Figurative Language | Types and Examples

Whittney Tomczyk, Christine Serva
  • Author
    Whittney Tomczyk

    Whittney Tomczyk is a veteran educator of fifteen years. She has taught ELA and math as well as gifted education and home economics throughout her career. Whittney's teaching experience ranges from first grade through twelfth grade and she enjoys different aspects of all stages. She earned a bachelor's degree in Political Science from the University of Arizona, a Post-Baccalaureate in Education from Rio Salado College, and a certification for Gifted Endorsement from Chapman University.

  • Instructor
    Christine Serva

    Christine has an M.A. in American Studies, the study of American history/society/culture. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer.

What is figurative language? Learn the definition and purpose of figurative language and understand why writers or speakers use it. Explore the different forms, elements, and types of figurative language and view examples of each type. Updated: 07/28/2021

What is Figurative Language?

Figurative Language is defined as the use of words and phrases in a way that extends beyond their literal meaning. While figurative language is often seen in poetry, fiction, and spoken word pieces, it is such a part of modern language that it can also be found in expository text at times. A key to using figurative language effectively is to ensure that it serves a specific purpose in writing and that a particular device is not overused, which might diminish its effect.

Figurative Language

Have you ever heard someone say they are as happy as a clam? Or have you ever seen a sunset that made the sky look on fire? Or talked about how your workplace was a total zoo?

In this lesson, we'll explore several different types of figurative language, including plenty of examples to nudge your noggin into knowing more about this topic.

When we're talking about an object or experience, like a sunset, using literal language, we might describe it exactly how it appears to us. For instance, we might say that the sunset looks pink and orange, and that the sun is barely visible on the horizon. Yet, it doesn't really do a sunset justice to describe it that way, does it?

Figurative language, however, is a way of expressing information in a more imaginative way, while not relying on literal descriptions alone. For instance, instead of saying the sunset is pink and orange, we might say the sky was on fire.

Why use this type of language? Figurative language can make your writing and speech more interesting and engaging. It can help describe things that are not easy to fully express with just facts.

Imagine trying to describe how frightened you would be by a snake that slithers across your path. Would you rather say simply that you became scared, or would it be more powerful to say you jumped out of your skin?

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Purpose of Figurative Language

Authors use figurative language to explain abstract ideas or emotions in terms that help readers understand and connect to a piece of writing. Using this type of language allows writers to:

  • Attach an idea or emotion to something concrete using a comparison.
  • Create an image in the reader's mind.
  • Engage readers by using interesting language or intriguing comparisons.
  • Bring about an emotion in the reader.

Types of Figurative Language

There are many types of figurative language that a writer can employ to get their point across. Each type has a unique structure, but each of them add a layer of meaning otherwise not present in literal language.

Alliteration

While alliteration is technically a sound device, it can also add meaning to a line of poetry or prose. Alliteration refers to when multiple words in the same line or sentence begin with the same consonant sound.

Example: Samantha saw several scaly snakes at the circus.

Explanation: The alliteration here gives this line a light tone, as is often used in children's books. Notice that the final word, "circus," begins with c rather than s, but it still contains the same sound.

Allusion

An allusion is when a writer references another piece of literature, art, or pop culture without specifically naming it.

Example: Deja acted as though her boyfriend was a complete Romeo, when clearly that was not the case.

Explanation: This is an allusion to Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," though the play itself is not mentioned. Romeo is such a well known character that simply using his name will likely spark recognition in readers.

Hyperbole

The term hyperbole means an exaggeration that is used to prove a point.

Example: The homework that was assigned the first week of school was enough to last for the rest of the year.

Explanation: This statement is hyperbolic in nature because it is clear to the reader that the homework would not literally last the rest of the year; the writer is exaggerating to make a point about how daunting the homework felt.

Describing homework as enough to last a year conveys extreme stress and overwhelm by using an exaggeration.

Graphic of a student with her head in her hands staring at a laptop.

Idiom

An idiom is a phrase or a saying that is generally understood to mean something specific within a certain culture or language due to its common usage, not necessarily because it makes literal sense. These sayings often do not easily translate into other languages or other cultures.

Example: It's raining cats and dogs outside!

Explanation: In the United States, this saying is used to describe heavy rain. When translated literally, the saying would not make sense in other languages and is not something that would be immediately familiar in other cultures.

Litotes

Litotes is an ironic understatement that is created by negating the opposite of the situation.

Example: It's not the best day for a picnic.

Explanation: When used during a torrential downpour, this statement is ironic because it is opposite of what is expected to be said in that situation. Furthermore, it is an understatement, because it is evidently a terrible day for a picnic if it's not possible to go outside. Instead of saying "It is a terrible day for a picnic," the writer is negating the opposite by saying it is not the best day instead.

Metaphor

A metaphor is one of the most commonly used types of figurative language. It is created by comparing two unlike things as if they were the same, in order to create understanding. Metaphors can be short, taking place in just one line or sentence, or they can be extended to encompass an entire poem or story.

Example: Her eyes were oceans I could swim in all day.

Explanation: The writer is comparing someone's eyes to oceans. The reader can infer that the writer is very taken with this other person and is happy to stare into her eyes for a long time.

Onomatopoeia

An onomatopoeia is another sound device that can add a layer of meaning to a line of poetry or prose. This device refers to words that make sounds that relate to their definitions.

Example: Bang!

Explanation: When said aloud, the word "bang" actually makes a sound similar to a literal bang. When used in writing, this word could add a type of sound effect, giving extra emphasis to a portion of the text.

Oxymoron

An oxymoron is a pair of words or a short phrase that encompasses two seemingly opposite words together in a way that still makes sense to the reader.

Example: It was my only choice

Explanation: The word only implies there is a single item, whereas the word choice implies that there is more than one opportunity. This is a term that is generally accepted to make sense as a way to describe a situation in which a person seems to have one option, because any other options do not have a positive expected outcome.

Personification

Personification is a device that allows the writer to give human qualities to a non-human object. This helps to create imagery for the reader.

Example: My reflection danced in the water.

Explanation: A reflection is not a living thing; therefore, it cannot literally dance. However, describing the reflection as if it can helps the reader to picture the movement of the reflection upon the surface of the water.

While the reflection is not literally dancing, using that language in the form of personification helps the reader to visualize it.

Black and white photo of a person staring at their own reflection in a rain puddle.

Figures of Speech

One way to express an idea figuratively is the use of a figure of speech. A figure of speech is typically a short phrase that describes something imaginatively using figurative language, often involving comparison. Saying the sunset is on fire is one example of a figure of speech.

Have you ever heard someone say, 'It's just a figure of speech'? What they mean is that you don't need to take the phrase literally, because the description is only meant to help you use your imagination.

Perhaps one day you talk about how work was a zoo. This means that it was chaotic and perhaps a bit out of control, just as a zoo might feel because of the variety of wild animals behaving in their natural ways.

This is an example of a type of figure of speech known as a metaphor, meaning implicitly comparing one thing to another to make a point about the first thing. In this case, you're comparing your workplace to a zoo, even though you don't mean it actually is one (unless you really work at a zoo).

If you had said work was 'like' a zoo, this would be a simile, instead. A simile compares two things using the connecting words 'like' or 'as.' For instance, if you say you're as busy as a bee, you're using a simile to describe your level of activity. Likewise, if you say you are happy as a clam, you've used another simile.

Another type of figure of speech is personification. This is when you give human characteristics to non-human things. For example, you might say that your cat argued its way into your lap. Your cat didn't speak to you and say 'pet me or else,' but it probably took other actions like nuzzling you and being persistent about wanting to sit with you.

Metaphors, similes, and personification are just a few types of figures of speech.

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Video Transcript

Figurative Language

Have you ever heard someone say they are as happy as a clam? Or have you ever seen a sunset that made the sky look on fire? Or talked about how your workplace was a total zoo?

In this lesson, we'll explore several different types of figurative language, including plenty of examples to nudge your noggin into knowing more about this topic.

When we're talking about an object or experience, like a sunset, using literal language, we might describe it exactly how it appears to us. For instance, we might say that the sunset looks pink and orange, and that the sun is barely visible on the horizon. Yet, it doesn't really do a sunset justice to describe it that way, does it?

Figurative language, however, is a way of expressing information in a more imaginative way, while not relying on literal descriptions alone. For instance, instead of saying the sunset is pink and orange, we might say the sky was on fire.

Why use this type of language? Figurative language can make your writing and speech more interesting and engaging. It can help describe things that are not easy to fully express with just facts.

Imagine trying to describe how frightened you would be by a snake that slithers across your path. Would you rather say simply that you became scared, or would it be more powerful to say you jumped out of your skin?

Figures of Speech

One way to express an idea figuratively is the use of a figure of speech. A figure of speech is typically a short phrase that describes something imaginatively using figurative language, often involving comparison. Saying the sunset is on fire is one example of a figure of speech.

Have you ever heard someone say, 'It's just a figure of speech'? What they mean is that you don't need to take the phrase literally, because the description is only meant to help you use your imagination.

Perhaps one day you talk about how work was a zoo. This means that it was chaotic and perhaps a bit out of control, just as a zoo might feel because of the variety of wild animals behaving in their natural ways.

This is an example of a type of figure of speech known as a metaphor, meaning implicitly comparing one thing to another to make a point about the first thing. In this case, you're comparing your workplace to a zoo, even though you don't mean it actually is one (unless you really work at a zoo).

If you had said work was 'like' a zoo, this would be a simile, instead. A simile compares two things using the connecting words 'like' or 'as.' For instance, if you say you're as busy as a bee, you're using a simile to describe your level of activity. Likewise, if you say you are happy as a clam, you've used another simile.

Another type of figure of speech is personification. This is when you give human characteristics to non-human things. For example, you might say that your cat argued its way into your lap. Your cat didn't speak to you and say 'pet me or else,' but it probably took other actions like nuzzling you and being persistent about wanting to sit with you.

Metaphors, similes, and personification are just a few types of figures of speech.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are some examples of figurative language?

Figurative language refers to utilizing specific devices in order to layer intentional meaning on top of the literal meaning of words and phrases. This can be done in a variety of ways, but below are two examples.

  • Use of a simile: "Their wedding was like a fairytale." Their wedding was not literally a fairytale, but this comparison helps the reader to understand certain things about it.
  • Use of hyperbole: "I would be cleaning out the garage for the next hundred years." This timeline is clearly an exaggeration to prove a point that the garage was extremely messy and disorganized.

What are the 10 figurative language?

There are ways to use many literary devices in figurative ways. Ten recognized figurative language devices are: alliteration, allusion, hyperbole, idiom, litotes, metaphor, onomatopoeia, oxymoron, personification, and simile.

What is figurative in simple terms?

Figurative refers to when words and phrases have meaning beyond their literal definitions. There are specific devices that writers use in order to accomplish this.

What is figurative language and examples?

Figurative language refers to when authors use specific devices in order to extend the meaning of their words beyond the literal. Below are two examples:

  • Use of personification: "My feet would not sit still when I heard that song." Feet do not have the ability to decide for themselves when to move. This is a human quality given to something that is not itself a human.
  • Use of metaphor: "His voice was the calming blanket I needed at that moment." His voice was not literally a blanket, but this helps to describe a situation to the reader.

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