What is figurative language? Figurative language refers to the color you use to amplify your writing. It takes an ordinary statement and dresses it up in an evocative frock. Figurative language is a way to engage your readers, guiding them through your writing with a more creative tone. Although it's often debated how many types of figurative language there are, it's safe to say there are 12 common types.
Any time your writing goes beyond the actual meanings of your words, you're using figurative language. This allows the reader to gain new insights into your work. While there are 12 common types, the five main branches of the figurative tree include metaphors, similes, personification, hyperbole, and symbolism.
One of the best ways to understand the concept of figurative language is to see it in action. Explore a few examples of the five main branches.
- This coffee shop is an icebox! (metaphor)
- She's drowning in a sea of grief. (metaphor)
- She's happy as a clam. (simile)
- I move fast like a cheetah on the Serengeti. (simile)
- The sea lashed out in anger at the ships, unwilling to tolerate another battle. (personification)
- The sky misses the sun at night. (personification)
- I've told you a million times to clean your room! (hyperbole)
- Her head was spinning from all the new information. (hyperbole)
- She was living her life in chains. (symbolism)
- When she saw the dove soar high above her home, she knew the worst was over. (symbolism)
Since those examples are just scratching the surface, learn about the 12 common types of figurative language and how they are used through examples.
A hyperbole is an outrageous exaggeration that emphasizes a point. It tends toward the ridiculous or the funny. Hyperbole adds color and depth to a character.
- You snore louder than a freight train!
- It's a slow burn. I spent a couple of weeks there one day.
- She's so dumb; she thinks Taco Bell is a Mexican phone company.
- I had to walk 15 miles to school in the snow, uphill, in bare feet.
- You could've knocked me over with a feather.
When you use a metaphor, you make a statement that doesn't literally make sense. For example, "Time is a thief." Time is not actually stealing from you, but this conveys the idea that hours or days sometimes seem to slip by without you noticing. Metaphors only make sense when the similarities between the two things being compared are apparent or readers understand the connection between the two words.
- The world is my oyster.
- You're a couch potato.
- Time is money.
- He has a heart of stone.
- America is a melting pot.
- You are my sunshine.
When you look at personification, it gives human characteristics to inanimate objects, animals or ideas. This can really affect the way the reader imagines things. Personification is often used in poetry, fiction and children's rhymes.
- Opportunity knocked at his door.
- The sun greeted me this morning.
- The sky was full of dancing stars.
- The vines wove their delicate fingers together.
- The radio suddenly stopped singing and stared at me.
- The sun played hide and seek with the clouds.
A simile also compares two things. However, similes use the words "like" or "as."
- Busy as a bee.
- Clean as a whistle.
- Brave as a lion.
- The tall girl stood out like a sore thumb.
- It was as easy as shooting fish in a barrel.
- My mouth was as dry as a bone.
- They fought like cats and dogs.
- Watching that movie was like watching grass grow.
- using the image of the American flag to represent patriotism and a love for one's country
- incorporating a red rose in your writing to symbolize love
- using an apple pie to represent a traditional American lifestyle
- using a chalkboard to represent education
- incorporating the color black in your writing as a symbol for evil or death
- using an owl to represent wisdom
Symbolism is often found in literary works. Dive into a few different examples.
The "stage" in the play symbolizes the world, and the "players" represent human beings.
"All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts."
Bronte uses the imagery of the natural world to symbolize the wild nature and deep feelings of her characters.
"My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods. Time will change it; I'm well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath a source of little visible delight, but necessary."
You see assonance used a lot in poetry. It's where vowel sounds are repeated.
- She can't walk and talk in the dark.
- Lee sells many shells.
- He seems to beam at all the green.
- Explore the sight of the firelight.
- I tried with all my might to fly that kite.
Something becomes a cliché in writing when it's overused. When it was first introduced, it might have been a marvel idea, but after time, it becomes cliche. Cliches are found through movies and pop culture. Check out a few popular cliché sayings.
- Time is money.
- Love is blind.
- Misery loves company.
- Diamonds are a girl's best friend.
- If I didn't have bad luck, I'd have no luck at all.
You can find idioms in all languages. These old sayings have woven their way into the fabric of the language and have a different meaning beyond their literal meaning.
- beating a dead horse
- no pain, no gain
- biting off more than you can chew
- straight from the horse's mouth
- throwing caution to the wind
Have you ever used the word pen to mean writing? This is an example of a metonymy. It's when a word becomes linked with another to the point where it can stand for that word.
- You can't fight the power of the crown.
- Bring a dish to pass.
- Can you give me a hand?
- Please lend me your ears.
- That happens all the time on Wall Street.
And then, there is synecdoche. While this might sound like a weird word, the concept is pretty simple. A synecdoche is when part of something is used to mean the whole thing. Brands often become a synecdoche.
- I'm paying with plastic.
- I need to get a head count.
- Grab me a Kleenex.
- I need a Band-aid.
- The brains was my tutor.
Alliteration is a fun sound device. It is the repetition of the first consonant sounds in several words.
- We're up, wide-eyed, and wondering while we wait for others to awaken.
- Betty bought butter but the butter was bitter, so Betty bought better butter to make the bitter butter better.
- Bill bought a broken bike.
- Karen clawed at Carl.
- The cat kicked the kite.
Onomatopoeia is also a sound device where the words sound like their meaning or mimic sounds. They add a level of fun and reality to writing.
- The burning wood hissed and crackled.
- Sounds of nature are all around us. Listen for the croak, caw, buzz, whirr, swish, hum, quack, meow, oink, and tweet.
- The dog barked ruff, ruff.
- The hissing of the cat was barely audible.
- You could hear the hum of the engine.
Now that you have a bit of an understanding of the different types of figurative language, you can use this printable to keep them handy when writing.
Regardless of the type of word you use, figurative language can make you look at the world differently; it can heighten your senses, add expression and emphasis, and help you feel like you have the same experience as the author. With each brushstroke across the canvas, a painter adds depth to their masterpiece. Figurative language adds the same kind of depth to our writing.
So, instead of hearing the wind blow against your window tonight, perhaps you'll hear the whisper of the wind as it calls out for you like a lover in the night (personification and simile, respectively). That blank page you're looking at is actually a blank canvas. It's up to you to add texture and depth. Have fun layering your literary devices, but remember not to go overboard with them! When you're done, explore the difference between literally and figuratively to ensure you've used figurative language correctly.