To truly understand English
you must have some knowledge of the most common types of figurative
Click Here for Step-by-Step Rules, Stories and Exercises to Practice All English Tenses
What does figurative
means that words
are used in a way that is different from the usual meaning. That way
the description is more interesting or impressive.
Figurative language creates a picture in your mind.
is about to explode!
We do not mean
to say that the man will actually explode. We only want to
say that he is extremely angry.
So we use the verb "explode" in a figurative
way. In other words, we use a word that usually
describes something else.
That way the description is more interesting. It creates a
certain picture in the mind.
The opposite of figurative
Literal means that you mean what you say exactly.
is about to explode!
Here we do mean to say that the man will
actually explode. The man holds fireworks, and it
looks dangerous enough to explode.
So here we use the verb "explode" in a literal
In other words, we use the usual meaning of the word.
comes from the
- A figure of speech
is a word or phrase used in a different way from its usual
meaning in order to express a particular meaning.
In the about example, "explode" is a figure of speech.
comes from the
Latin word littera
which means "letter."
To get a better understanding of figurative language,
let's look at some common figurative sayings:
is a pig!"
This is an example of figurative language.
This sentence does not mean that Sam is actually an animal.
This sentence is a figure of
meaning that Sam is very messy and does not have
"Beth let the cat out of
about Lisa's surprise party."
This is another example of figurative language.
This sentence does not mean that Beth had a cat in a bag and
let it out.
Native English speakers understand this sentence is figurative
language meaning that Beth told Lisa the secret about the surprise
Figurative or Literal
To truly understand figurative language,
you must first understand the terms "figurative" and "literal."
If a statement is "literal" it is true.
You can believe every word. When you say something "literally,"
you mean exactly what you say.
She looks beautiful in
her red dress!
This is a literal
because the writer thinks the lady looks beautiful. The writer is
simply stating that she looks beautiful.
He is a very big man.
This is a literal
statement. The writer means that the man is big and strong.
These statements are literal and can sometimes be boring! To add
interest, writers often write in a figurative way.
"Figurative" is the opposite of
"literal." You do not believe a figurative statement word for
word. When you say something "figuratively," you are usually
making a comparison to give a description or make a point.
looks like a million dollars!
This is a figurative
statement, because a person can't really look exactly like money.
The statement means that she is well dressed and looks beautiful.
He is as big as an elephant!
This is also a figurative
statement because a person cannot be as big as an elephant. The
statement means he is very large. The writer compares the man to an
elephant to help the reader visualize the large, strong man!
Figurative language is a word or
phrase that cannot be taken literally.
Writers use figurative language to describe things, people, or
Common reasons to
use figurative language:
- for comparison
- for emphasis or stress
- to make something clear
- to say something in a new way
- to help the reader/listener form a picture in their mind
- to make a story or poem interesting
If used correctly, figurative language can greatly improve your
writing and speaking.
reading, speaking, or writing in English, it is important to
understand the meaning of some common figures of speech.
First, let's look at definitions and examples of the most common
types of figurative language.
Types of figurative
There are several common types of figurative language used in the
Simile and metaphor
are the two most common types of figurative language. They are both
used to compare two different things that do not usually go
The difference between simile and metaphor is that a simile uses the
words "like" or "as" and a metaphor does not.
with like / as => simile
without like / as => metaphor
A) A simile
is a comparison of two different things using the words "like"
metaphor is a
comparison of two different
things, without "like" or "as."
- She runs fast like
(She runs very fast.)
- The children were as
mice this morning.
(The children were very quiet.)
here for the full article on the simile and metaphor in English.
- The snow is a blanket over the house.
(The snow covers the house.)
- My little girl is an angel.
(My little girl is very nice and sweet.)
is a commonly used
phrase that does not mean what it says. It cannot be taken
literally. There are many common idioms in the English language.
Knowing the meanings of common idioms will help you understand
American English better. For a list of some commonly used idioms and
their meanings, click here: Idiom
here for the full article on English idioms.
- My car just kicked
(kicked the bucket = broke down, stop working)
- Bob was feeling
blue after his girlfriend left him.
(feeling blue = feeling sad)
is an obvious
exaggeration. Hyperboles are usually used to make a point.
Hyperboles cannot be taken literally.
here for the full article on the hyperbole in English.
- I am so hungry I could eat
(I am very hungry.)
- We waited in line forever!
(We waited in line for a long time.)
- The coffee was so hot, I was spitting
(The coffee was very hot.)
is when a
human characteristic is given to something that is not human,
such as an object or an animal. Writers personify objects to provide
here for the full article on personification in English.
- My pen was
(I was writing very fast.)
- The leaves danced
in the wind.
(The wind was blowing the leaves around.)
repetition of the initial sound in a series of words. Alliteration
is commonly found in poetry and rhymes.
here for the full article on alliteration in English.
- She sells seashells by the seashore.
- Lazy lizards lounged by the lake.
used to describe a sound.
here for the full article on the onomatopoeia in English.
is a common
expression that has been overused. Clichés can be other types of
here for the full article on the cliché in English.
- easy as pie
- let the cat out of the bag
(tell a secret)
- stick in the mud
(someone who does not want to try anything new)
- slept like a baby
is a play on
Puns are meant to be
clever and funny. Many jokes are actually puns.
There are two ways to create a pun:
1. Use words that sound the same but
have different meanings.
2. Use a word that has multiple meanings.
- I took a job as a baker because I knead
(A baker can knead (mix) bread dough. People work because they
need dough (money).)
- Why did the bee go to the doctor? Because she had hives.
(A bee lives in a hive. Hives is also an illness.)
- The golfer had two pairs of pants in case he got a hole
(A golfer can make the ball in the hole on the first try. Or
the golfer can get a hole in one pair of pants.)
here for the full article on the pun in English.
Click here to learn about English Proverbs too.
Irony is when someone
says or does something, but means another thing or intends for
something else to happen.
Nick just got an F on his
test. Maria looks at Nick and says, "Good job! You must have
Does Maria really mean "good job"? No! Maria is using verbal irony
to be sarcastic.
here for the full article on irony in English: verbal irony,
dramatic irony, and situational irony.
Paradoxes, Oxymorons, and
See also our lessons on Paradoxes,
Oxymorons, and Contradictory and Statements and How
Euphemism Is Used: Euphemism Meaning and Examples.
This was just an overview of each type of figurative language. To
learn more about a specific type, click the links to the full
Now that you have learned about the types of figurative
language, it is time to review and practice with this figurative
This was an overview of figurative language. Now that you
understand it, it is time to practice! Get
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