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Figurative Language Definition

Language which conveys meanings that are interpreted imaginatively rather than literally


How is Figurative Language Used?

Figurative language is a literary device that is used to create layers of meaning which the reader accesses through the senses, symbolism, and sound devices. It brings the reader deeper into the theme of the work, without the author having to explicitly lay out the theme for the reader. It is a way for the reader to enter the words of everyday speech with their minds and emotions, rather than simply comprehending a story or poem. It encourages the reader to make real life connections with characters, plot, and the deeper message of a work which creates a more memorable experience for them. It can be helpful when examining literary works to explore definitions and more than one literature example. Figurative language examples and definitions also help with understanding how they enhance a particular work of literature, while other examples of figures of speech can help fiction writers add new insights to their writing.



10 Types of Figurative Language

There are several figurative language types, but the most common are:
  1. Simile
  2. Metaphor
  3. Personification
  4. Symbolism
  5. Hyperbole
  6. Imagery
  7. Oxymoron
  8. Paradox
  9. Onomatopoeia
  10. Apostrophe

Read more about each type below:

Simile Example

Simile

A simile is a comparison between two unlike things using the words “like” or “as”. It is a way to draw a connection between two ideas or things and create a deeper level of meaning for the reader. Known for his use of similes in The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare uses a simile to describe Romeo’s astonishment at Juliet’s beauty: “O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright! / Her beauty hangs upon the cheek of night, / Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear.” In this simile, Romeo is beginning the motif of light vs. darkness, where Juliet is always a shining light and everything becomes dark around her.

Similes are often used in novels for younger readers as well. For example, in Esperanza Rising, the author states that everything in Esperanza’s life was in order, like dolls lined up in a row. This gives the reader a visual to draw upon, that when things are in line and near, they are in order.


Metaphor

Metaphor Example

Unlike similes, metaphors compare two unlike things or ideas without the use of “like” or “as”; the connection between the two is more implied than explicitly expressed by the author. The purpose of a metaphor is to establish a deeper connection and another layer of meaning to a character, the plot, or the theme. A simple metaphor can be found in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”, when the narrator observes, “And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor”, referring to the dying embers of the fire as turning into ghosts, much like the ghost of the memory Lenore, which will be visiting him soon.

Metaphors are often used in novels for younger readers as well. For example, in Fish in a Tree, the author uses the metaphor or a pawn becoming a queen in Chess, when telling readers not to give up and that anyone can be a leader.


An extended metaphor is more complex than a simple metaphor, in that it is typically expressed throughout the entirety of a work. Emily Dickinson is famous for using extended metaphors, such as in her poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death”, which uses a journey with Death personified to mirror the typical journey of life from childhood to inevitable death. Extended metaphors are sometimes also called allegories, although allegories tend to be used with larger works and novellas, such as Animal Farm by George Orwell.


Personification Example

Personification

Personification is the assigning of human characteristics to an non human things such as an inanimate object, animal, or abstract idea. Personification is used to simplify a more complex concept, to provide humor, or to provide a more clear look at a complicated idea or situation. It is most often used in poetry to create an image or to help establish mood. Robert Frost uses personification in his poem “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” when he gives the horse human qualities: “He gives his harness bells a shake / To ask if there is some mistake.” Horses do not ask questions, but the horse’s confusion seems to mirror the narrator’s own confusion and reluctance to keep moving.

Personification is also a fun and interesting way to add humor to novels for elementary age readers. In When You Trap a Tiger, rather than simply stating that the floor boards were creaking, the author has Lily begging them to be quiet as they whine beneath her feet.


Example of Symbolism in Wonder

Symbolism

Symbolism uses objects, characters, and motifs to create a pattern of deeper meaning that stands out in the reader’s mind. It typically uses something physical to represent a broader, more abstract idea. Symbols typically illuminate the deeper message or theme in a work, and sometimes they access common archetypes to create a universal understanding of their meaning. In “The Scarlet Ibis” by James Hurst, the ibis itself represents little brother Doodle: traveled a long way to a place it doesn’t belong, elongated neck, crooked legs, and a red tinge that suggests a weakness that can’t be overcome.

Books taught in elementary and middle school classes often include symbolism, teaching students to think deeper early on. R.J. Palacio uses a lot of symbolism in her book Wonder. One example of symbolism is the mask; Auggie uses masks to cover up his face, disguising his feelings as well as himself.


Hyperbole Example

Hyperbole

The literal meaning of hyperbole is, "An obvious exaggeration or overstatement to make a point". It is not meant to be taken seriously, and usually when explored, reveals a deeper meaning. Hyperboles occur most often in poetry, but they also appear in common clichés or sayings. Hyperbolic expressions move away from the literal sense of statements and incorporate more abstract ideas and language. For example, “The shot heard round the world” is a phrase used to describe the first shot fired by the British soldiers on unarmed Colonial citizens which began the Revolutionary War. While the actual gunshot was not heard around the world, the implications of that gunshot changed world history.

Macbeth also feels he will never be cleansed of his murderous deed of killing King Duncan in William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth. Macbeth laments, “Neptune’s ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand? No. This my hand will rather / The multitudinous seas incarnadine, marking the green one red.” In this scene, not even the oceans can wash Macbeth’s hands of King Duncan’s blood.


Imagery Example

Imagery

Imagery accesses all of the reader’s senses in order to create powerful mental experiences and a clearer picture of characters and events, as well as emotional responses to those events. Imagery uses sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell descriptions to cue a reader in on mood, tone, and theme. Imagery is often created by others including metaphors, similes, onomatopoeia, symbolism, and personification. Imagery is also very important in poetry. For example, in the book Poet X, the author shows the reader how very sympathetic Xiomara is towards her mother by showing the reader what her mother’s long days consist of.


Oxymoron Example

Oxymoron

An oxymoron combines two contradictory words or ideas into one phrase to highlight an idea or a problematic connection for the reader. In poetry, oxymorons are used for more of an artistic effect, to create powerful contradictory images in the mind of the reader. Shakespeare was well-known for such contradictions, especially in his play The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Some of his most famous oxymorons from the play occur when Juliet initially believes that Romeo is a cold-blooded murderer, but also can’t believe that someone so beautiful could commit such an ugly deed. She cries, “Beautiful tyrant! Fiend angelical! / Dove-feathered raven, wolvish-ravening lamb! / Despised substance of divinest show / Just opposite to what thou justly seem’st.”


Oxymorons are simpler versions of paradoxes.


Paradox

A paradox is a statement containing two seemingly contradictory ideas, but is true nonetheless. It is a stronger version of an oxymoron in that it prompts the reader to see both sides of a truth at the same time. George Orwell uses paradoxes in his novel 1984, with the mantras of Big Brother: “War is Peace”; “Freedom is Slavery”; “Ignorance is Strength.” While these may not make sense in the current world, in Oceania, war maintains the status quo; those who follow the Party line are left alone, and those who don’t know too much don’t suffer from seeing all of the contradictions around them.


Onomatopoeia

Onomatopoeia Example

Onomatopoeias are words that imitate sounds in the spoken language. Onomatopoeias are primarily used in poetry, and are often used to create imagery, symbolism, or repetition, which often point to the theme or message of the poem. Edgar Allan Poe uses onomatopoeia to establish a mood of content and then terror in his poem “The Bells”, which become increasingly threatening as death draws nearer:


“Hear the loud alarum bells,
Brazen bells!
What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!
In the startled ear of night
How they scream out their affright!
Too much horrified to speak,
They can only shriek, shriek,
Out of tune…
How they clang, and clash, and roar!”

Onomatopoeia is often used to show a character’s feelings and thoughts. Mia’s feelings are bubbling up inside of her like a bottle of soda in Mango-Shaped Space. The author shows the reader how it feels rising to the surface by using words that could be used to describe a bottle of soda bubbling, and is about to burst.


Apostrophe Example

Apostrophe

An apostrophe, in figurative language, is the direct address to an absent person, object, or abstract idea. An apostrophe is often used to begin a poem to establish the primary subject or mood. It is also a way for the author to use personification to clarify a complex idea, or to bring any character into the work. One of the most well-known examples of apostrophe is in Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth where Macbeth’s dagger comes to life, personifying his own conscience as he prepares to slay King Duncan. Macbeth, both terrified and mesmerized, says, “Is this a dagger which I see before me / The dagger toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee! / I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.”


Figurative Language Activity

Identifying figurative language is an important skill students must acquire and use in order to understand and appreciate the layers of meaning an author will set out for a short story, novel, or poem. Being able to distinguish their utility is also important when writing your own pieces. Using a template like the ones below, have students locate as many elements as possible in the work being analyzed, and have them create a visual depiction of the language being used.

You can also create figurative language worksheets for students to use digitally or offline. They can visually organize information, which can be perfect as a way to prepare for a short essay or paper. You can easily tailor the worksheets to the activity or project.


How to Use Figurative Language in Writing

Figurative language makes writing pop, and the ability to write figurative language is an artistic expression rather than an exact science. The concepts and literary techniques express how the expressions are shown but are not necessarily a manual on how to use them in individual works. Instead, understanding types can allow for more of a more genuine range of expression when it is called for. They can be considered an accepted convention or type of scaffolding for writers.

Example Activities of Figurative Language

Storyboard That has many activities that you can copy directly to your teacher account to use with your students. Here are three examples of activities.



Common Core Standards

  • ELA-Literacy.RL.6.4: Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of a specific word choice on meaning and tone
  • ELA-Literacy.RL.7.4: Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of rhymes and other repetitions of sounds (e.g., alliteration) on a specific verse or stanza of a poem or section of a story or drama
  • ELA-Literacy.L.6.6: Acquire and use accurately grade-appropriate general academic and domain-specific words and phrases; gather vocabulary knowledge when considering a word or phrase important to comprehension or expression

How to Teach Figurative Language

1

Define the Terms

Start by defining the different types of figurative language, such as similes, metaphors, personification, hyperbole, and idioms. Use examples to illustrate each type.

2

Use Examples

Give students examples of figurative language in context, such as in literature, poetry, or songs. Have them identify the type of figurative language used and explain its meaning.

3

Practice

Provide opportunities for students to practice using figurative language themselves. You can give them writing prompts or ask them to create their own metaphors or similes.

4

Analyze

Ask students to analyze the effect of figurative language on a text. How does it enhance the meaning or create a certain mood or tone?

5

Create

Encourage students to create their own pieces of writing that use figurative language. This can be a fun and creative way for them to apply what they have learned.

6

Review

Regularly review the different types of figurative language to reinforce learning and provide opportunities for students to practice identifying and using them.


Frequently Asked Questions about Figurative Language

What is figurative language in simple terms?

Figurative language is a way of using words to create an image or describe something in a non-literal way. It is used to make writing more interesting and expressive by creating comparisons, evoking emotions, and painting vivid pictures in the reader's mind. Unlike literal language, which means exactly what it says, figurative language uses metaphors, similes, and other devices to suggest meanings beyond the literal definition of the words.

What are the 10 types of figurative language?

The ten common types of figurative language are simile, metaphor, personification, hyperbole, idiom, allusion, symbolism, irony, onomatopoeia and imagery.

What is figurative language with examples?

Figurative language is a powerful tool that writers can use to create a more engaging and memorable experience for their readers. One common type of figurative language is similes, which compare two things using "like" or "as." Similes are ideal for creating vivid and relatable imagery, as they help readers understand a concept by comparing it to something they already know. For example, "Her smile was as bright as the sun" is a simile that compares a smile to the sun to convey its radiance and warmth. Another type of figurative language is metaphor, which compares two things without using "like" or "as." Metaphors are ideal for creating a deeper and more complex understanding of a concept, as they suggest a hidden connection between two seemingly unrelated things. For instance, "Life is a journey" is a metaphor that implies that life is full of twists and turns, and that we must navigate its challenges and opportunities like a traveler on a journey. Other types of figurative language, such as personification, hyperbole, and idioms, can also be used to create specific effects and enhance the overall quality of a piece of writing.

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