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Interpreting Figures of Speech in Context

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  • 0:02 Figures of Speech
  • 0:24 Verbal Irony
  • 2:09 Puns
  • 3:42 Idioms
  • 5:41 Hyperbole
  • 6:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kara Wilson

Kara Wilson is a 6th-12th grade English and Drama teacher. She has a B.A. in Literature and an M.Ed, both of which she earned from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Figures of speech can add humor or drama to any situation, but you have to understand what they mean in order to connect the dots. In this lesson, we'll discuss how to interpret figures of speech, such as verbal irony, puns, idioms, and hyperbole.

Figures of Speech

Have you ever heard someone crack a joke or use an expression that makes people laugh, but you're the only one who didn't get it? You may have heard someone use a pun, verbal irony, idiom, or hyperbole. Interpreting these figures of speech takes knowing the context in which they're said and becoming familiar with each type. So let's get started.

Verbal Irony

Verbal irony is when the intended meaning is different from the literal meaning of something that is said. Normally what we say is interpreted by knowing the literal meaning of our words. For example, if someone says, 'How delightful!' the literal meaning is an exclamation of joy. But if that same person says this after hearing that there is no more hot water and she is sweaty from her workout and already late to work, then she might say, 'How delightful!' in a sarcastic way, which is a case of verbal irony. The actual words convey one meaning, but the way it is said and the situation or context in which it is said expresses a very different meaning.

Another example would be if a teenager were to pull out his cellphone during a serious conversation with his father. The father stops talking as the teen keeps his eyes glued on his cellphone, typing away. He says to his son, 'I'm sorry. I didn't realize this conversation about your terrible report card isn't nearly as important as what's going on right now on Twitter.'

Because we understand the context in which this is said, we know that the father isn't actually feeling apologetic though he says the words, 'I'm sorry.' We also understand that because the father and son are discussing a serious and important issue (the son's bad report card) that the father does not mean to actually say that Twitter is more important. So, this is a clear case of verbal irony.

If all we heard was what the father said and didn't know the context in which he said it, we wouldn't be able to clearly identify it as an instance of verbal irony, so knowing the situation in which something is said helps us understand this type of irony.

Puns

A pun is when a word is used, typically in a humorous way, to suggest two or more of its meanings, or it suggests the meaning of another word that is similar in sound.

Let's say a pilot tells her husband that she got a raise, and her husband says, 'That's great! Your career has really taken off!'

This is an example of a pun because the phrase 'taken off' has two meanings. First, it literally refers to when a plane takes off from the runway. Second, it can mean in a figurative way that something or someone is doing better and better.

If a little restaurant known for their paninis is between two clothing stores, you could use a pun by saying, 'Paul's Paninis is sandwiched between those two stores.'

The word 'sandwiched' is used here in two ways: it literally describes how it is situated between the two stores, and it plays on the fact that a panini is a type of sandwich.

Many jokes involve puns, too. Here's one: An Almond Joy walks into a psychiatrist's office and sits down. The psychiatrist takes one look at him and says, 'Well, it's clear that you're nuts.'

The phrase 'you're nuts' is a pun because that phrase can mean that someone is crazy, but it also refers to actual nuts, since an Almond Joy candy bar has almonds, a type of nut. Just hearing the phrase 'you're nuts' does not mean we are necessarily hearing a pun, but because of the way it is used in context, we can understand here that it is being used as a pun.

Idioms

An idiom is an expression whose meaning is not predictable based on the individual words used in the expression. A couple of examples of idioms include:

  • Kick the bucket
  • The cat's out of the bag

Understanding these expressions comes from knowing what these expressions mean by being really familiar with the English language and by understanding the context in which they are said.

For example, if an older woman jokingly talks about death by saying, 'One of these days I'm going to kick the bucket and then what will you do without me?' By recognizing that this older woman is humorously talking about the fact that one day she is going to die, we can understand that the expression 'kick the bucket' refers to someone dying even though the words 'kick' and 'bucket' don't show that meaning on their own.

Let's say two teenagers who are trying to act like they are just friends but are actually dating get caught holding hands. They might blush and turn to their other friends saying, 'Well, I guess the cat's out of the bag.' This does not mean a cat just jumped out of a bag. Instead, this humorous expression means that the secret is out. The context in which it is said helps people understand what this idiom means.

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