Using Figurative Language | Figures of Speech
Figurative language is words and phrases that go beyond their literal meaning, to make a point more strongly. There are many different types of figurative language, or figures of speech. They include similes, metaphors and analogies, which all aim to improve understanding by making comparisons with more familiar situations or objects. Others include assonance, alliteration and onomatopoeia, which all use the sounds of words to heighten their impact.
This page describes some of the common figures of speech, and provides examples of their use. It will therefore help you to ensure that you use figurative language correctly in both speech and writing.
There are several types of figures of speech that make comparisons with other situations. These are designed to make a point or explain something by showing you in more familiar terms.
Analogies make a comparison between two similar things, as a way to make a point.
In other words, the purpose of an analogy is not the comparison in itself, but the point that it makes. You will therefore often see the point itself follow the analogy.
“Life is like a sewer: what you get out of it depends on what you put in” Tom Lehrer
This is far funnier and more memorable than simply saying ‘What you get out of life depends on what you put in’.
Analogies in business writing and blogs
One very common form of blog post is the metaphor or analogy post. These use a common situation or experience to make points about business practice. Real-life examples on one simple subject (lessons from owning a dog) include:
- Ten life lessons that we can learn from dogs
- Leadership lessons from a dog owner
- What dog ownership taught me about leadership.
Some people dislike these articles, and consider them laboured. However, they can be a good way to get a point across. The key is not to get lost in the metaphor.
In other words, know what point you want to make, and use the metaphor to illustrate it. Do not allow the metaphor to be the point itself.
There is more about using metaphors, analogies and other stories in business in our page on Storytelling in Business.
Metaphors are a comparison made without using as or like
In a metaphor, the author or writer makes a comparison by simply stating that something ‘is’ something else. For example:
“The moon was a ghostly galleon, tossed on cloudy seas.”
From The Highwayman, by Alfred Noyes.
Her smile was sunshine on a summer’s day.
These examples of metaphors are all explicit: they use the word ‘was’ or ‘is’ to make the comparison.
However, metaphors can also be implicit. In other words, rather than saying ‘is’ or ‘was’, the comparison is implied by the words around it. For example, you might describe a group of people as a ‘forest’ rather than a crowd, to make them sound more mindless.
Similes make a direct comparison using the term as or like.
This makes them relatively easy to spot. For example:
- He was as hungry as a hunter.
- Her eyes gleamed in the darkness like a cat’s.
Similes are generally used to provide a better description, and to create a more vivid picture.
Metaphors, similes and analogies: what’s the real difference?
Both metaphors and similes can be used as part of an analogy. Indeed, some authorities say that they are actually forms of analogy.
More precisely, the distinction is that similes and metaphors only make a comparison, with or without the terms ‘like’ or ‘as’. Analogies take that comparison, and make a point with it.
With similes and metaphors, the reader is left to draw their own conclusions about the comparison.
Figures of speech that use sound to increase impact
There are several forms of figurative speech that use the sound of the words to increase their impact.
Alliteration is repetition of sounds at the start of several words that are close together
She heard the sound of the sea on the shore
Here, the effect is heightened because the repeated s sound is actually very like the sound of waves on a beach. It therefore invokes more of the reader’s senses, and heightens the impact. Different senses are processed in different parts of the brain, so engaging more senses uses more of your brain. This seems to make a passage like this more memorable and engaging.
Assonance is repetition of vowel sounds within several words that are close together
Examples include death threats, ran ragged and Please Please Me.
This repetition emphasises the words with the repeated sound, and highlights them for the reader or listener. Our brains like repetition, and again, it seems to make words or phrases more memorable.
Onomatopoeia is the use of words that sound like the noise they describe
Examples include splash, slosh, bark and buzz.
Like alliteration, this forces the reader to engage more of their senses, and therefore increases the impact of the words.
Other Figures of Speech
Other figures of speech and figurative language include:
Personification, where something non-human is given human-sounding characteristics. For example, The wind whistled through the trees, or The river gurgled over the stones.
Hyperbole, or excessive exaggeration. For example, I jumped a mile!
Irony is the juxtaposition of unexpected events and outcomes, or surprising or amusing coincidences or contradictions. It would, for example, be ironic if a fire station burned down, or a police station was burgled, or a marriage guidance counsellor turned out to be cheating on their spouse.
An ironic definition of irony
irony, n. the opposite of wrinkly
Idiom, or phrases with a meaning beyond the literal. Idioms include phrases like “raining cats and dogs”, meaning ‘raining very hard’, and “a piece of cake” meaning ‘easy’. Idioms generally do not translate well into other languages: there may be a similar expression, but it is unlikely to be a direct translation. They are therefore particularly hard for non-native speakers of a language to understand and use correctly.
When we talk about being able to talk idiomatically, we do not mean using lots of idioms. Instead, the phrase is used to mean using the language like a native speaker, idioms and all.
Ironically, therefore, the term ‘idiomatic language’ is actually almost an idiom itself.
Symbolism is the use of an object to represent something else. This is usually a higher feeling or power. For example, in the legends of King Arthur, the sword Excalibur is a symbol of bravery and royalty. In Tolkien’s novels, the One Ring is a symbol of darkness.
Allusion is a reference in film or literature to another work or characters. It does not have to be explicit. For example, the film Chicken Run contains numerous allusions to the World War Two film, The Great Escape. Bridget Jones’ Diary and its sequel are nods towards the novels of Jane Austen, containing many similar plot devices.
Beware figurative language that has become a cliché
Some figures of speech have been so overused that they have become clichés.
This might include some very well-known similes, or metaphors that have been made so often that they are getting a bit tired.
It is worth trying to coin new comparisons and being original in your writing. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it can also be lazy.
You can find out more about clichés in our page Understanding and Avoiding Clichés.
A Final Word
Figurative language is often what makes a language come alive.
Whether in speech or on the page or screen, it helps to deepen descriptions, heighten the impact of words, and emphasise a point. Too much figurative language can indeed be too much—but using some is important to ensure that your writing or speech is memorable and unique.