The Different Types of Figurative Language

An explanation of the five types: resemblance or relationship, emphasis or understatement, figures of sound, verbal games, and errors.

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Figurative language is the intentional use of words or phrases that implies a non-literal meaning which does make sense but could also be true. This means some figurative language could appear to be literal, as in a double entendre, or, like a metaphor, clearly not literal. Forming a crucial part of every language, figures of speech can be found in primitive oral literature, as well as in polished poetry and prose. Greeting-cards, slogans, newspaper headlines, and cartoon captions often use figures of speech, generally for humorous, mnemonic, or aesthetic purposes.

Most figures of speech are formed by using what is familiar to the user, and can become well known within the language. For example, it isn’t uncommon for metaphors (implied resemblances) to combine human physiology and nature or inanimate objects such as “the mouth of a river,” “the bowels of the earth,” or “the eye of a needle.” Similarly, resemblances to natural phenomena are often applied to other areas, as in the expressions “a wave of enthusiasm,” “a ripple of excitement,” or “a whirlwind of emotions.”

While all the figures of speech that appear in everyday conversation may also be found in literature, in serious poetry and prose their use is more fully purposeful, and often much more subtle. This can be noted to impact the audience in a more memorable way, such as ‘Cloths of Heaven’ by W.B. Yeats.

According to Merriam-Webster, figurative language is broken down into five categories: resemblance or relationship, emphasis or understatement, figures of sound, verbal games, and errors.

Resemblance or Relationship

For starters, a simile is a comparison of two things, and so it is resemblance figurative speech. The connectives “like,” “as,” “than” or a verb to draw comparison are used to show how something is similar. For example, “his legs were as long as trees,” or “he was quick like a flash.” These comparisons are exaggerated, as one’s legs cannot be as long as trees (unless referring to a giant) and one cannot move as fast as light (unless referring to a superhuman), but they still manage to get the imagery across. A simile can also be used to appear literal, such as “his beard was as white as snow,” because one can have hair that is white.

Unlike a simile, a metaphor is a figure of speech in which two things, very unlike one another, are shown to have resemblance or to create a new image. The similarities that are being compared are implied instead of directly stated like a simile. For example, “the blanket of night” is strong metaphorical imagery, possibly suggesting enveloping darkness but a sense of comfort that one gets from a blanket. Extended metaphors, ones that continue over several sentences, can often be found in poetry, such as Emily Dickinson’s ‘Hope is a Thing With Feathers’ in which she compares hope to birds, creating strong imagery to back her reasoning.

Personification is the attribution of a personal nature or character to inanimate objects or abstract notions, especially as a rhetorical figure. For example, the Grim Reaper is often depicted as a humanoid figure, thus personified, furthered in Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘Because I Could Not Stop for Death’ in which Death is a carriage driver.

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

Because I Could Not Stop for Death by Emily Dickinson

Emphasis or Understatement

An oxymoron is a figure of speech in which a pair of opposite or contradictory terms is used together for emphasis. One classic example of the use of oxymorons in English literature can be found in Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’, where Romeo strings together thirteen in a row:

O brawling love! O loving hate!
O anything of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness, serious vanity!
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this.

Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare

A paradox is a statement or proposition which is self-contradictory, unreasonable, or illogical, and is similar to an oxymoron, though without the need for opposites. For example, “This statement is a lie.” Paradoxes are not to be confused with such things as a time paradox, which is a plot device, not a narrative technique.

Hyperbole is an extravagant or exaggerated statement to express strong feelings. In rhetoric, it is also sometimes known as auxesis (meaning growth). In poetry and oratory, it emphasises, evokes strong feelings, and creates strong impressions. As a figure of speech, it is usually not meant to be taken literally by the audience – but for comedic purposes other characters can be mistaken.

“I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.”
“Just the one?”

Figures of Sound

Onomatopoeia is a word designed to be an imitation of a sound. “Boom,” “buzz,” “whoosh” are all onomatopoeic words, and are very common and popular in children’s novels and poetry. The words themselves are also subjective to each culture and language, for example, a heartbeat in English would be described as “ba-dum, ba-dum” whereas in Japanese it is described as “doki doki.”

Onomatopoeic effect can also be produced in a sentence with the help of alliteration and consonance alone, without actually using any onomatopoeic words. The most famous example is the phrase “furrow followed free” in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’ The words are not onomatopoeic on their own, but together they reproduce the sound of ripples following in the wake of a speeding ship. Similarly, in the poem, ‘I, She and the Sea,’ alliteration has been used in the line “as the surf surged up the sun swept shore…” to recreate the sound of breaking waves.

Verbal Games

An idiom is a phrase or an expression that has a figurative, or sometimes literal, meaning. The two meanings are different from one another, and like the hyperbole, if the literal meaning were to be taken it would be quite comedic. For example, “Keep an eye out,” would be quite grotesque if taken literally, but figuratively it means to keep watch.

There are thousands of idioms, occurring frequently in all languages. It is estimated that there are at least twenty-five thousand idiomatic expressions in the English language. It should be noted here that an idiom can be a very useful way of making dialogue that little bit more believable as it is so engrained into society and language, such as having a footballer saying, “At the end of the day…that’s what it all comes down to.”

The pun, also called paronomasia, is a form of wordplay that exploits multiple meanings of a term, or of similar-sounding words, for an intended humorous or rhetorical effect. These ambiguities can arise from the intentional use of homophonic, homographic, metonymic, or figurative language.

“I wondered why the ball was getting bigger. Then it hit me.”

“Then it hit me” has two different meanings. The ball could literally hit the speaker, or it could have figuratively hit them as an epiphany.


Errors in figurative language are usually used for comedic effects, such as spoonerism, which is either an error in speech or deliberate play on words in which corresponding consonants, vowels, or morphemes are switched (see metathesis) between two words in a phrase, for example, “It was a blushing crow.” (“It was a crushing blow.”) These are often seen as slips of the tongues, but can be used deliberately for an arrange of purposes, for example, to avoid censorship: “You bat fastard!”

In Brian P. Cleary’s poem ‘Translation’ he describes a boy named Alex who speaks in spoonerisms. Humorously, while he “translates” the spoonerisms of the boy, he leaves the last line up to the audience’s imagination.

He once proclaimed, “Hey, belly jeans
When he found a stash of jelly beans.
But when he says he pepped in stew
We’ll tell him he should wipe his shoe.

Translation by Brian P. Cleary

Another example of an error in figurative language is known as malapropism, which is using words which don’t have the meaning that one intends but which sound similar to words that do. Named after Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 play The Rivals, who utters several of them throughout the play, for example: “illiterate him quite from your memory,” where “illiterate” is used instead of “obliterate.”

Although it has been contested by Shakespeare that he wrote them first, such as in ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ Constable Dogberry tells Governor Leonato, “Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons.” The text here deliberately confuses “apprehended” and “suspicious” respectively.

It should be noted that while it is not a malapropism to use obtuse (wide or dull) instead of acute (narrow or sharp); it is a malapropism to use obtuse (stupid or slow-witted) when one means abstruse (esoteric or difficult to understand).


As diverse as figurative language is, it is very much up to the author and audience on how it will get translated, and can vary by region or culture. All languages use figures of speech, but differences of language dictate different aesthetics. In a culture not influenced by classical Greece and Rome, some figures of speech may be absent; irony, for example is often lost in certain cultures. Japanese poetry is based on subtle and delicate implication, and has an entire vocabulary of aesthetic values that is almost untranslatable to the West. In Arabic literature, it is rich in simile and metaphor, but due to the differences in construction it ends up needing a lot more work in translating it effectively.

Figurative language can be used to intentionally mislead thanks to an unreliable narrator, or it can be used for comedic effects. How brazen or how subtle an author wishes to go can reflect on their own style of writing or storytelling, but as simple as some of these sound, it does not mean that they don’t deserve practice or planning before being dropped into the narrative.

Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.

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