What is Figurative Language? [8 Types]

The limited space in the post can’t do justice to eight tools of figurative language. If you want to learn them in detail, I would urge you to go through comprehensive posts on each, which have been linked to under each tool.

What is figurative language?

Figurative language is a broad term used for:

1. Figures of speech: They use words that shift the intended meaning if taken literally. Some common figures of speech are metaphor, simile, irony, allusion, hyperbole, idiom, and personification.

2. Devices of sound and imagery: They enhance rhythm of and add sound effect to the sentence. Some common devices of sound and imagery are onomatopoeia, alliteration, consonance, and assonance.

(Note that some use figurative language narrowly, referring only to figures of speech. But, strictly speaking, it encompasses devices of sound and imagery as well.)

We use figures of speech and devices of sound and imagery as tools to write figurative language. That’s just like we use different strokes to swim. (We’ll use the word tools to collectively refer to figures of speech and devices of sound and imagery.)

Figurative language brings color and imagery to writing – and even speaking – adding style and enhancing comprehension. They can therefore persuade readers better than regular approach. Here are few sentences written with and without figurative language:

Jack has caused lot of trouble for me.

Jack is the author of all my troubles. [Metaphor]

He was given a rousing welcome.

He was welcomed like a long-lost brother. [Simile]

She said something about her plans for the evening before moving to her seat.

She mumbled something about her plans for the evening before moving to her seat. [Onomatopoeia]

(Note that key parts of each figure of speech have been underlined for you to easily follow them and that comments are in square brackets.)

The first figure of speech above, a metaphor, dramatizes and evokes certain images by saying that Jack is an author (who is planning and writing the script of all bad things happening in my life). But figure of speech, as mentioned earlier, can’t be taken literally. Jack is not an author. It’s just a way of saying to create drama and visuals.

The second, a simile, makes it easier for the reader to visualize the welcome he received by evoking the image of welcome received by a long-lost brother. This too can’t be taken literally.

The third, an onomatopoeia, adds sound effect to the sentence, telling us the way she spoke of her plans.

Why use figurative language?

To persuade readers through your writing, you need a thesis, evidence, strong arguments, variety of sentences, cohesiveness, and structure. Figurative language, when done effectively, adds a layer of style – and meaning – on top of all this and lends power to your writing. Two writers may use very different metaphors and similes to describe the same thing, leaving an imprint of their unique experiences and understanding of the world.

Keeping the spirit of topic in mind, here is a figure of speech, a metaphor, to describe figurative language:

Figurative language when used well is icing on the cake.

Blachowicz and Fisher (2014) have found that use of figurative language is a characteristic of high-quality literature. If done well, it certainly can stand your writing out among plethora of content by making it persuasive, interesting, and memorable.

Dos and don’ts of figurative language

1. Use it sparingly

Figurative language adds style to writing and makes it interesting and easier to understand, but don’t overdo it. Strunk and White, in their popular book The Elements of Style, advises to ‘use figures of speech sparingly’, commenting specifically on similes:

The simile is a common device and a useful one, but similes coming in rapid fire, one right on top of another, are more distracting than illuminating. The reader needs time to catch his breath; he can’t be expected to compare everything with something else, with no relief in sight.

If Strunk and White had to express the same sentiments through a simile, one of the figures of speech, they might have said:

Use figurative language like you use condiments. If you sprinkle too much, you spoil the dish.

2. Avoid cliches

Avoid overused figures of speech such as:

She is an angel. [Metaphor]

I haven’t seen him in ages; he is busy as a bee. [Simile]

He is innocent as a baby; he can’t backstab you. [Simile]

Good writers, instead, use striking figures of speech that evoke surprise, and even smile.

3. Don’t compromise on the meaning

Earlier in the post, I used this metaphor to describe figurative language:

Figurative language when used well is icing on the cake.

I had actually shortlisted two before finalizing it:

Figurative language when used well is garnish on a dish.

Figurative language when used well is icing on the cake.

But I dropped garnish on a dish because garnish is used mainly for decorating a dish, but that’s not the meaning we want to convey about figurative language. It does more. Icing on the cake is something that makes a good situation even better. Figurative language can make good writing even better. It can’t uplift average writing.

So, don’t pick particular phrase just because it makes striking figurative language. Consider meaning as well.

8 common types of figurative language

English is full of figurative language, and those with less exposure to it, especially children, find it challenging to understand (Blachowicz and Fisher 2014). Therefore, it’s important to learn different tools of figurative language, especially for beginners, to understand English language better.

But you don’t need to stop at just understanding the language. Writers and orators have been using figurative language for thousands of years to elevate their message, and you too can start using it.

Here are eight types of figurative language explained through examples. See more examples of figurative language:

  • 75+ examples of figurative language. Besides examples of each figurative language, it contains examples of multiple figurative language on a given topic (that’s how we’ve to write in real pieces of writing).

1. Alliteration

Alliteration, like onomatopoeia, is a device of sound that makes writing expressive and memorable. In alliteration, two or more consecutive words start with the same consonant sound. Same sound though doesn’t necessarily mean same letters. After all, different letters can produce same sound. Sometimes though alliterative words may not be consecutive. Examples:

Go and get the jug for me.

Gentle Jack didn’t create unnecessary fuss.

Note that in the first sentence alliterative words aren’t consecutive, and in the second, the first letters don’t match but sounds do.

Repetition of sound in alliteration adds rhythm and musical pattern to your lines, making them memorable and fun to read. That’s why alliteration is commonly used in poetry, songs, brand names, ads, and slogans.

Compare these sentences and brands with and without alliteration to see the difference they make:

The dish is so tasty! [Without alliteration]

What a delicious dish this is! [Alliteration]

Ted Speech [Without alliteration]

Ted Talk [Alliteration]

Without repetition, the sentence or brand is less memorable.

More resources on alliteration:

2. Hyperbole

A hyperbole is a figure of speech that deliberately exaggerates a part of your statement to bring it under spotlight. They’re used to emphasize a point or highlight difference between two things.

Compare these sentences with and without hyperbole to see the difference they make:

The school bag is heavy. [Without hyperbole]

The school bag weighs a ton. [Hyperbole]

Today’s two-hour movies are so short compared to nearly four-hour movies of 80s. [Without hyperbole]

Today’s two-hour movies seem TikTok videos compared to nearly four-hour movies of 80s. [Hyperbole]

While the first hyperbole emphasizes how heavy the school bag is, the second brings out the difference between length of movies from different eras.

More resources on hyperbole:

3. Idiom

An idiom is a group of words that, over a long period of usage, has established a meaning which in most cases cannot be deduced directly from the individual words in the group. For example, the idiom bite off more than you can chew doesn’t mean you bite more than a mouthful of a cake or something else and then struggle to chew. It means you try to do something that is too difficult for you.

Idioms add variety to your writing and convey complex message in simple way (example: separate wheat from the chaff).

Compare these sentences with and without an idiom to see the difference they make:

His diving catch at the crunch moment in the match was exceptional. [Without idiom]

His diving catch at the crunch moment in the match took my breath away. [Idiomatic]

Media has traditionally been against the government of the day. [Without idiom]

Media has traditionally been up in arms with the government of the day. [Idiomatic]

More resources on idiom:

4. Metaphor

A metaphor is a figure of speech of comparison which says that two unlike things are one and the same. Unlike simile, which too is a figure of speech of comparison that say that one thing is like another, a metaphor says that one thing is same as another. Metaphor, like simile and analogy, improves our understanding of a less-known thing by comparing it with a well-known thing, highlighting the common message between the two. And it usually brings all of this out through a be verb.

Compare these sentences with and without metaphor to see the difference they make:

Amazon is a big company and a tough competitor in retail. [Without metaphor]

Amazon is a 1000-pound gorilla in retail. [Metaphor]

Novak Djokovic beat Nadal in 2021 French Open Men’s Singles semi-final in a one-sided match. [Without metaphor]

Novak Djokovic pummelled Nadal in 2021 French Open Men’s Singles semi-final. [Implied metaphor]

A metaphor produces word-picture that makes your writing easier to understand and fun to read. The first metaphor, for example, evokes the picture of a gorilla to describe Amazon.

More resources on metaphor:

5. Onomatopoeia

An onomatopoeia, like alliteration, is a device of sound that uses word whose pronunciation imitates or suggests the sound the word describes. For example, buzz, when spoken, imitates the sound of a flying insect and ding-dong, when spoken, imitates the sound of a doorbell. Words that describe sounds of animals such as dog’s woof, cat’s meow, cow’s moo, and snake’s hiss commonly fall into this category. Onomatopoeia infuses sounds to our writing and makes it more expressive.

Compare these sentences with and without onomatopoeia to see the difference they make:

The witch laughed wickedly and kicked the door open. [Without onomatopoeia]

The witch cackled and banged the door open. [Onomatopoeia]

On seeing a deer running across the road, I applied the brakes and stopped the car. [Without onomatopoeia]

On seeing a deer running across the road, I slammed the brakes to bring the car to a screeching halt. [Onomatopoeia]

The second sentence in each pair is more expressive and has ‘sound effect’ that enlivens the sentence.

More resources on onomatopoeia:

6. Parallelism

Parallelism is a figure of speech puts two or more similarly-placed (or equal) elements in a sentence in the same grammatical form.

(Parallelism, besides being a standalone figure of speech, can be viewed as an umbrella figure of speech that covers other figures of speech such as antithesis, anaphora, asyndeton, and epistrophe, which also follow parallelism in different flavors.)

Example:

I love Italian and Mexican food.

In the above sentence, Italian and Mexican are two similarly-placed elements (or equal because they’re separated by a coordinating conjunction, and) and therefore have been written in the same grammatical form, noun. Here, the two elements are just words, but in general these elements can be words, phrases, clauses, sentences, or even paragraphs.

Parallelism, through repetition, adds rhythm and balance to your writing, making it easier to follow.

Compare these sentences with and without parallelism to see the difference they make:

My 6-year-old niece is smart, playful, and knows how to operate different gadgets. [Without parallelism]

My 6-year-old niece is smart, playful, and gadget-savvy. [Parallel]

He failed the exam because he missed classes, didn’t complete the assignments, and his final project worth 30 percent marks was rejected because of plagiarism. [Without parallelism]

He failed the exam because he missed classes, didn’t complete the assignments, and didn’t receive any marks in his final project worth 30 percent marks because of plagiarism. [Parallel]

In the first set, the parallel sentence is rhythmic and easier to follow because all its similarly-placed elements (smart, playful, and gadget-savvy) have the same grammatical structure, adjective. Try reading out loud both parallel and non-parallel versions and see which sounds smoother.

Same holds for the second set.

More resources on parallelism:

7. Personification

Personification is a figure of speech that gives human characteristics to non-humans (plants, animals, and inanimate objects) and abstractions (sadness, anger, etc.) to create striking visual images for the readers. It makes your writing livelier and concrete.

We use personification for understanding abstract concepts and creating vivid images of non-humans.

Compare these sentences with and without personification to see the difference they make:

My colleagues were too busy with their work to help a newcomer like me and there was little to unwind during the breaks. [Without personification]

The office environment wasn’t very welcoming. [Personification]

The Australian wildfire destroyed thousands of hectares of towns, forests, fields, and anything else that came its way. [Without personification]

The Australian wildfire devoured thousands of hectares of towns, forests, fields, and anything else that came its way. [Personification]

The first personification helps us understand office environment, an abstract concept. Without personification, you’ll need plenty of details to explain. The second personification portrays ferocity of the wildfire, a non-human. It helps us picture that the wildfire behaved like a hungry man eagerly polishing off everything on the plate, an image very different from the one portrayed by destroyed.

More resources on personification:

8. Simile

Simile is a figure of speech of comparison that compares two unlike things and says that one thing is like another thing. You’ll often find a comparison word such as like, as, or than in a simile. Simile, like metaphor, improves our understanding of a less-known thing by comparing it with a well-known thing, highlighting the common message between the two.

Similes, like other figures of speech of comparison such as metaphors, are used to paint a vivid picture of what the writer wants to emphasize. It is one of the most commonly-used figures of speech in English language and, when used well, it not only clarifies an idea but also lends style to your writing and delights readers.

Compare these sentences with and without simile to see the difference they make:

Susan moved fast yet gracefully. [Without simile]

Susan moved like a gazelle. [Simile]

Jack yawned in the middle of meeting, opening his mouth wide. [Without simile]

Jack yawned in the middle of meeting, opening his mouth like a hippo. [Simile]

The simile versions paint a picture (gazelle moving, open-mouthed hippo) and evokes emotion better.

More resources on simile:

Frequently Asked Questions

Are proverbs figure of speech?

Proverbs are words of wisdom or advice expressed through short, pithy sentences. They aren’t categorized as one of the tools of figurative language because they don’t always use figurative language.

These proverbs, for example, use figurative language.

Early bird catches the worm.

Among the blind the one-eyed man is king.

But these can be taken literally.

An apple a day keeps the doctor away.

A picture is worth a thousand words.

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