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
A signal to go ahead with plans
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!+ PRACTICAL APPLICATION
When writers use figurative language well, they help readers develop a deeper understanding of what they are trying to communicate. When Steve Jobs introduced the iPod, he used a simile, saying that to have an iPod would be like having 1,000 songs in your pocket. To most people, this meant much more than if Jobs had said that the iPod could store five gigabytes (5GB) of information. The term 5GB is abstract; it is much harder to imagine what 5GB means, but people could easily understand the specific detail and imagine being able to access 1,000 songs immediately. Putting your ideas into specific words that your audience will best understand will help you write more effectively in both the college and career settings.
Read the following paragraph that includes examples of different kinds of figurative language. Notice the language used and how the writer's meaning in using them is interpreted.
Many people dislike exercise; in fact, they would rather sleep on a bed of nails than run a few laps. I'm the opposite. To me, exercise is the frosting on the cupcake and the cherry on the ice cream sundae. That may be because, like a hamster on a hamster wheel, I love to run. I love to swim and play basketball, too. I even love stepping on the elliptical machine at the gym. I love how exercise banishes all the thoughts and worries from my head. Exercise is meditation. After exercising, I'm on top of the world. I know that there is a scientific explanation for how good I feel when I exercise: during exercise, there is an increase of endorphins in the brain. The flood of endorphins washes away my worries. Even if there weren't other benefits, I'd still exercise because it helps me sleep like a log.
Read the following paragraph and note four different types of figurative language.
When I first laid eyes on my wife, my eyes fell out of my head and onto the floor. She was as pretty as a picture. As I got to know her, I realized there was more to her than just looks. She was also kind, smart, and fun. My love for her tied me up and wouldn't let me go, so I bought her a ring and proposed. I was walking on air the day she agreed to be my wife.
Here is a list of the figurative language in this paragraph:
Read the following paragraph that includes examples of different types of figurative language. Identify each example of figurative language, what type it is, and explain what each example means.
Being a student is a balancing act. Students must juggle millions of responsibilities from all the different parts of their lives. The clock shouts at us to get up, go to class, go to work, do this, and do that. It is enough to make your head spin. Fortunately, there are many tools we can use to help us stay on the right track. Many students rely on their planners. Some use paper planners; others use planners that come with a smartphone. Either way, having a planner is like having a personal assistant.
The sentence Being a student is a balancing act is a metaphor.
What does it mean?
The writer compares student life to balancing on a tightrope and means that students are pulled in different directions.
The phrase Students must juggle millions of responsibilities is hyperbole.
What does it mean?
The writer uses hyperbole to show that students have many responsibilities.
The sentence The clock shouts at us to get up, go to class, go to work, do this, and do that is personification.
What does it mean?
Clocks can't shout; the writer uses personification to make the pressure of a hurried schedule more real to the reader.
The sentence It is enough to make your head spin is an idiom.
What does it mean?
This idiom means that the experience makes you feel disoriented or confused.
The phrase stay on the right track is a cliché.
What does it mean?
This cliché is used to show that the students continue to make progress and gain ground.
The phrase having a planner is like having a personal assistant is a simile.
What does it mean?
The writer compares using a planner to having a personal assistant who keeps track of your schedule and gives you reminders.
Using at least four types of figurative language, develop a paragraph that tells about either a personal success or failure. Then, list the figurative language and their types.
First, write a paragraph using figurative language.
In high school, I could do my math homework until the cows came home and still fail the class. As a result, when I enrolled in college, I was the very worst mathematician in the whole world; even my 18-month-old son was better at it than I. But I was determined to get in to the nursing program which required a good deal of math, so I spent every spare moment in the tutoring center. Math was no longer an enemy. It grew to be my friend. Now I am the master of math, and I show others how to do the same.
Now, list the figurative language you used and indicate each type.
How can you incorporate figurative language into your academic writing?
I can incorporate figurative language into my academic writing by finding and using comparisons that work well with the subject. I can use figurative language to help the reader put a picture to abstract ideas and concepts. Some figurative language is better to use in academic writing than others; I would use more metaphors and similes to create comparisons, but I would avoid using hyperbole and clichés.
In what types of readings are you most likely to come across figurative language?
I would probably find more figurative language in different types of creative writing, such as poetry, novels, and short stories. I probably wouldn't see figurative language in science and math textbooks or in news articles.
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