Preview Quiz 3

As a preview to what will be discussed in Part Two, try to answer this question:

Figurative writing and speech relies on what kind of language?

  1. Straightforward and honest.
  2. Unbelievable and deceiving.
  3. Colorful and imaginative.

Begin reading Part Two to discover the correct answer.

In this lesson we will discuss in detail the use of figurative language in literature. Emphasis will he placed on recognizing and understanding figures of speech, rather than on memorizing them.

We use figurative language so much in our daily lives that we do not always realize we are using it. We "boil with anger" or an idea "dawns on us", "The years roll by", and the election is a "landslide victory". We don't stop to say, "Ah, a simile", or "Wow! What a terrific metaphor!" We use them naturally.

Notice that these examples are colorful and imaginative. Literal language, in contrast, relies on the straight-forward, dictionary definition of words. Naturally we use literal language more than we do figurative language to express ourselves clearly and directly. However, when we wish to color our ideas and add interesting depth to our views, we depend on figurative language.

Let's take a typical conversation which relies heavily on figurative language. You notice a friend coming in out of the rain and you say, "You're a pretty sight. You look a little damp." His reply is, "Damp! I nearly drowned out there! It's raining buckets!"

Even though you both are speaking figuratively, you understand each other perfectly. You have both been saying something less than what you really mean, something more than what you really mean, and something opposite to what you mean.

Literally, the conversation makes no sense at all because you did not mean that your friend was a "pretty sight." Instead you meant that he looked terrible. You did not really mean that he looked "a bit damp"; you meant that he looked very wet. Similarly, your friend did not really mean that he was nearly drowned, but that he was soaked. And, of course, it could not rain buckets, only water. Thus, figurative language makes very good sense on the imaginative level, but no sense at all on the literal level.

Writers use figurative language for the same reason that we use it in everyday conversation: to convey ideas in a clear, colorful, and forceful manner. For example, in a newspaper, we read that the President cleared away the "red tape" on the new legislation. In a magazine article, we read about a dam under construction at the "mouth" of the Amazon River. In a novel, we read about a character who is "inching" his way to safety. In one of Carl Sandburg's poems, we see fog coming in "on little cat feet." These examples of figurative language are only a few of the many types found in literature.

The difference between spoken figures of speech and those found in literature is a matter of usage. Those that are used every day are worn out. Those used in good writing are fresh and original. The more original they are, the more interesting the writing is.

Preview Quiz 4

As a preview to what will be discussed next, try to answer this question:

Figurative language courages the reader

  1. to use his imagination.
  2. to recognize the importance of literal language.
  3. to look up words in the dictionary.

Continue reading to discover the correct answer.

It may seem absurd to say one thing and mean another, but, in fact, it is not. Figurative language catches the reader's attention and allows the author to express himself with forcefulness and color.

Figurative language encourages the reader to bridge gaps between ideas, fill in details, make associations, and form mental pictures. All of these uses of the imagination are highly satisfying, for there is great enjoyment in understanding that which has not been spelled out for us.

Figurative language is a means of clarifying unclear and unfamiliar ideas. It makes the abstract real. For example, when D.H. Lawrence describes a bat as "a black glove thrown up at the light and falling back", he is painting a figurative word picture which makes the bat real.

Figurative language adds emotional impact to writing. When W.H. Auden writes, "I'll love you dear, I'll love you/Till China and Africa meet," he shows much more emotion than if he had written, "I will love you, dear, for a long time." Thus, through figurative language, writers express emotion and viewpoint.

Although some experts on language have established nearly 250 figures of speech, there is so much overlapping that we will discuss only the ten most common ones. So that you will recognize them as they appear, they are

  1. symbol
  2. simile
  3. metaphor
  4. personification
  5. overstatement
  6. understatement
  7. change-of-name
  8. sound-words
  9. alliteration
  10. allusions

Every figure of speech is created in a different way, has its own unique appearance, and is used for special purposes. It is not important for you to recognize each figure of speech, but you should be able to understand and appreciate them in your reading.


One of the most common figures of speech is the symbol. A symbol is a concrete object used to represent an abstract idea; in other words, something which stands for something else. The cross, for example, is the symbol of Christianity. The flag is the symbol of a country. And the wedding ring is a symbol of marriage.

In literature some symbols have been used so often that they have become accepted by writers universally. The sea, for example, is generally accepted as a symbol of life. A flower or a butterfly is usually a symbol of delicate and fragile beauty. A rock is the symbol of strength and permanency.


Similes (and metaphors) are comparisons which use symbols. A simile is a comparison which uses "like", "as", or "than". If you have ever described someone as being "slow as molasses (/mG"lQsIz/)", or "faster than lightning", you have used similes. Molasses is accepted as a symbol for slow movement and lightning represents speed.

Preview Quiz 5

As a preview to what will be discussed next, try to answer this question:

Which one of these expressions is a simile?

  1. Without a moment to spare.
  2. Busy as a bee.
  3. My love is a thing of beauty.

Continue reading to discover the correct answer.

The simile is the most common figure of speech used. In fact, we depend on similes so much that they become worn-out very quickly. Similes like "cold as ice", "busy as a bee", and "soft as silk" have lost their effectiveness. Creative writers try to create similes which are fresh and appropriate.

In the expression, "Jill swims like a fish", the grace and ease of Jill's movements are compared to the movements of a fish. Literally, it would be impossible for Jill to swim like a fish because she is human. In a literal sense, then, the comparison is ridiculous and just not true. However, in a figurative sense, the comparison is meaningful and effective, allowing the reader to see clearly Jill's movements.

Not every expression with "like", "as", or "than" is automatically a simile, however. "Jack looks like an athlete" is not a simile because Jack is too similar to an athlete for effective comparison. But "Jack runs like a gazelle" is a simile because two different things are being compared with one similarity between them—speed.

To help you to become familiar with similes in literature, several examples are given below.

From poetry:

O my love's like a red, red rose.

—R. Burns: A Red, Red Rose

How brilliant and mirthful the light of her eye,

Like a star glowing out from the blue of the sky.

—John G. Whittier: The Yankee GIrl

From prose:

The canyon lay waiting for them like a monster, its jaws ready to snap shut on them.

The doctors were working with their sleeves up to their shoulders and were red as butchers.

... and the insects nodding upon their perches, crooned like old women.


Unlike the simile which depends on "like", "as", or "than", the metaphor is a direct comparison which does not require special key words. Metaphors, then, are stronger than similes because the objects or persons compared are the same. The thing is described as though it were something else. We speak of the eyes of a potato, the hands of a clock, pearly teeth, iron will, and so on. We call a person a peach, a rat, or a dog. In each case a word usually reserved for one thing is applied to something else. And in each case the meaning of the word is shifted.

Metaphors are a natural outgrowth of speech, but like similes, metaphors, too, are over-used. Authors attempt to create fresh metaphors which give power and excitement to their ideas. For example, when Thomas Wolfe writes that "Fire drives a thorn of memory in the heart", he is comparing the vividness of fire to the sharpness of a thorn. The mention of "heart" stirs the emotions and intensifies the image.

The word "ribbon" becomes part of a metaphor in "a thin ribbon of smoke". The smoke has the appearance of a ribbon and creates a perfect visual image.

Preview Quiz 6

As a preview to what will be discussed next, try to answer this question:

Which one of the following sentences contains a metaphor?

  1. That man is like a father to me.
  2. That man is a hero.
  3. That man is a lion in battle.

Continue reading to discover the correct answer.

Not all direct comparisons are metaphors. Saying that a man is a hero is not a metaphor, but saying that he is a lion when fighting is a metaphor because the man is associated with a symbol of unusual strength and bravery. Thus, authors try to make their metaphors perceptive and appealing.

The following examples of metaphors may help you understand this figure of speech:

"In the eyes of the law," he said, "you are innocent until proven guilty."

"He drove through Yonkers to a group of garden apartments that was only one of a number of mushroom growths in what had recently been open land.

"The stars were little hard chips of light."


Sometimes an object or animal is described as if it were human. This is called personification. Notice the word "person" in personification. In the sentence, "The sun smiled down on the band of weary travelers", the sun is personified because it is a nonliving thing made to seem alive. Of course, the sun cannot smile, but figuratively, it can be interpreted to mean warmth, comfort, and pleasure.

In the sentence, "The car coughed and died", the car is made to seem alive. The car is described as though it were a sick animal.

Personifying nonliving things gives them reality and emphasis and helps the reader to form clear mental pictures. We say that money talks, the wind whistles through the trees, and the ocean roars. These expressions make writing more interesting.

Things which make sounds cannot all be considered cases of personification. For example, "the old stairs creaked as we climbed up" is not personification because stairs can creak. On the other hand, "the stairs strained and groaned under our weight" is personification since only living things can strain and groan.

The following are examples of personification:

The voice of thy (=your) brother's blood crieth (=cries) to me from the ground.

Our monuments lean wearily, and our gravestones bow their heads discouraged.


Overstatement, or hyperbole, is exaggeration in language. Overstatement is so common that we have come to expect it as a natural part of colorful speech and writing.

In conversation we use expressions like, "I'm starved," or "I'll die if I don't pass this exam," or "I have a million things to do." We are exaggerating for the sake of emphasis, to be more forceful and dramatic.

Preview Quiz 7

As a preview to what will be discussed next, try to answer this question:

An overstatement is an expression which

  1. should not be accepted as fact.
  2. is a lie which distorts truth for the purpose of deceiving.
  3. is found only in scientific reports.

Continue reading to discover the correct answer.

Like all figures of speech, overstatement may be used in a variety of ways. It may create humor or seriousness, stimulate the imagination or restrain it, evoke sympathy or despair, and so on. When Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote his famous lines, "Here once the embattled farmer stood/ And fired the shot heard round the world", he was trying to stir the pride and patriotism of his countrymen. Literally, of course, a shot could not be heard around the world, and Emerson did not expect his readers to accept his statement as fact.

An overstatement must not be confused with a lie which distorts the truth for the purpose of tricking and deceiving.

Like other figures of speech, overstatement is found in all types of writing, except scientific reports where literal language must be used.


Understatement or litotes (/laI"tRti:z/) is the opposite of overstatement, but interestingly enough, it is used for the same purpose: to capture the reader's attention and to give ideas color and emphasis. Understatement uses language which is opposite to what is expected or less than expected. The success of understatement lies in the reader's ability to fill in the truth.

For example, we might read that a reception given to a foreign diplomat was "anything but friendly". A careful reader is quick to interpret the understatement, "anything but friendly" to mean "cool", "unfriendly", or even "hostile". Such an understatement is effective for its unexpectedness.

The American humorist Artemus Ward once said that a man who holds his hand for half an hour in a lighted fire will experience "a sensation of excessive and disagreeable warmth". The statement is a good example of understating the truth in language which is much less forceful than the action suggests.


Change-of-name, known also as metonymy (/mI"tDnImi/) and synecdoche (/sI"nekdGki/), is the substitution of one word for another. Over a period of time two things sometimes become so closely related that we use the name of one for the other, or the name of a part of something is used to represent the whole thing. For example, we read, "Washington is hopeful for an early settlement in the war." "Washington" is a substitute word or change-of-name for "U.S. Government". Here the writer is using a place name to represent a body of people. In the same sense, we refer to "Moscow" instead of "the Soviet government". Construction workers are called "hard-hats".

At a cattle sale, buyers refer to "head". Head is part of the cow and is used to represent the whole cow.

We frequently hear such expressions as "The press attended the meeting" (press = reporters) and "The pen is mightier than the sword" (pen = reason, sword = physical strength). Most recently the word "wheels" has been accepted as the slang change-of-name for car.

Preview Quiz 8

As a preview to what will be discussed next, try to answer this question:

Which of the underlined words is a sound-word—a word which sounds like the action itself?

  1. My mother is the kindest person in the whole world.
  2. The tire went flat when we drove over the broken glass.
  3. The water hissed as it splashed over the heated rocks.

Continue reading to discover the correct answer.


Two figures of speech which are based on the sounds of words are onomatopoeia (/'DnRmQtG"pi:G/) and alliteration. Onomatopoeia, expresses the sounds made by the thing described. Examples are "buzz", "crunch", "tinkle", "gurgle", "sizzle", "hiss", "splash", and "crash", to mention a few. From Edgar Allan Poe we have the lines "Hear the ... Silver bells!/ How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,/ In the icy air of night." Sound-words are like fine spices: used sparingly they add flavor and depth to writing.

The poetic statement, "Beat! beat! drums—blow! bugles! blow!" is an example of sound-words, and it is also a good example of alliteration. Alliteration is the repetition of the first letters or sounds in words. This figure of speech is used to create special effects or establish a particular mood or feeling. The following are examples of alliteration:

The sweet of bitter bark and burning clove.

Forest's ferny floor.

The slow sea rises and the sheer cliff crumbles.


Allusions express comparisons by referring to an incident in history, a quotation from the Bible, a quotation from literature, a geographical location, or a current event. A character in a story, for example, might say that another character is older than Methuselah (/mG"Tju:zGlG/). Since Methuselah was a Biblical figure who supposedly lived more than 900 years, the character, in a figurative sense, appears to be more than 900 years old. Notice that this example of allusion is also a weak simile and a strong overstatement. Figures of speech do mix together often, and trying to distinguish among them serves no real purpose. It is more important to be able to recognize the differences between literal and figurative language.

These steps can help you to understand figurative language:

  1. Look for comparisons.
  2. Be alert to a word used in an unusual combination with other words.
  3. Check for words which seem to be taking the place of other words.
  4. Look carefully at the wording on each side of a figure of speech to understand meaning through context clues.
  5. Listen to the sounds of words, particularly in poetry.
  6. See if the wording makes sense literally; if it doesn't, you probably have figurative language.

Computers, which can be programmed to understand literal language, are often confused by figurative language. One such computer supposedly translated the expression "out of sight, out of mind" into "invisible, insane." Do not make the same mistake when you read figurative language.

The exercise which follows this lesson is designed to illustrate the uses of literary forms and figures of speech. Read it carefully and refer back to these pages if necessary.