Figurative language is popular and beneficial because it can be used to help the audience understand ideas and themes being described more easily. Through this article, we look at 16 of the most common types of figurative language and how they are used, alongside examples of their usage.
Allusions are references to people, places, events or things that are widely-known. In order to be understood by the listener or reader, they must already be familiar with the reference being used. This type of figurative language is usually used by writers to refer to other work within the Arts.
Examples of allusion
- To have an Achilles heel – To indicate weakness, referencing Greek mythology.
- To be a Scrooge – To identify that somebody doesn’t like spending money and is not generous, referencing “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens.
- To have a Kryptonite – To show that a person has a specific weakness, referencing Superman comics.
Assonance is used to highlight similar or identical sounds between words that are close together. This can be created by the same vowels with different consonants. Alternatively, assonance can be created by using the same consonants with different vowels.
Examples of assonance
- The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.
- The fat cat sat on the mat.
- I spy with my little eye.
Consonance is used to highlight and bring attention to similar or identical sounds between words that are close together. It can be created by using the same consonants with different vowels or repeating consonant and vowel sounds.
Examples of consonance
- She sells seashells.
Euphemisms are used to replace unpleasant, rude or inappropriate language with terms or phrases that are more toned-down. Generally, people use them to provide humor or to cover up the topic being discussed but their effectiveness can depend on the context of their use. Although they can be seen positively, different individuals and cultures may find them to be anti-productive or improper.
Examples of euphemisms
- Sadly, she passed away a month ago (where passed away means died).
- I’ve been in between jobs for a while (where in between jobs means unemployed).
- He has some personal differences with her (where personal differences means conflicts/disagreements).
Hyperbole is used within language to create strong impressions on the reader or listener by means of exaggeration. It is not intended to be taken literally and can evoke strong feelings and impressions. It can even be used to demonstrate a wide range of emotions, from happiness and excitement to distress and sadness.
Examples of hyperbole
- To nearly die of laughter – To find something extremely funny.
- To be as thin as a rake – To indicate somebody is underweight.
- To tell someone a million times – To demonstrate somebody has been told multiple times.
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An idiom is a particular type of expression that is unique to a language, region or setting. As a general rule, non-native speakers or people not familiar with the culture they are associated with will not understand their meaning. This is because there is a distinct difference between the literal and figurative meaning in these kinds of expressions.
Examples of idioms
- Break a leg – To wish a person or people good luck for an upcoming event.
- Piece of cake – To signify that something is easy to do.
- Spill the beans – To indicate that somebody should reveal gossip or other information.
Implied metaphors compare two unrelated ideas, without mentioning what one of them is. Unlike ordinary metaphors, implied metaphors do not specifically state what they compare within the structure of a sentence. As they are never stated, they are intended to create vivid imagery. However, sometimes they can be too complex and confuse the reader or listener.
Examples of implied metaphors
- Her presence lit up the room (the presence is compared to a light/the sun).
- You could cut the tension with a knife (the tension is compared to food).
- The crowd roared at the scene (the crowd is compared to a lion).
Litotes are a form of expression where an idea is demonstrated by negating its opposite idea. Using a double negative, litotes are a form of understatement in which the user is able to emphasize their intended meaning. Often, it is used to convey an idea subtly or through irony.
Examples of litotes
- That’s not bad – To mean that something is good.
- You’re not wrong – To indicate that somebody is correct.
- It’s not the cheapest – To signify that something is expensive.
When used, metaphors describe people, things and ideas through a figurative or symbolic comparison, hinting at a similarity albeit without directly stating it. Metaphors are used to provide additional context to help support an idea being made, in a manner that can leave a large impact on the listener or reader.
Examples of metaphors
- To be a night owl – To indicate that a person stays awake late into the night.
- To have a heart of gold – To show that somebody is kind and generous.
- To be a bull in a china shop – To describe a person that behaves in a careless or clumsy way.
Metonymy is used to demonstrate something by referring to it by the name of something it is closely associated with. This can be used to provide symbolism or deeper meanings to a sentence, influencing the emotions of the listener or reader.
Examples of metonymy
- Let’s do it for the crown (where crown refers to the monarch or royalty).
- It is up to the suits to make the final decision (where suits refers to business/finance executives).
- On the podium, the runner waited for the gun to sound (where the gun refers to the start of the race).
Onomatopoeia is a unique kind of figurative language where words are formed based upon the sound with which it is associated with. Noises from nature are commonly turned into onomatopoeias, alongside many other sounds we hear in daily life. They are mainly used in everyday language, literature and poetry to engage the audience by incorporating auditory expression.
Examples of onomatopoeia
- The stone thumped on the floor.
- The wolves howled to each other.
- The water splashed in the tub.
An oxymoron is when two contradictory words are used in combination within a sentence. This type of figurative language can be used to enhance the description of a word and can add humor, sarcasm and irony to a phrase.
Examples of oxymorons
- Bittersweet – Indicates that both positives and negatives can be taken out of a situation.
- Deafening silence – Demonstrates that the silence or lack of action around an issue is alarming.
- Old news – Shows that a piece of information recently brought to attention has already been spoken about before.
Personification is a figurative language technique in which animals or inanimate objects are described using terms that would normally refer to human characteristics, emotions and behaviors. It is typically used to add more depth when describing non-human beings, eliciting an emotional response in the reader or listener.
Examples of personification
- The trees were dancing in the wind.
- Her car was desperate for fuel after a long journey.
- His laptop died after he forgot to charge it.
Utilizing wordplay, puns are a kind of figurative language that can give a phrase multiple meanings at the same time. They can give off a playful, witty tone when used that can amuse the audience. They are commonly used in newspaper headlines and marketing campaigns.
Examples of puns
- Learn the key to playing the piano.
- I was shocked that it didn’t come with batteries.
- The scientists showed great chemistry to find the solution.
Similes are used to compare one thing with another, adding a great level of detail to an ordinary sentence and invoking strong imagery in the audience. Additionally, they can bring unique ideas together in a simplified way, allowing the subject matter to become more engaging and memorable.
Examples of similes
- To be as strong as an ox.
- To be as fast as a cheetah.
- To be as sharp as a tack.
Synecdoches are a form of figurative language where the whole of something is used to represent a single part of it, or the other way round. To do this, an entity or a specific component will be substituted in place of the other. Usually they are used to emphasize ideas, give detailed descriptions or enhance the overall understanding of the audience.
Examples of synecdoches
- It’s my favorite dish (where dish means meal).
- Give me a hand (where a hand means help).
- She finally bought herself a new set of wheels (where wheels means a vehicle).
Figurative language FAQ
What is the difference between figurative and literal language?
Figurative language is when language is used that is meaningful but not true in a literal sense. On the other hand, literal language is when the language used means exactly what was written or spoken.
During written and spoken communication, it is common for both types of language to be used, although either can be more or less frequent when used in specific contexts. When using figurative or literal language, the audience type and communication purpose must always be considered.
How many figurative languages are there?
- Through this article, we have identified 16 of the most common types of figurative language.
- It is important to note that different people or groups may categorize figurative language differently.
- Due to this, the total number of figurative language types may differ depending on the source.
Is figurative language a literary device?
- Figurative language is considered to be a literary device.
- When it is used, words or expressions take on a different meaning than their literal interpretation.
- This can enable the writer or speaker to create vivid imagery in the imagination of the audience and induce new emotions in them, enhancing and adding depth to the language used.