What is the Difference Between Literal and Figurative Language?

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. Literal and figurative languages are often taught in English language classes, and can be used in many ways across languages and linguistics in general.

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. Literal language uses a literal meaning to describe the subject or action in a figure of speech.

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. Figurative language uses figurative meanings to compare or describe something in a non-literal way.

What is 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. Being able to use both literal and figurative language allows for someone to improve cognition and connotation in their writing and spoken language.

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. It is always helpful to know the differences between literal vs. figurative languages as different meanings to different phrases can allow you to be in-the-know in a situation or confused about a certain setting or saying.

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. These literary writings use the literal sense to describe things in writing and language. 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, as a type of semantic. Authors will use figurative language when the goal is to ‌persuade the reader or evoke emotion‌. Figurative language can be used to describe inanimate objects as well as give creativity to short stories or spoken language in different settings using a specific use of words.

Examples of Figurative Language

There are five types of figurative language:

  • 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.

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