Figurative Language

Learning Objectives:

  • Identify figurative language used in a reading.
  • Incorporate figurative language in writing.

Figurative languageVivid, powerful wording that creates a picture in the reader's mind. Effective figurative language helps the reader not just understand but also emotionally connect to an idea. is a tool that writers use to help the reader better understand an idea or concept. It creates a picture in the mind for the reader. Figurative language is generally found in literature, such as novels, short stories, poetry, and other types of creative writing; however, literary devicesAny of the various methods writers use to get their ideas across to readers. Examples include figurative language, symbolism, anecdotes, and many other literary elements and techniques. may be incorporated in other genresA category of something. Genres of fiction writing include romance, mystery, science fiction, etc. Biographies, textbooks, and scientific articles are examples of nonfiction genres. as well. This lesson will focus on the following types of figurative language: similes, metaphors, personification, hyperbole, idioms, and clichés.


A simileA comparison between two things using the words like or as. Similes are a type of figurative language. Examples: He's just sitting there like a bump on a log. My boss is as tough as nails. is a comparisonTo draw similarities between people, objects, or concepts. between two things using the words like or as.

The ocean seems strange to sheep because sheep live on land. Toni Morrison uses this simile to show how strange land seems to a character who has been raised on a ship.


Like the simile, a metaphorA type of figurative language in which a word or phrase that describes one thing is applied to another thing. This creates a comparison without using the words like or as. For example, calling someone "the black sheep of the family" doesn't mean he is a farm animal, but that he is unlike those around him in the same way a black sheep stands out from the rest of the herd. also compares two things; however, instead of using like or as, the metaphor presents a thing as if it is actually the thing to which it is compared. To say that someone has a "heart of stone" is to use a metaphor that means that the person is unfeeling.

By saying that laughter "is the sun," Victor Hugo compares laughter to the sun without using like or as.


PersonificationGiving human feelings or qualities to objects, animals, or ideas. Examples: That cheesecake is calling my name. The camera loves her. is a device a writer uses when assigning human attributes to inanimate objects or to ideas. Whenever you write that a thing acts, feels, or speaks as a human would, you are using personification. To describe different kinds of weather, you might say that the wind whispers, the sun glares down, or that thunder is shouting.

Jennifer Weiner uses the personification of the sunshine stabbing in order to show both the intensity of the sunlight and that the narrator feels as if she is under attack.


HyperboleFigurative language that uses extreme exaggeration to make a point. Examples: This backpack weighs a ton. My dad is going to kill me for denting the car. is extreme exaggeration. While hyperbole can add humor or intensity to creative writing, it can also create problems in informational writing and should therefore be avoided. The nature of exaggeration is to veer away from the truth, which is the opposite of what you want to do when you are writing to inform and need to build credibilityDescribes a person who is trusted and able to be believed; reliable. with a reader.

China and Africa are separated by great distances, rivers cannot jump over mountains, nor do salmon sing, but the hyperbole in the poem is used to show the depth and intensity of the speaker's love.

The exaggeration in hyperbole is so extreme as to be impossible; no one could eat a horse, take forever to do something, or study twenty-four hours a day. Even through hyperbole in writing or speaking can emphasize your message, it tends to undermine the credibility of your ideas.


IdiomsFigurative language used by a specific group of people that expresses something other than the literal meaning of the words. Idioms are understood within groups because of common usage, but may confuse outsiders. Examples: kick the bucket, dark horse are common, everyday phrasesA set of words that express an idea. A phrase may or may not form a complete sentence. that have implied meanings; that is, the meaning of the idiom goes beyond the literal meaning of the words. In English, you might say that someone "let the cat out of the bag" if he or she revealed a secret. And a person who is nervous and having second thoughts about getting married may be said to have "cold feet."

Every culture has its own idioms, which vary widely from culture to culture. This makes idioms particularly difficult for non-native speakers of a language. It may be wise to avoid using idioms if you think your readers will have trouble interpreting them.

- Captain James T. Kirk and Spock in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, 1986

To play your cards right means to do things in a strategic way; Kirk means that they will find the information they want if they use an effective strategy.

Here are some common idioms and their meanings.



To be left in the dark

To be kept unaware of the truth

To cost an arm and a leg

To be very expensive

To cut to the chase

To get straight to the point

To be all bark and no bite

To seem more aggressive than one actually is

To be on the same page

To agree with others on an issue

To run out of steam

To have lost energy

To get a second wind

To have renewed energy

Until the cows come home

For a long time


Possessing common sense

Green light

A signal to go ahead with plans

Paper trail

Written evidence or documents that can be used as proof of what people did

Pie in the sky

A positive but unrealistic view

Walking on air

Being very happy

A drop in the bucket

A very small part of a large amount


A clichéA word, phrase, or situation that has been used so often that it has become dull and meaningless. may be a proverbA short, well-known saying that expresses a common wisdom or gives useful advice. Examples: Two wrongs don't make a right. Don't judge a book by its cover., an idiom, or even a metaphor or a simile that has been used so much that it is now dull and boring. You should avoid clichés in your writing because their overuse has rendered them meaningless. It is like a worn shirt—at one time it may have attracted attention but it has now lost its luster. A new shirt will gain more interest.

Here are some phrases and sentences that are clichés:

At the end of the day…

At this point in time…

The bottom line is…

At my fingertips…

I avoid him like the plague.

Her eyes twinkle like stars.

Show me the money.

The eyes are windows to the soul.


"Fact of the matter" is a cliché that refers to the truth. Besides being an overused expression, it also is fairly wordy. Instead, you could edit the phrase so it reads, "I never stepped foot in that building." The reader will either believe you or not regardless of your saying that it is true.

Figurative language can be both a fun and effective tool to make your writing more lively and interesting to the reader; however, it is important to use it purposefully and carefully. First, you need to be sure that your comparison or image works well for the subject and would be generally understood. If your reader does not see the comparison or disagrees with the comparison, the figurative language will create an obstacle for your reader. It is also important not to use too much figurative language because your reader may become confused, and then your underlying message will be lost.

As readers, it is important to be able to interpret and understand figurative language. This will strengthen your comprehensionThe ability to understand a subject, reading, or idea. when you are reading a variety of text types. It will also make reading more enjoyable!