Figurative language is language that is used in ways that differ from the literal connotations and definitions of individual words or phrases. Figurative language is used to imply concepts and meanings that are more complicated than those that can be conveyed with literal language.
There are many different methods, called figurative devices or literary devices, by which figurative language can be used. These are very often found in literature, and identifying figurative language is an integral part of literary analysis. Furthermore, being familiar with figurative language and figurative devices is important for writing as well as reading. This list of figurative devices will introduce you to figurative language.
1. Imagery – Imagery is broadly defined, usually in terms of writing, as the descriptive language used by an author to provide an image in the reader’s mind, appealing to one of the five senses. Imagery is the use of any descriptive words or phrases that result in a clearer mental picture of the person, place, thing, or situation being described. Many other figurative language devices can qualify as imagery.
Forgive me; they were delicious, so sweet and so cold.
The scream reverberated through the silence of the neighborhood.
The jewels, emeralds, sapphires, rubies, sparkled at her throat.
She was overwhelmed by the sweet smell of the cookies when she walked in.
Getting into the bed was like crawling onto a soft, fluffy cloud.
2. Simile – A simile is a comparison of two things that are not necessarily alike, using connecting a word to link the comparison. The connecting word is most commonly “like” or “as.” Similes are usually used to make a description more vivid or memorable, or to establish a certain characteristic of the thing being described.
He was courageous as a lion.
Her beauty is like a rose.
Seeing this play is like watching paint dry.
I slept like a log.
His dry skin was like sandpaper.
3. Metaphor – A metaphor is a figure of speech used to compare two unlike things by claiming that one thing is another. Unlike a simile, a metaphor does not use a connecting word such as “like” or “as.” It asserts that the two things being compared are equal to one another. Like a simile, a metaphor’s purpose is to strengthen a description or comparison, and make it more memorable or vivid.
The test was a breeze for him.
You are everything to me.
All the world’s a stage.
Time is a thief.
Love is a battlefield.
4. Alliteration – Alliteration is the repetition of similar sounds within a sentence or a phrase. It is sometimes more specifically defined as the repetition of sounds at the beginning of words, or in stressed syllables. Alliteration is used a lot in poetry, but in prose as well, and its purpose is usually to call attention to that particular set of words, or to contribute to the overall rhythm and flow of the writing.
She sells seashells by the seashore.
Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.
Grandma gave us gravy and grapes.
Hopefully, Howard’s house has heat.
Bridget bought a blue bouquet.
5. Hyperbole – Hyperbole is the use of extreme exaggeration or extravagant statements, meant to create a strong impression, as well as to evoke or indicate strong feelings. Hyperbole is not meant or interpreted literally, but the exaggeration contributes to the true meaning of what is being said.
I’ve been waiting for this forever.
The kids were starving to death by the time they went to lunch.
Your luggage weighs a ton.
He thought he would die of embarrassment.
She felt like she’d slept for years.
6. Personification – Personification is a method of assigning human characteristics to any non-human object or entity. Personification is often used to clarify or richen the description of something, or to emphasize a certain characteristic of a non-human creature or object.
Opportunity will soon be knocking at your door.
The mountains were swallowed by the heavy clouds.
The stars danced around the night sky.
The big day really snuck up on her.
His book was so popular that copies flew off the shelves.
7. Onomatopoeia – Onomatopoeia is defined as words whose spelling and pronunciation imitate natural sounds. Onomatopoeia is used to intensify a description of a sound, and make it more effective with a word that represents and resembles that sound.
The party guests murmured softly throughout the room.
The injured man moaned in pain.
The bus zipped quickly by.
The bees are buzzing in the garden.
He splashed happily in the pool.
8. Oxymoron – An oxymoron is a phrase or term that consists of juxtaposed words (usually only two) that appear to contradict one another. Oxymorons are sometimes used to produce a comedic effect, but are also often meant to emphasize the contradictory or confusing nature of an emotion or situation.
The movie was a tragic comedy.
They found original copies of the book in the basement.
His mother was awfully nice.
There was a minor crisis at work earlier today.
She gave her friend the bigger half of the sandwich.
9. Allusion – An allusion is a reference to a widely known person, place, or event. The subject of an allusion is referred to rather than explained in detail. The purpose of an allusion is often to clarify an idea or concept by referencing another idea that is universally recognized and understood.
He thinks he’s such an Einstein anytime he answers a question correctly.
I didn’t realize that by starting the conversation I had opened Pandora’s box.
She would talk about almost anything, but this subject was her Achilles’ heel.
The backyard was so beautiful and peaceful that it felt like the Garden of Eden.
My mother was being a real Scrooge during the holidays.
10. Idiom – An idiom is a phrase or group of words that have a figurative meaning that differs from their literal meanings, and are understood by many due to common usage and repetition. Idioms exist in all languages, but usually cannot be understood based on the literal definitions of the words involved. Idioms are used in writing to convey a particular meaning or sentiment in a unique way.
“Break a leg!” I said to him before the show.
She really let the cat out of the bag when she revealed the secret plans.
The exam was challenging for some, but for others it was a piece of cake.
The story was so absurd that I was sure he was pulling my leg.
I told them to keep an eye out for the missing dog.
11. Pun – A pun is a joke or phrase that takes advantage of words that have multiple definitions. Puns are almost always used for comic purposes.
He was having trouble remembering how to fasten the seatbelt, but then it clicked.
She couldn’t recall how to throw a boomerang, but it came back to her.
The vegetarian said they’d met, but he’d never seen herbivore.
The scarecrow was promoted for being out standing in his field.
I was hit with a can of soda, but I was okay, because it was a soft drink.
Now that you’re familiar with some figurative language devices, you can put them to use in your own speech or writing, and become better at identifying them when you read or hear them. A basic understanding of figurative language, including those devices on this list and many more, and how it is used will improve the way you write, the way you speak, and the way you interpret written and spoken words.