Figurative language is another way of describing what are more commonly called "figures of speech." Robert Eaglestone in "Doing English" defines a figure of speech as "the use of words or a phrase in a way that isn't strictly true; the words have been 'turned away' from their literal sense and don't mean what a dictionary might say they mean." There are many different kinds of figures of speech, but they all share the same element in that they are not rooted in the factual. Recognizing this type of language is very easy with a little bit of practice.
Look for comparisons. Figurative language often rests on comparisons of two dissimilar objects or activities. These can be metaphors, which are direct comparisons, or similes, which are comparisons using "like" or "as." For example, in the poem "Metaphors," Sylvia Plath describes her pregnant body as "A melon strolling on two tendrils" (line 3). Similes are very common in everyday speech. Examples include sayings such as “I'm hungry as a horse" or "He's crazy like a fox."
Give inanimate objects or abstract concepts human qualities. This type of figurative language is called personification and is quite common. Emily Dickinson’s statement that the “Soul selects her own Society” (line 1) is personification, as is George Harrison singing about his guitar that “gently weeps.” This type of figurative language is used frequently by poets and authors, but is also normal in everyday speech.
Determine if the phrase or sentence could exist in the real world, or can be made sense of on a literal level. For example, can it really “rain cats and dogs”? Can your significant other really have "eyes like stars" or "porcelain skin"? This technique will help you decide if the language being used is literal or figurative. Another method is to ask yourself if a young child or someone who is not a native English speaker would be confused by the language. If the language would be unclear to someone who is new to the English language, then it is most likely figurative language.
- Dickinson, Emily; "The Soul Selects Her Own Society (303)"; 2011.
- The Beatles; "While My Guitar Gently Weeps"; 1968.
- Roberts, Edgar V. "Writing About Literature"; 2006.
Rebecca Grieser has been writing both fiction and nonfiction since she was in her teens and began writing professionally for eHow in 2009. She is currently completing her doctorate in English literature and holds a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Arts, both in English. She has also taught college-level writing courses for over five years.