You may have heard (or experienced) that one of the biggest challenges in learning a new language is mastering their figurative language. You can learn how people talk about things literally–how to ask for a cab, how to ask people how their day was, and so on–but a surprising amount of what we talk about isn’t literal at all, and this can be difficult to grasp.
Figurative language always plays a huge role in fiction. When we write, we’re trying to describe something that the reader doesn’t know about–we can stick to bare-bones, literal communication, but that’s going to be a pretty bland reading experience.
Figurative language, in a nutshell, is using words or phrases outside their literal dictionary definition. You might not think this is a big part of how we communicate or write, but actually, figurative language is an enormous part of verbal communication.
We often can’t describe things the way they are, and instead describe things by comparing them to something else, and this is usually figurative language. Understanding what figurative language is, what the different types are, and how to use them will help you immensely in your writing. And in this article, we’re going to do just that!
What is an Example of Figurative Meaning?
Real quick, let’s talk about figurative meaning.
Figurative meaning is meaning that isn’t literal. Figurative meaning is symbolic, and it’s imparted through figurative language, which is what we’ll talk about here.
Here are a few quick examples of figurative meaning, just so you know what we’re working with here:
From Dictionary.com: “to know your ropes” can mean two things. Literally, it means to know your literal ropes well, as in to have a thorough knowledge about the physical ropes in your possession. Figuratively, it means to know your stuff, or to be well versed in your area of expertise.
Also from Dictionary.com: “allergy” is used to describe literal allergies, like a peanut allergy or a pollen allergy, or it’s used to describe an intense dislike of something. Someone might say “I’m basically allergic to zebra print” to mean they dislike it immensely.
What are 12 Types of Figurative Language?
There are a ton of different types of figurative language, so this isn’t a comprehensive list by any means. However, these are the most common types of figurative language you’ll come across in everyday conversation and in the books you read, and they’re a great place to start if you’re looking for more tools in your writerly arsenal! You probably already use a lot of these and don’t even realize it yet.
Alliteration is when a sound repeats at the start of several words which are close to one another. The words don’t have to be directly next to one another–they can just be close by–but they should be close enough that you can hear the sound repeated when the sentence is spoken out loud.
Example: Before her broken heart burst, she barreled down the street.
Here, we see the ‘b’ sound repeated in ‘before,’ ‘broken,’ ‘burst,’ and ‘barreled.’
Ideally, this will be used to some effect–maybe a sentence that’s meant to sound harsh will have repeating ‘k’ or ‘t’ sounds to make it sound halting and short. Something meant to sound more fluid and romantic might have more soft sounds. Tinkering with this can change the feel and texture of your passages.
Assonance is when similar vowel sounds happen in words which are close to one another. Unlike alliteration, this doesn’t have to happen specifically at the beginning of the word–it can happen anywhere in the word, as long as we see it come up a few times in words which are close to one another.
Example: Son of a gun.
Son of a gun has the sound in ‘son’ and ‘gun’ repeated, giving it a catchy, punchy feel.
Consonance is when similar consonant sounds repeat in words close to one another. It’s much like assonance, except the vowel sound is swapped for a consonant sound.
Note that this isn’t the same as alliteration. Consonance only involves consonants, for example, and assonance only involves vowels. Alliteration could be both. Consonance also doesn’t have to take place at the beginning of the word, while alliteration does.
Example: Megan’s off-hand comments frazzled the Chief of Justice.
Here, the ‘f’ sound is repeated in ‘off,’ ‘frazzled,’ and ‘Chief.’ Notice that the ‘f’ sound doesn’t always fall at the beginning of the word, which is what makes this an example of consonance instead of alliteration.
Simile is when we compare things using the words ‘like’ or ‘as.’ This is something we see constantly in poetry or in particularly descriptive prose–it’s difficult to get the reader to understand the significance or preciseness of something, so comparing it to something else the reader knows can really help.
Example: Her laugh was as sweet as sugar.
If you were writing this, you might have a great idea in your head of what this character’s laugh sounds like. But maybe you go to write it, and saying ‘her laugh sounded sweet’ isn’t doing enough. How can you explain how sweet it was to the reader? We know how sweet sugar is–describing it as ‘sweet as sugar’ helps us understand.
Metaphor is the comparison of similar things without using ‘like’ or ‘as.’ This is very similar to simile, in that we’re using something to explain or describe something else. However, while simile compares them by using ‘like’ or ‘as,’ metaphor simply states that the things are the same. Because it shortens the distance between the two things and makes for more powerful statements, some authors argue that metaphor is superior to simile, but both are common!
Example: When she broke up with him, his heart was a rock in his chest.
His heart isn’t literally a rock in his chest. Instead, we’re using the phrase ‘rock’ to get across the way this character feels without stating it outright. His heart was a rock in his chest–we get the sense of his chest feeling tight, that he feels upset or even distraught.
You’ll also come across extended metaphor, which is where an author uses an image throughout a few lines or stanzas to convey meaning. A great example of this is in Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken, where the two roads symbolize two walks of life.
An idiom is when a combination of words, together, makes up a meaning different from their literal meanings.
Wait, you may be saying–isn’t that all of figurative language?
Well, kind of. But idioms have a strong cultural element to them. People in a group will use an idiom and understand what they mean, even though the words together might not make any sense to any outsider.
Example: That test was a piece of cake.
This is a metaphor, yes, but it’s also an idiom. ‘Piece of cake’ is a commonly used phrase used to mean ‘easy,’ so saying the test was a piece of cake or like a piece of cake lets us know it was easy.
Onamonapias are written expressions of sounds. They’re not what the sound actually sounds like, but they’re used to get those sounds across.
Example(s): Zap! Pop! Bang!
Zap doesn’t sound exactly like an electric shock, but it sort of gets across the vibe of an electric shock–same with pop and bang. These words sound similar to the sounds they’re describing.
Personification is assigning person-like attributes to something that isn’t a person.
Example: The tide danced in and out, but never reached the Smith’s house.
A tide can’t literally dance, but the word ‘dance’ gives us a playful, lyrical sense of the tide’s movement. We’re ascribing a person-like characteristic or movement to the tide so we can better understand it.
Hyperbole is the use of extreme, dramatic language to get across something. The reader or listener knows the hyperbole isn’t literally true–it’s just being used to convey the extremity of the situation. Characters or people who use lots of hyperbole often come off as dramatic.
Example: “My hairbrush broke–this is the end of the world.”
It’s obviously not the end of the world if your hairbrush breaks–here, that phrase is being used to get across the severity of how the situation feels.
Irony is when we describe something using words that have the opposite meaning–this is often done for the sake of comedy.
There are three main types of irony: verbal irony, situational irony, and dramatic irony.
Dramatic irony is when the audience understands something opposite what the characters do.
Example: Romeo doesn’t know Juliet isn’t really dead, so he kills himself.
Verbal irony is when a different word is used than what is meant.
Example: Someone saying “oh, my day has been awesome” if their day has actually been terrible.
Situational irony is when something happens which is different than what we expect.
Example: In the Emperor’s New Groove, there’s a scene where Kuzco is lost and frightened in the woods. The lighting gets dark and the bushes rumble, Kuzco trembles in fear, and we expect a monster to leap forward, but instead it’s a little bunny rabbit.
Allusions are when we compare things to famous nouns. Note that this isn’t metaphor or simile–what makes allusion unique is that we’re using well-known people and places. Allusions can also be (and frequently are) references to other famous books, movies, or T.V. shows.
Example: “Well, I’m not Mozart or anything, but I think I play piano well enough.”
We know Mozart to be an excellent pianist. Because of that, we understand this person isn’t literally claiming not to be Mozart, but is instead claiming not to be very good at piano.
In a synecdoche, we use a part of something to represent the whole thing.
Example: Dallas won the Superbowl last weekend.
All of the city of Dallas did not win the Superbowl last weekend. Here, we’re taking the team (the Dallas Cowboys) and referring to it as ‘Dallas.’ The football team is representing the entire city of Dallas.
What are Some Examples of Figurative Language?
Now that we’ve covered some common types of figurative language, let’s run through a few more examples to make sure we’ve got them down.
EXAMPLE: A police station gets burglarized.
This is situational irony. Since a police station is, in theory, meant to prevent crime, it’s ironic that a police station would be the victim of a crime. This is situational irony because it depicts something happening which we wouldn’t expect.
EXAMPLE: Snow fell soft as flower petals on the rolling hills.
EXAMPLE: “I’m pretty fit, but pull-ups are my Achilles’ heel.”
This is an allusion. Achilles’ heel, specifically, is a classical allusion, referring to the myth of Achilles. What the speaker means is that pushups are their one big weak spot.
EXAMPLE: “It’s raining cats and dogs out there.”
This is an idiom. It’s not literally raining cats and dogs, as those words together would imply literally. Instead, this is a commonly used phrase that we understand to mean that it’s raining a lot.
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