Ordinary Language vs. Poetic Language

Instructor: Karen Wolak

Karen has taught 4-8th grade English/Language Arts and has worked closely with adult learners for several years. M.Ed. in Adult Education.

In this lesson, we will explore the differences between ordinary language and poetic language. We will review common uses of these styles, how these styles are created, and examples from literature.

Style Matters

Take a look at the two images in this lesson. They're both pictures of hands, right? And yet, they're very different. You can tell that the artists who made the images had very different intentions. One artist wanted to make a very straightforward image of hands - maybe for a poster or a school project. It doesn't leave much of an impression. But you can tell that the other artist wanted to convey more. It invokes images of prayer and quiet meditation. It seems solemn. Even though both of these images display hands, the artists clearly presented them in very different ways.

Like ordinary language, this image of hands is simple and straightforward.
Simple clip-art image of the palm of hands.

As artists carefully choose the way they portray an image, we choose the language we use based on what we want to convey. Sometimes we use simple, conversational words. Other times we may choose words that make more of an impact. There are many ways to convey the same message, but we change the style and word choice based on our intent and audience.

Ordinary and Poetic Language

Ordinary language refers to the words and phrases we use in our everyday lives. It is straightforward, it generally does not utilize complex vocabulary, and it is meant to be easily understood. If you ever hear someone asking you to say something in 'layman's terms,' you are being asked to say something in a way the common person could understand. In other words, you are being asked to use ordinary language.

Like poetic language, this image of hands by Albrecht Duerer is detailed and sparks emotions.
Image of praying hands by Albrecht Duerer.

Other common language styles are modifications of ordinary language. Poetic language, for example, refers to a more artistic form of ordinary language. While the goal of using ordinary language is simply to communicate a message, the goal of using poetic language is to convey a deeper meaning, feeling or image to one's audience. It purposefully includes imagery and figurative language to create this effect.

How Ordinary and Poetic Language are Used

We tend to use ordinary language in daily conversation. It can also be used when an author uses a direct or informative style of writing. Newspapers articles, business reports, driving directions and school essays tend to use ordinary language that the audience can clearly understand.

As you can probably guess, poetic language is often found in poems and songs. However, try to avoid the mindset that poetic language can only be used in poetry, and that ordinary language is limited to prose. Some of the best prose is actually a mix of ordinary and poetic language. Since poetic language is used to create a deeper impact in the audience, you can find poetic language in works that are meant to leave an impression: fictional writing, greeting cards, speeches, eulogies, and persuasive essays.

Constructing Poetic Language

If you wanted to write an e-mail to your friend about the fireworks show you recently attended, you probably wouldn't agonize over choosing just the right words to share the experience. You would probably use ordinary language, such as, 'The fireworks were really pretty.' But what if you wanted to your words to make more of an impact? What if you were really impressed by the fireworks show and wanted to share more about the experience with your friend? Using more poetic language can help you achieve that effect.

Poetic language is created through the use of imagery and sound. Imagery can be created by the use of figurative language, such as one of the following:

  • Simile: A comparison of two things using 'like' or 'as.' (For example, 'He was as tall as a mountain.')
  • Metaphor: A direct comparison of two things, not using 'like' or 'as.' (For example, 'He was a tall mountain of a man.')

If you wanted to make your words flow in a more pleasing and poetic way, you could adjust the sound by using rhyming words or poetic devices, such as:

  • Alliteration: Repeating the beginning or stressed consonant sound in a series of words. (For example, the /p/ sound in 'Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.')
  • Meter: A repeating pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. (For example, 'Jack and Jill went up the hill' alternates stressed and unstressed syllables.)

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