The words you use in both written and oral communication are a form of expression. The types of language you use often depend on what you are trying to convey. Sometimes, the goal is to be direct and to the point to express exactly what you mean. Other times, the goal is to make the reader think or draw a conclusion.

As a writer, or speaker, it is important to first, know your audience. Understanding your reader or listener is important to decide what type of language you should use to convey your message most effectively. Additionally, it is important to have a clear understanding of the point of your message. Knowing this will help you determine if you should use literal or figurative language. Additionally, it is important to understand the differences between literal and figurative language.

What Is Literal Language?

Literal language by definition does not use figures of speech. Instead, literal language uses the actual meanings of words or phrases in their exact sense. Literal language is very straightforward and to the point. Literal language is precise and often tells the reader exactly the point. The reader or listener does not have to extract meaning.

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What Is Figurative Language?

In contrast, figurative language uses different figures of speech to make the content more persuasive or to have a greater impact. Figurative language uses figures of speech such as metaphors, similes or an oxymoron to make the message more meaningful. A writer uses figurative language to create more interesting and often colorful content.

What’s the Difference Between Literal and Figurative Language?

The main difference between literal and figurative language is complexity. What is the literal language definition and examples? Literal language is not complex. Literal language is precise, and expresses exactly what the author or speaker means. Literal language does not use confusing words or does it encourage the reader to think beyond what is being said. Literal language expresses the main point.

On the other hand, figurative language may take interpretation on the part of the reader. This language tends to be more complex and is not always very straightforward. Figurative language often uses symbolism, requiring the reader or listener to think beyond the words that are written. This type of language uses literary devices instead of relying on the actual meaning of words or phrases.

Why Use Literal Language?

Literal language is often used within the fields of science and research. You might consider using literal language when writing a term paper on the defectiveness of alternative energy solutions. If you were writing a paper in chemistry class, the use of precise, straightforward language would be the best option. Literary language should be used when the goal is to give an explicit explanation. Authors use literal language when they want to get their point across in a direct manner.

Why Use Figurative Language?

Figurative language does have a place, however. Figurative language is often used in poetry or narrative fiction. If you were writing a paper that compares and contrasts medieval female characters, you may want to include some figurative language. Figurative language can also be very helpful in persuasive papers, too. Authors will use figurative language when the goal is to persuade the reader or evoke emotion.

Types of Figurative Language

Figurative language can take form in five specific ways:

  •       Understatement or Emphasis

    – highlight or diminish on idea       Relationships – focus on how things are interrelated       Figures of Sound – how the words actually sound       Errors – highlighting a mistake       Verbal Games – plays on words

If done effectively, figurative language can highlight contrasting ideas and evoke the reader to think in a new way or change a perspective. Figurative language can highlight one area, like an area of weakness, to ultimately highlight another.

In order to accomplish these forms of figurative language, you can incorporate several types of literary devices. Literary devices include simile, metaphor, personification, onomatopoeia, oxymoron, hyperbole, allusion, idiom, alliteration, irony, pun and sarcasm. You can find figurative and literal language worksheets as PDF documents online.

About the Author

Melanie Forstall has a doctorate in education and has worked in the field of education for over 20 years. She has been a teacher, grant writer, program director, and higher education instructor. She is a freelance writer specializing in education, and education related content. She writes for We Are Teachers, School Leaders Now, Classroom, Pocket Sense, local parenting magazines, and other professional academic outlets. Additionally, she has co-authored book chapters specializing in providing services for students with disabilities.