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Figurative language refers to the color we use to amplify our writing. It takes an ordinary statement and dresses it up in an evocative frock. It gently alludes to something without directly stating it. Figurative language is a way to engage your readers, ushering 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 at least five distinct categories. They are: metaphors, similes, personification, hyperbole, and symbolism.
In truth, this is only scratching the surface. There are waves of other literary devices that color our writing, including onomatopoeias, alliteration, oxymorons, puns, synecdoche, irony, idioms, and more.
In this article, we'd like to highlight the main branches of the tree, or "the big five." But, if we're being honest, the list goes on and on. As a starting point, let's have some fun with the ones you're most likely to come across in your daily readings.
Figurative Language: Understanding the Concept
Anytime 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.
One of the best ways to understand the concept of figurative language is to see it in action. Here are some examples:
- This coffee shop is an ice box! (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 - Chains are a symbol of oppression of entrapment.)
- When she saw the dove soar high above her home, she knew the worst was over. (Symbolism - Doves are a symbol of peace and hope.)
The Big Five
Let’s dive deeper into "the big five." We’ll consider their place in your writing, and give some examples to paint a better picture for you.
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 makes sense when the similarities between the two things being compared are apparent or readers understand the connection between the two words. Examples include:
- 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.
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.
Personification 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.
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 burg. 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.
Symbolism occurs when a word has its own meaning but is used to represent something entirely different.
Examples in everyday life include:
- 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.
Examples in literature include:
- “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.” - As You Like It, William Shakespeare
The “stage” here symbolizes the world and the “players” represent human beings.
- “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.” - Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
Bronte uses imagery of the natural world to symbolize the wild nature and deep feelings of her characters.
Some Fun Sounds
So, that covers "the big five." But, we'd be remiss if we didn't briefly touch upon some literary sound devices that can hang with the best similes and metaphors.
Alliteration is a 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.
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.
Here are some examples:
- 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.
Figurative Language Engages the Reader
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're having the same experience as the author. With each brush stroke 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!