Figurative Language Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

figurative language
St. Augustine of Hippo defined figurative language in his text On Christian Doctrine (397): "Whenever one thing is said with the intention that another should be understood, we have a figurative expression.". (Gary Waters/Getty Images)

Figurative language is language in which figures of speech (such as metaphors and metonyms) freely occur. Contrast with literal speech or language.

"If something happens literally," says children's book author Lemony Snicket, "it actually happens; if something happens figuratively, it feels like it is happening. If you are literally jumping for joy, for instance, it means you are leaping in the air because you are very happy.

If you are figuratively jumping for joy, it means you are so happy that you could jump for joy, but are saving your energy for other matters” (The Bad Beginning, 2000).

Figurative language can also be defined as any deliberate departure from the conventional meaning, order, or construction of words.

Examples

  • "It is midmorning. A few minutes ago I took my coffee break. I am speaking figuratively, of course. There's not a drop of coffee in this place and there never has been."
    (Tom Robbins, Another Roadside Attraction. Random House, 1971)
  • Metaphors
    "Memory is a crazy woman that hoards colored rags and throws away food."
    (Austin O'Malley, Keystones of Thought)
  • Similes
    "The Duke's moustache was rising and falling like seaweed on an ebb-tide."
    (P.G. Wodehouse, Uncle Fred in the Springtime, 1939)
  • Hyperbole
    "I was helpless. I did not know what in the world to do. I was quaking from head to foot, and could have hung my hat on my eyes, they stuck out so far."
    (Mark Twain, "Old Times on the Mississippi")
  • Understatement
    "Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse."
    (Jonathan Swift, A Tale of a Tub, 1704)
  • Metonymy
    The suits on Wall Street walked off with most of our savings.
  • Chiasmus
    "You forget what you want to remember, and you remember what you want to forget."
    (Cormac McCarthy, The Road, 2006)
  • Anaphora
    "Anaphora will repeat an opening phrase or word;
    Anaphora will pour it into a mould (absurd)!
    Anaphora will cast each subsequent opening;
    Anaphora will last until it's tiring."
    (John Hollander, Rhyme's Reason: A Guide to English Verse. Yale Univ. Press, 1989)

Kinds of Figurative Language

"(1) Phonological figures include alliteration, assonance, and onomatopoeia. In his poem 'The Pied Piper of Hamelin' (1842), Robert Browning repeats sibilants, nasals, and liquids as he shows how the children respond to the piper: 'There was a rustling, that seemed like a bustling / Of merry crowds justling at pitching and hustling.' Something sinister has started.
(2) Orthographic figures use visual forms created for effect: for example, America spelt Amerika (by left-wing radicals in the 1970s and as the name of a movie in the 1980s) to suggest a totalitarian state.
(3) Syntactic figures may bring the non-standard into the standard language, as in US President Ronald Reagan's 'You ain't seen nothing yet' (1984), a nonstandard double negative used to project a vigorous, folksy image.
(4) Lexical figures extend the conventional so as to surprise or entertain, as when, instead of a phrase like a year ago, the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas wrote a grief ago, or when the Irish dramatist Oscar Wilde said at the New York Customs, 'I have nothing to declare but my genius.' When people say that 'you can't take' something 'literally,' they are generally referring to usage that challenges everyday reality: for example, through exaggeration (the hyperbole in 'loads of money'), comparison (the simile 'like death warmed up'; the metaphor 'life is an uphill struggle'), physical and other associations (the metonymy 'Crown property' for something owned by royalty), and a part for a whole (the synecdoche 'All hands on deck!')."
(Tom McArthur, The Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language.

Oxford University Press, 2005)

Observations

  • "Figures are as old as language. They lie buried in many words of current use. They occur constantly in both prose and poetry."
    (Joseph T. Shipley, Dictionary of World Literary Terms, 1970)
  • "Traditionally, figurative language such as metaphors and idioms has been considered derivative from and more complex than ostensibly straightforward language. A contemporary view . . . is that figurative language involves the same kinds of linguistic and pragmatic operations that are used for ordinary, literal language."
    (Sam Glucksberg, Understanding Figurative Language. Oxford University Press, 2001)
  • "At no place in Book III [of the Rhetoric] does Aristotle claim that these devices [figures] serve an ornamental or emotional function or that they are in any way epiphenomenal. Instead, Aristotle's somewhat dispersed discussion suggests that certain devices are compelling because they map function onto form or perfectly epitomize certain patterns of thought or argument."
    (Jeanne Fahnestock, Rhetorical Figures in Science. Oxford University. Press, 1999)
  • "The emergence of nonliteral language as a respectable topic has led to a convergence of many fields: philosophy, linguistics and literary analyses, computer science, neuroscience, and experimental cognitive psychology, to name a few. Each of these fields has enriched the scientific understanding of the relation between language and thought."
    (A.N. Katz, C. Cacciari, R. W. Gibbs,, Jr., and M. Turner, Figurative Language and Thought. Oxford University Press, 1998)

Figurative Language and Thought

"This new view of the poetics of mind has the following general characteristics:

- The mind is not inherently literal.
- Language is not independent of the mind but reflects our perceptual and conceptual understanding of experience.
- Figuration is not merely a matter of language but provides much of the foundation for thought, reason and imagination.
- Figurative language is not deviant or ornamental but is ubiquitous in everyday speech.
- Figurative modes of thought motivate the meaning of many linguistic expressions that are commonly viewed as having literal interpretations.
- Metaphorical meaning is grounded in nonmetaphorical aspects of recurring bodily experiences or experiential gestalts.
- Scientific theories, legal reasoning, myths, art, and a variety of cultural practices exemplify many of the same figurative schemes found in everyday thought and language.
- Many aspects of word meaning are motivated by figurative schemes of thought.
- Figurative language does not require special cognitive processes to be produced and understood.
- Children's figurative thought motivates their significant ability to use and understand many kinds of figurative speech.

These claims dispute many beliefs about language, thought, and meaning that have dominated the Western intellectual tradition."
(Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr., The Poetics of Mind: Figurative Thought, Language, and Understanding. Cambridge University Press, 1994)

The Conceptual Metaphor Theory

"According to the conceptual metaphor theory, metaphors and other forms of figurative language are not necessarily creative expressions.

This is admittedly a somewhat unusual idea, as we ordinarily associate figurative language with poetry and with the creative aspects of language. But Gibbs (1994 [above]) suggests that 'what is frequently seen as a creative expression of some idea is often only a spectacular instantiation of specific metaphorical entailments that arise from the small set of conceptual metaphors shared by many individuals within a culture' (p. 424). The conceptual model assumes that the underlying nature of our thought processes is metaphorical. That is, we use metaphor to make sense of our experience. Thus, according to Gibbs, when we encounter a verbal metaphor it automatically activates the corresponding conceptual metaphor." (David W. Carroll, Psychology of Language, 5th ed. Thomson Wadsworth, 2008)

John Updike's Use of Figurative Language

"[John] Updike wrote self-consciously about big subjects and big themes, but he was always celebrated more for his prose style than for his subject matter. And his great gift, on the level of style, was not just descriptive but explicitly figurative--not about presentation, in other words, but about transformation. This gift could work both for and against him. Figurative language, best employed, is a way of making connections between disparate phenomena, but even more than that it is a way of making us see better, more freshly, more naïvely. Updike was more than capable of such flights:

Outdoors it is growing dark and cool. The Norway maples exhale the smell of their sticky new buds and the broad living-room windows along Wilbur Street show beyond the silver patch of a television set the warm bulbs burning in kitchens, like fires at the backs of caves. . . .  [A] mailbox stands leaning in twilight on its concrete post. Tall two-petaled street sign, the cleat-gouged trunk of the telephone pole holding its insulators against the sky, fire hydrant like a golden bush: a grove.
[Rabbit, Run]

But taking one thing and turning it, via language, into another can also be a way of deferring or denying or opting out of engagement with the thing nominally being described." (Jonathan Dee, "Agreeable Angstrom: John Updike, Yes-Man." Harper's, June 2014)

The Abuse of Figurative Language

"Obfuscation also comes from mishandled metaphor. As readers of his reviews will know, letting [James] Wood anywhere near figurative language is like giving an alcoholic the keys to a distillery. In no time, he’s unsteady and comprehensibility is a casualty. Getting images upside down is a speciality. The personality of a Svevo character is, Wood writes, 'as comically perforated as a bullet-holed flag'—an odd view of what’s comical since such a flag would usually be found among the dead and mutilated on a battlefield. Another character is 'inundated with impressions . . . like Noah’s dove.' The point about Noah’s dove, though, is that it wasn’t inundated but survived the flood and ultimately brought back evidence that the waters had subsided." (Peter Kemp, review of How Fiction Works by James Wood. The Sunday Times, March 2, 2008)