What Is Figurative Language? | Definition & Examples

Rhetoric updated on  March 6, 2024 4 min read

Figurative language is the use of words to convey meaning beyond their usual or literal understanding. Its primary purpose is to create an effect, generate humor, or exaggerate a point. Overall, we encounter figurative language in a wide range of contexts, from artistic expression to everyday conversations.

Figurative language examples
They unfortunately tried to cut corners when they were renovating.
The cat was purring with contentment on my lap.
His requests for a raise have been met with deafening silence.
My niece is a little angel.

What is figurative language?

Figurative language is a literary tool that employs words with non-literal meanings. Whereas literal language conveys information directly, figurative language requires creative interpretation as its meaning or intention goes beyond the typical uses of words and phrases.

It is important to note that when people say “figurative language,” they do not always mean the same thing. The narrow definition of figurative language usually includes figures of speech that play with the meaning of words, such as irony and metaphor (also known as tropes). However, some people also include literary devices such as alliteration and onomatopoeia that are related to word order, syntax, letters, and sounds, which are known as schemes.

Regardless of how we define it, figurative language allows us to convey ideas and images in a creative and memorable way. In literature, it is a versatile tool that enables writers to engage a reader’s imagination and sense of humor. Without figurative language, stories would be flat and uninteresting. Also, poetry would be hard to understand if one only focused on its literal meaning, as it heavily relies on this literary device.

Note
While figurative language is a powerful tool, it has its pitfalls. Excessive use can be overwhelming and make your writing sound cliché. Also, figurative language may not always be suitable for all contexts or audiences. For example, you should use it sparingly in technical and scientific writing, where precision and clarity are paramount. Additionally, non-native speakers may find it difficult to comprehend figurative language.

Figurative language examples

Figurative language typically involves figures of speech, such as metaphors, similes, and other literary devices. By deviating from a word’s literal meaning, figurative language allows us to express ourselves and adds color to our language.

Types of figurative language

There are different types of figurative language, each with its unique purpose and effect.

Here are some of the most common ones:

Idiom

An idiom is an expression whose meaning cannot be deduced from the literal meanings of the words it is made of. Because idioms do not align with literal interpretations or standard grammatical rules, they can be challenging for non-native speakers.

Idiom examples
Break a leg! [good luck!]
Let the cat out of the bag [to accidentally reveal a secret]
Turn a blind eye [to refuse to acknowledge a known truth]


Metaphor

A metaphor is a figure of speech in which one thing is described in terms of another, unrelated thing. The comparison is usually implicit (i.e., they do not include the words “like” or “as”).

Metaphor examples
You’re a star!
Time is money.
He is the black sheep of his family.


Simile

A simile is an explicit comparison between two unlike things using the words “like” or “as.” Its purpose is to emphasize or exaggerate a specific quality of one thing by comparing it to something else.

Simile examples
The news hit me like a ton of bricks.
She’s as fierce as a tiger.
He was as quiet as a mouse.


Hyperbole

A hyperbole is an exaggerated comparison or overstatement typically used to express a strong emotion, make a point, or add humor.

Hyperbole examples
We almost died of laughter.
I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.
It was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop a mile away.

Personification

Personification is the metaphorical attribution of human traits, like thoughts, feelings, and actions, to something non-human.

Personification examples
The last piece of cake was calling me.
The dead leaves danced in the cold winter breeze.
After six hours of driving, the car begged the driver to stop.


Alliteration

Alliteration occurs when two or more words in close proximity begin with the same consonant sound. We often encounter alliteration in literature and tongue twisters.

Alliteration example
Betty Botter bought some butter;
But,” said she, “this butter’s bitter!
If I put it in my batter,
It will make my batter bitter.
But a bit of better butter
Will but make my batter better.”

Irony

Irony is saying something that is the opposite of what you mean or what the reality of the situation is. In other words, there is a contrast between the literal statement and the intended meaning.

Irony example
After a challenging exam, a student exclaims, “Well, that was a breeze!”


Onomatopoeia

Onomatopoeia is using words that imitate the sound of the thing they describe. This can be anything from mechanical sounds to animal vocalizations.

Onomatopoeia example
For example, “crackle” imitates the sound of wood burning in the fireplace, and “cluck” mimics the vocalization a chicken makes.

Oxymoron

An oxymoron occurs when we use two words with opposite or contradictory meanings to express a new meaning.

Oxymoron example
We spent the evening alone together, each of us reading our own book.
Creating a business is all about taking calculated risks.
Their affair was an open secret in the office.

Analogy

An analogy is a comparison between two things to highlight their similarities. Analogies are often used to explain principles or ideas.

Analogy example
A heart is like a pump. Just as a pump circulates water throughout a system, the heart circulates blood throughout the body.

Do you want to know more about common mistakes, commonly confused words, or other language topics? Check out some of our other language articles full of examples and quizzes.

Idioms

Parts of speech

Fallacies

Diamond in the rough

Irregular verb

Slippery slope fallacy

Idioms

Gerund

Sunk cost fallacy

Piece of cake

Infinitive phrase

Red herring fallacy

Better late than never

Infinitive

Appeal to authority fallacy

Salt of the earth

Adverb

Circular reasoning fallacy


What is an example of figurative language?

An example of figurative language is the sentence “I only go to the cinema once in a blue moon.” More specifically, “once in a blue moon” is an idiom that indicates something extremely rare in occurrence.

What are different types of figurative language?

There are several different types of figurative language, each category with its own specific purpose and impact. Some of the most commonly used types of figurative language include metaphor, simile, personification, and irony.

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Kassiani

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex information into easily accessible articles to help others.

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