What is Figurative Language?

Figurative language is a form of descriptive language that uses nonliteral meanings to convey a message. It is a commonly used literary device that creates an abstract and imaginary effect for the reader. It is commonly found in stories, as it can help describe characters, events, or settings. Many authors use figurative language to add a uniqueness to their work or create a sense of imagery. Figurative language is also used in everyday conversations as well e.g., “There is so much traffic, I’ll never get to school!” (hyperbole)  

Understanding of figurative language is important when it comes to higher academic levels (e.g. high school and college) and the development of complex literacy skills (e.g. the ability to read advanced literature and write longer essays).

Difference Between Literal and Nonliteral Language

Literal language

The message is expressed exactly how it is intended

Example: “He was very nervous going into the meeting.”

Nonliteral language

The message requires inferencing/interpretation or has been learned

Example: “He had butterflies in his stomach before he went into the meeting.” (idiom)

Types of Figurative Language

There are numerous types of figurative language; however, we will highlight some of the commonly used forms.

Simile

Using the words “like” or “as” to compare two things.

Examples:

“His new shoes shined bright like a diamond.”

“She ran as quick as a cheetah.”

Metaphor

Comparing two things; however, unlike similes, they do not include “like” or “as.”

Examples:

“Time is money.”

“Life is a highway.”

Idiom

Using a phrase to state a message different from its literal meaning. Idioms are often culturally specific and have been accepted as common use.

Examples:

“Hit the sack!” → translates to go to bed

“Under the weather.” → translates to feeling sick/ill

Hyperbole

Using an extreme exaggeration to emphasize a point.

Examples:

“My bag weighs a ton!”

“I’m so tired I could sleep for days.”

Personification

Giving human characteristics to non-living objects or animals.

Examples:

“The leaves on the tree danced in the wind.”

“The birds sang a sweet melody in their nest.”

Why Do We Teach Figurative Language?

The ability to understand and use figurative language is part of an individual’s language development. This typically occurs in the advanced language period, which means it comes after individuals are able understand and use literal language (Paul & Norbury, 2012). Individuals with language learning disorders have a greater likelihood of experiencing difficulty understanding the meaning of figurative language forms within written and oral contexts. This is also evident in individuals with autism spectrum disorders, who often experience deficits with pragmatic language (social language) and language delivered non-literally. Part of this comprehension limitation is that figurative language requires us as listeners to infer and reason meaning from context, as oftentimes these forms of expression are not explicitly taught. Understanding of figurative language is important when it comes to higher academic levels (e.g. high school and college) and the development of complex literacy skills (e.g. the ability to read advanced literature and write longer essays).

Besides the figurative language examples mentioned above, ther types of figurative language include alliteration, onomatopoeia, allusion, oxymoron, symbolism, assonance, cliche, and metonymy.


Citations/further resources:

Paul, R., & Norbury, C. (2012). Language disorders from infancy through adolescence-E-Book: Listening, speaking, reading, Writing, and Communicating. Elsevier Health Sciences.