When you read a good book or novel, you may find yourself imagining the scenes in a way that makes the reality more beautiful than it feels in real life. For example, in reading Anne of Green Gables, all the different ways that Anne praises the moonshine tends to lend the same appreciation to the readers.
One tool that authors use to achieve this is the use of figurative language. Instead of leaving you with a literal description of events and settings, they use language that evokes our emotions and imagination.
What Is Figurative Language?
Figurative language is essentially writing or oral communication that uses figures of speech, such as similes, metaphors, personification, and other literary devices like alliteration, onomatopoeia, and assonance, among others. In short, it is language that deviates from the literal meaning of words.
Why Is Figurative Language Important?
Writers use figurative language to communicate their message as clearly and artfully as they can. Some of the reasons why writers use figurative are because it:
- Puts foreign ideas into more familiar terms
- Helps paint vivid pictures
- Adds rhythm and musicality through the use of alliteration, assonance, and consonance
- Creates a picture that appeals not just to the eyes but also to the ears, with the use of devices like onomatopoeia
- Makes ideas and descriptions more beautiful and unique
- Captures complex meanings and helps readers see concepts in a new way
- Lets writers layer more than one meaning over the literal meanings.
- Makes writing more accessible, but also deeper and more surprising
Figurative Language vs. Imagery
Some people may describe figurative language as imagery. However, this is not entirely accurate. Imagery is when a writer uses vivid language to describe things that the reader can imagine through his senses, which evokes emotions and memories of events, places, or people.
For example, a sentence may use imagery to show the reader how something looks, smells, feels, and sounds:
The day was bright and sunny, with the fragrance of spring flowers in the air, and the sound of chirping birds high up in the trees.
The above sentence describes a scene using imagery, but the words hold their literal meaning. Hence, it is not figurative language.
Still, imagery can also use figurative language, as in the example below:
The day was bright and sunny, with the fragrance of spring flowers like the sweetest wine, and the birds’ happy chattering up in the trees.
In this second sentence, the description uses imagery, but coupled with the use of figures of speech: the fragrance of the spring flowers is described “like the sweetest wine,” which is a simile, and the birds’ chirping is described as “happy chattering,” which is personification.
This shows us that imagery and figurative language are not the same, but imagery can use figurative language to strengthen its meaning.
What Are Some Examples of Figurative Language?
Literature is rife with figurative language, because that’s what gives the writing its zest and appeal. Consider the examples below:
Example #1. From “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry
Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim’s gold watch that had been his father’s and his grandfather’s. The other was Della’s hair. Had the queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty’s jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.
So now Della’s beautiful hair fell about her rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knee and made itself almost a garment for her. And then she did it up again nervously and quickly. Once she faltered for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed on the worn red carpet.
From the example above, you can see how the author enriched the image of Della’s hair by the use of figurative language; in this case, the simile “like a cascade of brown waters.”
Example #2. From On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Laura watched Pet and Patty and Bunny going away. Her eyes smarted and her throat ached. Pet and Patty arched their necks, and their manes and tails rippled in the wind. They went away gaily not knowing that they were never coming back.
The creek was singing to itself down among the willows, and the soft wind bent the grasses over the top of the bank. The sun was shining and all around the wagon was clean, wide space to be explored.
The use of the personification of the creek as singing to itself makes the scene more alive for the readers.
Example #3. Gospel of Matthew from The Bible
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.Matthew 13:44-46, New International Version
The Bible is another example of a literary work that uses a lot of figurative language. This excerpt contains two of the many parables that Jesus uses to describe the kingdom of heaven. This is a good example of using concrete descriptions to make abstract concepts more accessible to readers and listeners.
Using Figurative Language
Knowing how to effectively use figurative language will help you write with more clarity and color.
Take some time to familiarize yourself with the different figures of speech so you can confidently use them to enhance your writing.
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