Figurative Language Definition


Figurative Language

Figurative language is commonly found throughout spoken and written English, and it’s important to understand what it is and when you’re hearing it.

In the simplest terms figurative language is language that is used to convey something that is different from the literal dictionary definition of the word.

Figurative language is most commonly used in poetry, and is often used in both fiction and nonfiction writing. It is also used when people speak, just think idioms.

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Literally vs. Figuratively

There are different kinds of figurative language, but before we review them let’s first explore what literal language is. When we talk about literal language we are talking about the dictionary definition of a word.

There’s not exaggeration, there’s not a hidden meaning. If I say the box is the biggest box I’ve ever seen, I mean out of every single box I’ve ever seen in my entire life, this one is the biggest.

The dictionary definition of literal is to take words in their simplest, most basic form without metaphor, exaggeration or hyperbole.

When something is used figuratively, it’s the complete opposite of that. Someone is taking the words and pushing them to the extreme. They are trying to invoke a feeling or an idea of something and take one beyond just the dictionary definition of a word.

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Types of Figurative speech:

Now let’s review what the main types of figurative speech are.


Is a phrase or opinion that is overused, and doesn’t require any original thought. However it is an easy way to convey a certain feeling or idea.

The cliche may or may not be true, but it is believed by enough people that it has gained a reputation of invoking a certain mood over time.

  • You shouldn’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.
  • If you don’t hurry up you’ll be here until the cows come home.


Is when something is spoken about in an exaggerated way, and is not meant to be taken literally. The exaggeration is not subtle, it is so big, that no one would believe that it is meant to be taken literally. It’s usually used to make a point.

  • Our boss left us with a mountain of work.
  • I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse.


Is a group of words that have a meaning that is other than their literal meaning. The meaning of these words is established by their common usage, rather than their dictionary definition.

In fact if the dictionary definition of the words is used, then the phrase does not make sense.

  • I’m as happy as a clam.
  • The mother was over the moon when she saw her son return safely from his deployment.


Is when a word or a phrase is applied to an object in a way that would not make sense literally.

In other words when a metaphor is being used someone or something is being compared to something that would not make sense in literal terms. It’s comparing two things that are not alike in the literal sense

  • Have you been outside today, it’s as cold as a freezer.
  • He fell into a sea of depression.


Is when the word that is used is mean to represent the sound of what is being talked about.

  • The bees buzzed throughout the garden.
  • The heavy box landed with a loud boom.


Is when someone gives human characteristics to something that is not human. It can also be used to represent an abstract quality in human form.

  • I couldn’t sleep, the wind was howling all night.
  • I was late today because traffic was crawling due to an accident.


Compares one thing to another for the purpose as making it more descriptive. A simile has the goal of making someone be able to “see” what the writer or speaker is conveying. A sentence with a smile usually uses the words as and like.

  • Wow you’ve gotten tall, you are as tall as a giraffe.
  • Usain Bolt is as fast as a lightning bolt.


Refers to the use of symbols to represent ideas or qualities. The symbol has its own meaning, but it is used to represent something else.

  • The artist used red to represent the anger in her painting.
  • The hotel pained the walls yellow to represent calm and serenity.

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