Figurative language refers to words and phrases that go beyond their literal meanings within a text. We place figurative language within the Editing section of the Tameri Guide because mistakes in usage are common. We have read some odd examples of figurative language gone wrong.
Common Figurative Forms
Most writing can be made more effective through the judicious use of figurative language. Like cooking, writing needs just the right balance of spices. There are six common forms of figurative language:
- metaphor — symbolic “substitution” of concepts or things
- simile — using “like” or “as” for description or comparison
- metonymy — one word to mean a greater concept or group
- personification — using any noun as if it were a person or persons
- irony — using words in manner opposite to standard usage
- hyperbole — exaggeration for emphasis
One challenge with figurative language is avoiding clichés. Because daily speech makes use of figurative language, we tend to absorb common phrases that seldom work well in print. Be careful using figurative language that refers to:
- Geography/Geology: rivers, oceans, mountains, rocks, sand, earthquakes, volcanoes
- Weather: clouds, storms, rainbows, sunshine
- Animals: pigs, elephants, wolves, foxes
- Flowers: all things “rose” (thorns, buds, flowers, red)
- Sports: overused, especially by male writers
A word or phrase is symbolic when one item stands in for another. If you call someone a “pig” it is hopefully symbolic. Allegories are symbolic stories, with the characters and action representing unstated concepts and morals. Aesop’s Fables are allegories: animals represent human personalities. Some linguists believe metaphors and similes evolved from allegories.
A metaphor requires that the reader understand analogies and complex relationships. Metaphors can be simple, or as complex as the SAT. Keep your audience in mind when constructing metaphors. “The river of life” is a metaphor — life is not a river, but like a river it moves forward. If you call someone the “prettiest flower in the garden,” you hopefully do not think she’s a prickly rose.
Most of us use numerous metaphors when we speak. We describe job hunting and dating as “fishing.” We look for a good “catch” along the way. Somehow, we understand the fishing metaphor. Sports metaphors are common. We “strike out” when we fail at something. We “pop out” when things start great but end quickly.
Think about your speech patterns and consider your common metaphors. In writing, characters should have favorite metaphors. Any use of one thing or action to mean another is a metaphor — it is symbolic speech.
A simile uses “like” or “as” to introduce a description or comparison. A simile can be a “true” comparison or a metaphorical comparison. A “true” comparison is one that relies on hyperbole or understatement. A metaphorical comparison seems unrelated literally.
He was as big as an elephant.
Her smile was like sunshine.
When They are Them
Frequently we rename people and things for literary and rhetorical effect. We can treat people as members of stereotyped groups or even as things. Alternately, we can treat other species and objects as if they were people. Always consider the implications of these mechanical choices.
Metonymy is using a word to represent a group. Over time, we shorten phrases to single words. Instead of saying, “the British soldiers in red coats are coming,” the warning became:
The Redcoats are coming!
Slang is often metonymy — especially racial, regional, and gender slurs. “Okie” is metonymy, representing the poor migrants from Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression. Sadly, there are many examples of negative metonymy.
“Yankee go home!” the mob shouted.
More familiar than metonymy is personification, the treating of an animal or object as a person. If the personification tries to make the object seem like it has a personality and deep emotions, the result is said to be anthropomorphic. The difference is subtle, and many grammarians no longer make the distinction.
The mountain held the clouds on its shoulders.
The Sea lashed out in anger at the ships, unwilling to tolerate another battle.
In the examples, the first is a basic personification. We know mountains do not hold clouds through some active choice, any more than the sun “smiles” on flowers. The second sentence implies the Sea is a deity, able to observe and punish human actions. We say the ancient Greek and Roman myths are anthropomorphic, making their conceptually-based gods seem human.
Mainly to confuse students, personification has two meanings: anthropomorphism and the identification of archetypes. An archetype is the ideal example of a person or thing. If we say someone is the “personification of greed” we are relying on others to know what this means. If a character is the archetypical greedy banker, readers make certain assumptions about what the character will do during a story.
Good writing avoids too many characters that are archetypes and stereotypes because they are predictable. A stereotype is particularly sloppy, so even beginning writers tend to avoid stereotypes. Archetypes are more difficult to avoid because one-dimensional characters are easy to create: the brave fireman, the scheming politician, and the good-natured grandfather. These archetypes represent groups, but real people are seldom as easy to classify.
Over, Under, and More
Words do not always mean what they state; sometimes they mean less, sometimes more, and sometimes they mean the exact opposite. The challenge for a writer is to employ these linguistic tricks with care — or the words can destroy a work.
There are several forms of irony in literature. Most of us know irony as stating one thing while meaning the opposite. Irony in literature also includes events leading to the opposite of expectations and moments when the reader knows what a character does not. We tend to recognize intentionally ironic statements more readily than narrative irony.
Most of us are sarcastic at times, and occasionally even sardonic. Sarcasm is a biting comment or statement, but it is often mild and not intended to cause harm. If a statement is sardonic, it is bitterly contemptuous. A sardonic wit is scornful and mocking, usually meant to cause emotional distress.
Irony in the action of a story is often marked by a “twist of fate” when plans go awry. Dramatic irony can be traced to Greek theatre. For example, the audience might know a character is plotting against the hero, so if the hero praises this villain there is irony.
While irony is often understated, it is possible to use understatement without being ironic. No, really. Understatement can express an extreme, when used properly. Consider “and it was good” from the Bible’s Genesis. If a deity says something is “good” it is probably “great” from a mortal perspective.
Hyperbole is exaggeration for dramatic effect. The common example is a parent telling a teenager, “I’ve told you a million times to clean your room!” We know the parent is unlikely to have issued the order one million time, but the parent is trying to express frustration.
Hyperbole is used in daily speech, so realistic characters will resort to hyperbole sometimes. It is important to avoid overuse of hyperbole, even though it is a prominent part of daily interactions.