Understanding Figurative Language: A Comprehensive Guide
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 10 min read


  1. Figurative Language Overview
  2. Common Types of Figurative Language
  3. How to Identify Figurative Language
  4. Figurative Language in Literature
  5. Figurative Language in Poetry
  6. Figurative Language in Prose
  7. Figurative Language in Day-to-Day Conversations
  8. Figurative Language in Popular Culture
  9. Why Figurative Language Matters in Communication
  10. Ways to Improve Your Figurative Language Skills

Have you ever heard the phrase "it's raining cats and dogs" and looked up to see if Fido and Whiskers were indeed falling from the sky? The phrase is an example of figurative language, a tool used by writers and speakers to enrich their communication. This blog post will help you have a better grasp of the definition of figurative language, its different types, and how it's used in various contexts. So, let's dive into this fascinating world of words and expressions together!

Figurative Language Overview

Simply put, figurative language is a way of saying something other than the literal meaning of the words. It's like a secret code you have to decode to get the real meaning. But don't worry—you don't need to be a spy to understand it; you just need to pay a bit more attention to words and how they're used. Often, people use figurative language to make their speech or writing more interesting, colorful, or impactful.

Here's the definition of figurative language for you: Figurative language is a method of expression that uses words or phrases out of their literal meaning to achieve a more complex or special effect. Think of it as the salt and pepper of language—it adds flavor and zest to otherwise bland sentences.

  • Metaphor: "Life is a roller-coaster." Here, life isn't literally a roller-coaster, but this phrase helps convey the ups and downs of life.
  • Simile: "She runs like a deer." Again, she's not literally a deer. This phrase is just a way to illustrate her speed and gracefulness.
  • Hyperbole: "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse." Don't worry, no horses are harmed in the process. It's just a humorous way to express extreme hunger.

These are just a few examples of figurative language. There are many more types, each with its unique charm and impact. Understanding the definition of figurative language and its types can help you better appreciate the beauty of language and improve your communication skills. So, are you ready to dive deeper? Let's go!

Common Types of Figurative Language

Familiarizing yourself with the common types of figurative language can make your reading, writing, and daily conversations much more engaging and enjoyable. So, let's take a closer look at some of the most common types, shall we?

  • Simile: A simile compares two things using 'like' or 'as'. For example, "Busy as a bee," compares someone's level of activity to a bee's.
  • Metaphor: A metaphor makes a comparison without using 'like' or 'as'. "Time is a thief," is a classic example of a metaphor. It means that time passes quickly and often unnoticed, like a thief who comes and goes without being detected.
  • Personification: Personification gives human characteristics to non-human things. "The sun smiled down on us," is an example where the sun is given the human ability to smile.
  • Hyperbole: Hyperbole is an exaggerated statement not meant to be taken literally. If you've ever said, "I've told you a million times," then you've used hyperbole.
  • Onomatopoeia: Onomatopoeia is a word that imitates the sound it represents, like 'buzz', 'hiss', or 'sizzle'.
  • Idiom: An idiom is a phrase with a figurative meaning that's different from its literal meaning. "Break a leg," is an idiom that actually means "good luck."

These are just a few of the many types of figurative language we use in our daily life. Once you understand the definition of figurative language and become familiar with these types, you'll start noticing them everywhere, from books and poems to TV shows and advertisements. Ready to dive into the next section?

How to Identify Figurative Language

Now that we've explored the definition of figurative language and its various types, let's learn how to identify them in text and conversation. It's not as tricky as you might think.

Tip 1: Look for comparisons: Figurative language often involves some form of comparison. If you see words like 'as', 'like', or 'than', you might be dealing with a simile or a metaphor.

Tip 2: Watch out for personification: If you notice non-human things being described with human characteristics, that's personification. For instance, "The wind whistled through the trees."

Tip 3: Spot exaggerations: Hyperboles are all about overstatement. If something seems ridiculously exaggerated, chances are it's a hyperbole.

Tip 4: Listen for sound words: Onomatopoeia is all about words that mimic sounds. If a word sounds like the noise it's describing, it's probably onomatopoeia.

Tip 5: Decode idioms: Idioms can be tricky because their meanings aren't literal. But if a phrase seems strange or nonsensical, you might be dealing with an idiom.

Remember, figurative language is all about adding color and depth to language. It's the spice in the soup of conversation and the color in the painting of literature. By understanding the definition of figurative language and learning to identify it, you're taking a big step toward appreciating the richness of language. So, are you ready to spot some figurative language in the wild?

Figurative Language in Literature

Figurative language is the lifeblood of literature. It's the heartbeat that keeps a story alive, vivid, and engaging. So, let's dive into some examples of how authors use figurative language to create unforgettable narratives.

Metaphor: In Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird", the title itself is a metaphor. The act of killing a mockingbird symbolizes the destruction of innocence.

Simile: J.K. Rowling, in "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix", uses a simile to describe a character's voice: "Her voice was high, rather breathy, and she spoke as though she was permanently on the verge of a sort of giggly collapse."

Personification: In "1984" by George Orwell, the author personifies the clocks: "The clocks were striking thirteen."

Hyperbole: In "Alice in Wonderland", Lewis Carroll uses hyperbole to emphasize Alice's growing size: "She grew so tall that she seemed to shoot up like a telescope."

Onomatopoeia: In "The Hobbit" by J.R.R. Tolkien, onomatopoeia is used to create sound effects: "There came a 'drip-drip-drip' from the branches."

Figurative language has an incredible ability to capture our imaginations and make literature come alive. It's one of the reasons why we can so vividly picture Hogwarts, empathize with a mockingbird, and feel the oppressive weight of Big Brother watching. By understanding the definition of figurative language and its role in literature, you're well on your way to becoming a more perceptive reader.

Figurative Language in Poetry

Just as a painter uses colors and strokes to create an image, poets use figurative language to paint vivid pictures with their words. Let's look at a few examples that illuminate the definition of figurative language in the world of poetry.

Metaphor: In Emily Dickinson's "Hope is the thing with feathers", hope is metaphorically depicted as a bird that perches in the soul and sings unwaveringly, even in the hardest times.

Simile: In "A Red, Red Rose" by Robert Burns, the poet uses a simile to describe his love: "O my Luve is like a red, red rose."

Personification: In "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" by William Wordsworth, daffodils are personified as dancing and fluttering in the breeze, providing comfort and joy to the lonely narrator.

Hyperbole: In "As I Walked Out One Evening" by W.H. Auden, the poet uses hyperbole to emphasize the enduring nature of love: "I'll love you till the ocean is folded and hung up to dry."

Onomatopoeia: Edgar Allan Poe's "The Bells" is a famous example of onomatopoeia in poetry, with words that mimic the sounds of the bells they describe: "How they clang, and clash, and roar!"

So, whether it's a metaphor that gives hope wings, a simile that turns love into a vibrant rose, or onomatopoeia that brings the sound of bells to life, figurative language is a powerful tool in the hands of a skilled poet. It adds depth, beauty, and emotional resonance to the verses, making each poem a unique and moving experience.

Figurative Language in Prose

Just as a chef uses spices to add flavor to a dish, writers of prose use figurative language to spice up their narratives. Prose, like novels or short stories, is full of opportunities to explore the definition of figurative language. Let's take a peek into some classics.

Metaphor: In "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee, the mockingbird itself is a metaphor for innocence and goodness, harmed by injustice and prejudice.

Simile: J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series is teeming with similes. For instance, Harry's infamous scar is described as being "like a bolt of lightning."

Personification: Charles Dickens often personified objects and ideas in his works. In "A Tale of Two Cities", he opens with "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," personifying time itself.

Hyperbole: In "The Catcher in the Rye", J.D. Salinger's protagonist Holden Caulfield is known for his dramatic exaggerations, such as when he declares, "I'd probably be the only person who got hit by a car and then run over by a cab."

Irony: George Orwell's "Animal Farm" is a masterclass in irony, as he critiques totalitarian regimes through a seemingly simple farmyard tale.

Figurative language enriches prose, making even the most mundane descriptions intriguing. It helps to create memorable characters, build dramatic tension, and evoke emotional responses, making reading a more engaging and immersive experience. It's like a secret sauce — just a dash can transform the flavor of the story.

Figurative Language in Day-to-Day Conversations

Figurative language doesn't just live in the pages of your favorite novel — it's part of our everyday chatter too! We often use figurative language without even realizing it. Don't believe me? Let's walk through some examples:

Idioms: Ever said, "It's raining cats and dogs" when it's pouring outside? That's an idiom, a phrase that doesn't make sense if you take it literally but is understood as a common expression.

Metaphors: If you've ever claimed to be "drowning in homework," then you've used a metaphor. No, there's no actual water involved, but it paints a vivid picture of the overwhelming workload, doesn't it?

Hyperboles: "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse" — sounds familiar? That's a hyperbole. Unless you're an actual horse-eater, you're using this phrase to emphasize your extreme hunger.

These are just a few examples of how we use figurative language in our day-to-day conversations. It adds color to our speech, making it more expressive and interesting. So next time, when you're "on cloud nine" or feeling "under the weather," remember — that's the power of figurative language at work!

Just like in our everyday conversations, figurative language also takes center stage in popular culture. It's everywhere — from song lyrics to movie lines, from political speeches to advertisements. Here are a few places where the definition of figurative language really shines:

Song Lyrics: Remember the hit song "Firework" by Katy Perry? The lyrics, “Do you ever feel like a plastic bag, drifting through the wind, wanting to start again?" is a beautiful example of a simile, comparing a person's feeling of aimlessness to a plastic bag drifting in the wind.

Movie Lines: When Forrest Gump famously said, "Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're gonna get," he used a simile to express the unpredictability of life.

Advertisements: Have you noticed how car advertisements often use metaphors? Phrases like "This car is a beast" or "Experience lightning speed" are common, making the product more appealing by using figurative language.

So, whether you're jamming to your favorite tune, watching a blockbuster, or just looking at billboards on the highway, you're experiencing figurative language. It's the secret ingredient that makes our pop culture so engaging and relatable.

Why Figurative Language Matters in Communication

Now that we've seen how the definition of figurative language plays out in popular culture, let's get to the heart of the matter: Why is it so important in communication?

1. Adds Spice to Our Speech: Figurative language is like the spice in your favorite dish. It adds flavor to your conversations and makes your speech more interesting. Imagine eating a plate full of plain rice every day — wouldn't that be boring? Similarly, conversations without figurative language are plain and uninteresting.

2. Engages the Listener: Figurative language paints a picture in the listener's mind. When you say "It's raining cats and dogs," the listener doesn't just understand that it's raining heavily; they actually visualize it, making the conversation more engaging.

3. Expresses Complex Ideas: Sometimes, it's hard to express complex emotions or ideas directly. That's where figurative language comes in. Saying "I'm feeling blue" is much easier and more expressive than explaining the specifics of your sadness.

4. Helps in Persuasion: If you've ever watched a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. or read a Harry Potter book, you'll know how persuasive figurative language can be. It's a powerful tool that can sway opinions and stir emotions.

So next time you're having a conversation, remember the importance of figurative language. It's not just a fancy literary device, it's a vital part of our communication. And who knows? With a dash of metaphor or a sprinkle of simile, you might just become the life of the party!

Ways to Improve Your Figurative Language Skills

So, you've got the definition of figurative language down, and you understand why it's important. Awesome! Now, how about we try to improve your figurative language skills? Here are some simple, practical steps you can take:

1. Read, Read, Read: Reading is one of the best ways to improve your figurative language skills. From novels to newspapers, figurative language is everywhere. The more you read, the more familiar you'll get with different types of figurative language.

2. Practice Writing: Start incorporating figurative language into your writing. You can use similes, metaphors, personification, or any other type of figurative language that you like. The key here is practicing regularly.

3. Use Figurative Language in Conversations: Try to use figurative language in your daily conversations. Don't worry if it feels unnatural at first. With practice, it will become second nature.

4. Reflect on the Figurative Language You Encounter: Whenever you come across figurative language, take a moment to reflect on it. Understand its meaning, why it's used, and how it enhances the message.

5. Learn from the Masters: There are many songwriters, poets, and authors who are masters of figurative language. Learn from them. Listen to songs by Bob Dylan, read poems by Maya Angelou, or read novels by J.K. Rowling. See how they use figurative language to convey their messages.

Improving your figurative language skills is a journey, not a destination. So, take it one step at a time, practice regularly, and most importantly, have fun with it. Happy learning!

For a deeper understanding of how figurative language can inspire your visual creations, check out Juliet Schreckinger's workshop, 'Composing Complex Illustrations using Basic Shapes.' This workshop will guide you through the process of turning abstract concepts and ideas into compelling visual compositions, using basic shapes as the foundation.