from New York. She has been featured on websites and online magazines covering topics in career, travel, and lifestyle. She received her BA in psychology from Hunter College.

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