Figurative Language: Everything You Need To Know
Figurative language is everywhere. You can easily find it in poetry, literature, marketing messages, pop culture, and in your daily speech. If you've ever thought, "she sings like a lark," “I'm as hungry as a horse," or "that movie was an emotional roller coaster," you already know what figurative language is.
So, how do you distinguish figures of speech from other forms of language? How can you use figurative language to establish your reputation as an impactful communicator?
Figures of speech can significantly benefit team discussions, presentations, and other workplace scenarios. Below, Poised explains figurative language in more detail and shares how to harness these tools to improve your communication skills.
What Is Figurative Language?
Figurative language employs figures of speech to elicit new images or strengthen the impact of content. If you’re trying to deliver a specific message or evoke a particular feeling in an interesting way, figurative language is an excellent platform.
For instance, you might tell your friend, "It's raining cats and dogs out here," to describe the inconvenient weather conditions you’re caught in. You could just say, "It's raining heavily," but the latter statement more aptly expresses the urgency of the circumstances.
Using figures of speech allows you to connect with listeners and readers on a deeper level because it creates fresh connections between images, concepts, or objects that normally would not be linked. This offers your audience new insights and helps them gain a more vivid, imaginative picture of the content.
Figurative language can take something rather ordinary and make it significant. It can explain abstract concepts through comparisons with something your audience can relate to.
Authors across genres employ figures of speech to identify and evoke precise moods and feelings for which conventional wording wouldn't suffice. Business leaders, employees, and politicians can use figures of speech to persuade listeners. Novelists can use them to bring readers into the fictional world they've worked so hard to develop.
There are many types of figurative language worth learning. For brevity's sake, let's discuss the three primary forms of figurative language:
What Is a Metaphor?
A metaphor is a word or phrase for a specific thing that refers to a different thing to suggest or highlight the similarities between the two things. The term metaphor also refers to an idea, activity, or object that serves as a symbol of a different thing.
Metaphors describe actions or objects in a manner that isn't literally true but helps the listener understand the context by comparing different things or expressing an idea. Simply put, a metaphor says that one thing is another thing (unlike a simile, which states that something is like another thing). Metaphors equate the two things for comparison or symbolism's sake.
Many consider William Shakespeare to be the king of the metaphor in the English Language. Perhaps the most common example of this type of figurative speech can be found in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet,with the line "It is the east and Juliet is the sun."
Assuming the literal meaning of a metaphor can quickly make you confused. It's vital to recognize metaphors for what they are and allow them to add color and insight to the language in which they are active.
Sometimes, the colorful language of metaphors is the only way to truly describe abstract concepts or emotions. Other times, it simply makes communication more exciting and entertaining.
What Is a Simile?
Another standard figure of speech is the simile, which is essentially a metaphor that uses the words "like" or "as" to compare different things. People use similes to further describe something by comparing it to something else that may seem unrelated on the surface.
You may have heard the statement, "Life is like a box of chocolates." This famous line from the 1994 film Forrest Gump beautifully illustrates the unpredictability of life. Choose a random piece of chocolate in a box, and you won't know the flavor until you take a bite.
Most communicators use hyperbole for added emphasis when employing similes. Consider the statement "They were moving at the speed of light" to describe race car drivers at a race.
Obviously, no human beings or cars can move that fast. But the statement succinctly expresses that the drivers were traveling at extraordinarily high speeds during the race. In other words, similes can make your communication more compelling and even informative.
Working the occasional simile into your presentation can do wonders for boosting your message’s clarity and keeping your audience engaged. As with metaphors, you can also use similes to enlighten your listeners on hard-to-explain concepts.
Furthermore, similes are more direct in their comparisons than metaphors, which tend to be more subtle and poetic. However, some figurative language examples are overused in everyday speech or as literary devices. When this occurs, they become a clicé and should be avoided.
What Is an Analogy?
An analogy also compares two things to explain ideas, objects, or images. The two things in an analogy are physically distinct yet have figurative similarities; the analogy identifies those similarities.
Analogies are almost always used to simplify abstract or complex ideas. You can link unfamiliar ideas with common ones to help your team members better comprehend the key points of your message.
Take, for example, the concepts of time and money. The two terms are physically different, but the phrase "Time is money, so spend it wisely" gets a clear message across to listeners.
So, how is an analogy different from a metaphor or simile? Metaphors and similes are figures of speech that compare or imply a similarity between two things, and these devices help communicators to “show” instead of “tell.” On the other hand, an analogy focuses more on clarification or explanation.
In other words, analogies go deeper. Here are a few sentences to demonstrate the difference between metaphors, similes, and analogies:
- Metaphor: She is a well of wisdom.
- Simile: She is like a well of wisdom.
- Analogy: She is like a well of wisdom guiding them to a more fulfilling life.
What Are Some Examples of Figurative Language?
So, you're ready to see figurative language in action. Here are some common examples of metaphors, similes, and analogies to consider:
Examples of Metaphors
- She has a heart of stone: Someone with this condition may be cold and unemotional.
- That’s a slippery slope: A warning that one or two minor steps could lead to a dangerous outcome.
- He’s my better half: A metaphor that assumes the union of two individuals. Many people employ this phrase to describe their spouses.
- We live in a beautiful melting pot. A culture or location that includes people from various backgrounds.
- He was the black sheep of the family: A member of a family or other group that doesn't quite fit in with the other members.
- She was brilliant but also a late bloomer: A popular comparison between the aging process and a blooming flower.
Examples of Similes
- The kids were babbling like brooks.
- The older lady was as sweet as sugar.
- She runs like a gazelle.
- He went white as a ghost when they jumped out.
- You look like a monkey hanging from those bars.
- He thought the science project was as easy as pie.
- The businessman was cool as a cucumber in the meeting.
- Are you always busy as a bee?
Examples of Analogies
- Life is like a race: You must keep running to the best of your ability as life brings unexpected circumstances. Those who continue to run and participate in the race are the ones fully prepared in the long run.
- That’s like finding a needle in a haystack: To find a needle in a haystack is almost impossible, which is why this analogy is used to describe the search for a significant other or something else of great value.
- We must leave our comfort zones as a caterpillar comes out of its cocoon: The idea behind this analogy is that a person can reach their beautiful potential by coming out of their shell like a caterpillar exits its cocoon, and transforms into a butterfly.
- That was as irritating as nails on a chalkboard: Rub your fingernails along a chalkboard, and you'll clearly understand this analogy!
- The pen is the writer’s weapon, just as the sword is the warrior’s weapon: Swords are used for killing or protecting, and writers can do the same with their pens (or keys).
How To Use Figurative Language
You may already have an idea of how you can employ figures of speech in your virtual meetings and other workplace scenarios.
Here are a few brief tips for using figurative language in your communication:
Make Your Communication More Interesting
No matter what industry your company works in, chances are your team covers many of the same topics on a weekly basis. You can use metaphors, similes, and analogies to present ideas, review guidelines, and devise strategies in a new light. Add a splash of color to the conversation; the right figure of speech can entertain and engage your listeners.
Make a Point More Effectively
Pay attention to some of the abstract concepts you encounter in team meetings. These ideas can be difficult to explain using only literal language. Be mindful of how you can incorporate engaging figures of speech to explain the unexplainable through comparison or symbolism.
Tell a Relevant Story
Every leader and employee understands the importance of telling compelling stories in virtual meetings and at other work functions. One of the easiest ways to make your story more relevant to your audience is to use metaphors, similes, or analogies to compare your ideas to other things your listeners are sure to understand.
Poised: The Simplest Way To Improve Your Communication
Being literal sometimes just isn’t enough. Continue to learn how you can work more figures of speech into your video calls, collaboration sessions, and other work situations.
Remember to use any tools available to boost your communication skills and help you reach your next career milestone. The Poised AI-powered communication coach will help you communicate more effectively during meetings while analyzing your long-term performance for regular progress updates.
Ways To Use Figurative Language in Writing | The Balance
The Top 20 Figures of Speech | ThoughtCo
Romeo & Juliet, Act 2, Literary Elements | Mountain View Schools