Figurative Language

Figurative language is the use of words or expressions not in their literal meaning, in order to achieve an effect, often through imagery. Figures of speech are commonly used in poetry, but also in daily conversations, prose and non-fiction writing. Using figurative language may lead to misunderstandings and ambiguities, because the meaning is shifted from a denotative to a connotative one.

In classical rhetoric, figurative language is categorized into schemes and tropes. Schemes refer to figures of speech which change the usual word order or word pattern, while tropes change the literal meaning of the word. The most commonly used tropes include metaphor, metonymy and synecdoche, simile, personification, irony, allusion, hyperbole, allegory, apostrophe and alliteration.

Metaphor is a figure of speech which compares two dissimilar objects by using specific characteristics of the one to describe the other. One example would be "The child was a bolt of lightning."

Metonymy is the substitution of a word or concept by something closely related to it. For example using "crown" instead of "royalty."

Synecdoche is a figure of speech in which a part of something is used to represent the whole, for example, instead of using alphabet, using ABC.

Simile is a direct comparison between two things, in which the words "like" or "as" are used. For example, "run as fast as the wind." Because of the use of like and as, the simile is easier to detect and understand than the metaphor.

Personification refers to the assigning of human qualities to inanimate objects, animals, ideas or natural phenomena. "The sea sang its lullaby and soothed me to sleep."

Irony is the use of words which imply a meaning opposite to their literal meaning, often with humorous effect.

Allusion is an indirect reference to another work of literature, art or historical event. Allusions are one of the most difficult figures of speech to understand because they require specific background knowledge. To understand the sentence "The virus that attacked my computer was a Trojan," the reader needs to be familiar with the Trojan War.

Hyperbole is an exaggeration, often humorous, used to emphasize and draw the attention to something. For example using "to be on top of the world" to underline the level of happiness.

Allegory is a symbolic fictional narrative that conveys a meaning not explicitly set in the narrative and is other than the verbal. It is an extended metaphor using symbolic figures and representation.

Apostrophe is a rhetorical device used to address an imaginary or non-present person, thing, or an abstract idea.

Alliteration is a common poetic device that uses the repetition of consonant sounds. Alliteration, apostrophe and hyperbole are representatives of both tropes and schemes categories.

Other examples of tropes are proverbs, aphorisms, oxymora and onomatopoeia. Proverbs and aphorisms are succinct memorable sayings or adages embodying general cultural truths, beliefs, values and opinions. An example of a proverb would be, "One rotten apple spoils the bunch."

Oxymoron is the combination of two contradictory words in a phrase or an expression such as "living dead."

Onomatopoeia is the use of words that imitate the sound associated with them or words whose sound suggests the sense, such as "buzz." It is also included in both categories.

Examples of frequently used schemes are apposition, antithesis, consonance, homonyms, parallelism and tautology.

Apposition is when two noun phrases referring to the same person or object are juxtaposed and the second one defines or clarifies the first one.

Antithesis is the juxtaposition of two contrasting ideas.

Consonance is the repetition of the same consonant several times in a short sentence or verse.

Homonyms are words with the same spelling and pronunciation but with different meanings.

Parallelism is the use of similar sounds, meanings and structures in two or more clauses.

Tautology is the repetition of the same statement using different wording.

Idioms are a separate type of figurative language. They are word phrases or expressions unique to a language, whose meaning is completely different from the literal meaning of the words of which it is constructed. An example of idiom is "making a mountain out of a molehill." Most frequently used and overused idioms are referred to as clichés. Usually, if translated, their idiomatic meaning changes or becomes meaningless.

According to classical rhetoric there are four rhetorical operations through which all figures of speech are formed. Those are addition, omission, permutation and transposition. Originally in Latin they were called the four operations of quadripartita ratio.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Understanding Figurative Language: From Metaphors to Idioms
Sam Glucksberg; Matthew S. McGlone.
Oxford University Press, 2001
On Our Mind: Salience, Context, and Figurative Language
Rachel Giora.
Oxford University Press, 2003
Mapping Metaphor: This Is Your Brain on Figurative Language
Krause, Kenneth W.
The Humanist, Vol. 68, No. 4, July-August 2008
Psychology and the Poetics of Growth: Figurative Language in Psychology, Psychotherapy, and Education
Jack M. Barlow; Harold J. Fine; Marilyn R. Pollio; Howard R. Pollio.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1977
Handbook of Reading Research
P. David Pearson.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 15 "Understanding Figurative Language"
Social and Cognitive Approaches to Interpersonal Communication
Susan R. Fussell; Roger J. Kreuz.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1998
Librarian’s tip: Part II "Indirect Speech and Figurative Language"
Language and Creativity: The Art of Common Talk
Ronald Carter.
Routledge, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "Figures of Speech"
Understanding the Language of Science
Steven Darian.
University of Texas Press, 2003
Idioms: Processing, Structure, and Interpretation
Cristina Cacciari; Patrizia Tabossi.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1993
Librarian’s tip: "Literal and Figurative Language" begins on p. 101
Metaphor: Implications and Applications
Jeffery Scott Mio; Albert N. Katz.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1996
A Proverb in Mind: The Cognitive Science of Proverbial Wit and Wisdom
Richard P. Honeck.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 2 "The Tangle of Figurative Language"
The Verbal Communication of Emotions: Interdisciplinary Perspectives
Susan R. Fussell.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002
Librarian’s tip: Part II "Figurative Language in Emotional Communication"
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