What Is Figurative Language? Definition and Examples
Have you ever felt so hungry you could “eat a horse”? Complained that “it’s raining cats and dogs” out there? Or wisely observed that “all that glitters is not gold”? Then you’ve already used figurative language without knowing or noticing it.
Figures of speech pop up everywhere in literature, poetry books, pop culture, motivational quotes, marketing materials and even in our everyday speech. (“Pop up”—that’s figurative language!) But what is figurative language exactly? How do you recognize it? And what are the most common types you can use?
In short, the definition of figurative language is using a word or phrase beyond its literal definition to achieve a more complex meaning or to strengthen its descriptive effect.
Let’s take a closer look at this creative, non-literal use of language that colors everything that we say, read and write.
What is figurative language?
Figurative language uses figures of speech (such as similes, metaphors and clichés) to suggest new pictures or images, or to create stronger effects. It is particularly useful in getting a specific message or feeling across. For instance, let’s say I’m stuck in the desert with a friend because our car broke down. Rather than saying: “It’s hot outside, isn’t it?”, I’d probably say: “It’s a million degrees outside, what are we going to do?!” Of course, it’s not literally a million degrees outside, but by using figurative language I have better expressed the dread and urgency of the situation we are in.
Figurative language has a fundamental impact on readers. By creating new connections between concepts, images or objects that have little to no original link, readers discover new insights and see a more vivid or imaginative picture in their heads. Figurative language is also useful in explaining an abstract concept by comparing it to something else that readers can better relate to. It can transform the seemingly ordinary into something significant.
This is why authors of all genres employ figures of speech so abundantly. In literature and poetry, writers often use them to pinpoint an exact feeling or mood they would otherwise fail to express with more conventional wording. Politicians and debaters use figurative language to argue and persuade. Novelists use it to draw readers into the world they’ve created. It’s all good.
10 common types of figurative language
A simile is a figure of speech that compares two things of different kinds, and that is often introduced by using a connecting word such as like or as. Here are some examples of similes:
She was as busy as a bee.
The three-piece suit fit him like a glove.
The zombie’s hands were cold as ice.
A metaphor is the same as a simile, but without the connecting word like or as. In a metaphor, one element directly replaces the other one. Some examples of metaphors include:
She was a busy bee.
His eyes were a deep ocean.
The zombie’s hands were ice.
A cliché is a phrase, expression, or idea that has become so overused that it has lost its original meaning or effect. Clichés can sometimes be seen as irritating and annoying because of their predictability. Here are some classic examples of clichés:
All’s fair in love and war.
Every cloud has a silver lining.
The zombie fell head over heels in love.
Remember a few paragraphs ago when I was stuck in the desert and it was “a million degrees outside?” That’s hyperbolic. Hyperboles are intentional and obvious exaggerations in order to emphasize or evoke strong feelings. They aren’t meant to be taken literally, like these hyperbole examples:
Her smile was a mile wide.
The student’s backpack weighed a ton.
Tommy the zombie was nervous: His dad was going to kill him when he got home.
An idiom is a group of words that, when used in a certain order, have brand new, unique meaning that has nothing to do with the definition of the words taken individually. Idioms are generally used to reveal a universal truth. While something doesn’t literally cost you “an arm and a leg”, the meaning behind the idiom immediately makes sense—because what ‘costs’ more than your own limbs? Here are some examples of useful idioms:
The project was a piece of cake.
He shrugged. “Better late than never.”
The expensive meal cost the zombie an arm and a leg.
Onomatopoeia is my favorite type of figurative language, and not only because it's so fun to say. Onomatopoeia has a simple definition: It’s the formation of a word by imitating the sound the thing it refers to makes or evokes. You can find them in most nursery rhymes.
The cow goes Moo.
Ding dong. Someone was at the door.
Rwwarrrr said the zombie.
Personification is when human characteristics or qualities are attributed to inanimate objects, animals, or abstract concepts. Some examples of personification:
The wind howled in the night.
The camera loves her.
The chair groaned when the zombie sat down.
An oxymoron associates two seemingly self-contradicting terms to illustrate a point or reveal a paradox. Taken independently, bitter and sweet mean opposite things; however, their association (bittersweet) create a distinct, highly evocative meaning. Here are some other examples of oxymorons:
The silence was deafening.
I was busy doing nothing.
That zombie was part of the walking dead.
A euphemism is when a polite or mild word or expression is used in place of something more unpleasant, distributing, or taboo. In this regard, it functions as the opposite of hyperbole. The most common example of a euphemism is saying someone ‘passed away’ rather than ‘died’. Here are some others:
The English major was between jobs.
He asked if she wanted to “Netflix and chill”.
The zombie’s girlfriend was about to bite the big one.
An allusion is a device that makes the reader think of another person, place, event, or thing. Allusions can be both explicit or implied in the narrative. Some of the most common sources of allusions come from the Bible and Greek mythology.
She picked up the trash like a Good Samaritan.
He was a regular Einstein.
The zombie couldn’t stop eating human brains; they were his Achilles’ heel.
Famous examples of figurative language from literature
Example 1: “Parting is such sweet sorrow”—William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
If you want to find examples of figurative language, look no further than Shakespeare. Can you guess what literary device he’s using in this famous quote from Romeo and Juliet? If you guessed oxymoron, you’re correct! The words sweet and sorrow evoke opposite ideas of happiness and pain. However, when Shakespeare combines them, it shows how the lovers are sad at having to leave one another, but also excited and joyful at the prospect of anticipating their next reunion.
Example 2: “Hope is a thing with feathers”—Emily Dickinson, “Hope is a thing with feathers”
In this famous poem, Emily Dickinson uses an extended metaphor to articulate a profound human emotion. She describes the abstract concept of hope to the reader by comparing it to something very tangible and visceral: a bird with feathers that perches on branches. As readers, we can better understand the complex once it’s compared to something known.
Example 3: “Beep, beep!”—The Road Runner, Looney Tunes cartoons
Though maybe not quite literary, let’s end on a fun example. Poor Wile E. Coyote knows and fears the “beep beep” or “meep meep” onomatopoeia of his archenemy the Road Runner in the Looney Tunes cartoon series. The “beep beep” is reminiscent of a car horn and signals to the coyote that danger is around the corner. Cartoons and comics traditionally use onomatopoeia to illustrate sounds to readers, whether it’s a loud Ka-Pow! after Superman lands a good punch, or the Klang! of an anvil over Tom Cat’s head. Either way … we feel it.
Using figurative language in your writing
Figurative language makes speech fun. It allows us to go beyond the literal and offers us a range of tools to express, describe, and emote. It’s used in everything from nursery rhymes—with a moo moo here—to Shakespearean soliloquies, to excuses for not going into work (after all, your head is killing you). Understanding the different types of figurative language and when to use them is important, but in the end it’s all about what you want to say. Go ahead. The world is your oyster … Pardon the cliché.
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Marika Hirsch, Knowledge Base Writer at Wix
American expat living in Ireland. Loves creative writing and carbs. Will ask to pet your dog.