Figurative language is the use of nonliteral expression, most often including figures of speech such as metaphors and similes. Figurative language is commonly used in poetry but is also found in fiction and even nonfiction. Figurative language can include unusual word order or sentence construction.
Figurative language is nothing new
Since ancient times figurative language has been used by writers including poets and orators. Using figurative language well can strengthen and embellish the communication of complex meaning or sharpen emotion.
Figurative language played a crucial part in ancient Greek literature. Greek authors like Sophocles, Homer and Callinus used a variety of literary devices to convey their main ideas. They helped explain Greek life and society of the time.
10 types of figurative language
There are many kinds of figurative language. Here are 10.
Take the metaphor, for example. When in the monologue in As You Like It Shakespeare says, "All the world's a stage." This is a metaphor. The world is not literally a stage. When you use a metaphor, you express that one type of thing is similar or equivalent to another very different kind of thing. "The woman tore through the building" is another example of metaphor.
A euphemism is a type of figurative language when you substitute an inoffensive phrase for something that's coarse or unpleasant. Examples are using lavatory in place of rest room, or pass away instead of die.
Hyperbole occurs when a writer exaggerates for effect or to make a point. It's the opposite of understatement. "I've told you a million times" and "Her feet are so cold that when she climbed into bed the penguins scurried away," and "I'm so hungry, I could eat a horse" are examples of hyperbole.
Synecdoche is a figurative expression where the part is construed to stand for the whole. "All hands on deck" is an example of synecdoche. If you use the term "long hair," it's a synecdoche for a larger group of people like hippies.
A simile is when two different nouns are compared to one another. That man is 'as big as a house' is an example of a simile.
An antithesis is when you juxtapose two words or phrases opposite in meaning. This line by Alexander Pope is an antithesis: "To err is human, to forgive is divine."
Irony is dryly humorous or slightly sarcastic words or phrases. Words used ironically carry a meaning that's contrary to what they mean literally. Jonathan Swift in A Modest Proposal uses irony when arguing that the poor of Ireland should rid themselves of poverty by selling their children for consumption by the rich.
A paradox is a form of figurative language that suggests a contradiction or connection that runs contrary to common sense while communicating something true. Examples are "A well-known secret agent" and "Kill for peace."
Onomatopoeia involves imitating the natural sounds of words. A cackling hen or a buzzing saw are examples of onomatopoeia.
Personification occurs when you endow animals, ideas or abstractions with human form, character or sensibilities. "Necessity is the mother of invention" is an example of personification.