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Literal vs. Figurative Language

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  • 0:03 Take It Literally - Or Don't
  • 0:46 Literal Language
  • 1:50 Figurative Language
  • 3:07 Examples
  • 4:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Writers frequently make use of different types of language to get their points across. In this lesson, we'll look at the basic differences between literal and figurative language.

Take It Literally - Or Don't

Writers often like to put a great deal of imagery into their work. After all, how many times have you heard an English teacher mention the importance of showing, not telling? One common element used to enhance imagery is figurative language, which is phrasing that doesn't have a literal meaning, but rather suggests something with the use of creative language. Metaphor and allegory, for instance, are forms of figurative writing.

Think of figurative language as the opposite of literal language, which is the text that means exactly what it says. Literal language can be read literally, word for word. Let's look at these types of language more closely and see examples of each.

Literal Language

If you're doing something highly technical, like building a rocket, you'll want to know exactly what the instructions say without any possible confusion. In an instance like this, literal language is essential, because it explains exactly what should be done through the course of the rocket construction. Of course, literal language is used in all types of writing, not just instructional texts. You can find it in everything from a book report to the pages of your favorite novel. Let's look at an example of a literal sentence:

  • The hot flames roasted the fibers of the asparagus until it had dark grill marks.

Here, there is no potential confusion, and the language is very straightforward. The asparagus has dark grill marks from being roasted over the hot flame.

Because it's very straightforward, literal writing can be a bit dry and even downright boring; but it doesn't have to be. Especially when used in stories and other creative pieces, a strong command of syntax and vocabulary can help you craft an entertaining and detailed piece.

Figurative Language

Figurative language is generally more colorful. Literature drips with figurative language! Instead of using an exact description of what is happening in the text, figurative language creates comparisons and uses suggestive language to paint a picture in the mind of the reader. There are many forms of figurative language, but let's take a look at some of the most common:

  • Simile: A comparison that uses 'like' and 'as.' For example, You are sweet like candy is a simile that compares the person's character to the sweetness of candy using 'like.'
  • Metaphor: A comparison that equates two things. For example, Your mother is a saint is a metaphor that equates the person's mother to a saint. The mother is not literally a saint, but she is kind and gracious, much like a saint.
  • Hyperbole: An exaggeration for the purpose of emphasis. For instance, I just ate a million cupcakes is hyperbole emphasizing that I ate a lot of cupcakes--not literally a million.
  • Personification: Language that gives human character and personality to inanimate objects. For instance, The wind sang a soothing song refers to the calming sound of the wind--the wind did not literally sing a song.

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