Figures of Speech: Figurative language

Figurative Language in English Literature
(Commonly Used Figures of Speech)

figurative language

Using figurative language or figures of speech goes back to ancient writings. We can find the use of figurative language in writings of Aristotle, Homer, Quintilian and Horace. They were among the first writers who theorized about the function and use of figurative language.

What is figurative language?

Figurative language is a language based on non-literal meaning of some or all of the words used. There are many types of figures of speech: The definition of figurative language contrasts with literal language, which includes only the “surface” or dictionary meanings of used words. Figurative language is usually context based language and requires the listener or reader to recognize some extra nuances, context, allusions, etc. in order to understand the second meaning. However, figurative language is commonly used by native speakers they can understand it very easily.

Figurative language is language that uses figures of speech like simile, metaphor, personification. Figurative language is a language that carries its meaning in its hidden background and reader relies on context to understand the meaning of figurative language.

The major function of figurative language is to convey the writer’s message to the readers in a comprehensible way.

Figures of speech vs Imagery

Some writers consider imagery as is a type of figurative language but this in not so. Imagery is a use of vivid and descriptive language to please the reader’s senses and commonly used to depict places, things, and emotions in such a way that it looks more appealing to the reader’s sense. William Wordsworth and ST Coleridge were best poets who depict the nature in a beautiful way to portrait the beauty of nature. They used imagery to beautify their poetry.

Commonly Used Figures of Speech: Types

To understand figurative language, first readers have to understand individual terms of figures of speech like simile, metaphor, personification, etc. There are various types of figures of speech.


The word simile came from the Latin word similes which means like or likeness. Simile is an expression of similarity between different object. A simile compares two separate concepts, ideas things, or objects through the use of a clear connecting word such as “like” or “as.” When we place two things side by side to compare regarding some quality common to them we use simile. Comparisons words like and as, are used to compare similarity between two objects.

Common examples of simile are:

  • His heart is as hard as rock.
  • Can you jump like a monkey?
  • He is busy as a bee.
  • Ali is brave as a lion.
  • Watching English film was like watching grass grow.


The word metaphor came from a Greek word meta-over, phero-carry. It literally meaning are a “carrying over”. A metaphor is implied comparison between two things. Metaphors only makes sense when the similarities between the two objects being compared are obvious or readers comprehend the association between the two compared objects. Simile differs from metaphor; in simile, instead of stating that one object is another object (like in metaphor), states that one thing is as another object. (a sense of comparison)

Common examples of metaphor are:

  • Hi is a jackal, he will not accompany us in dark.
  • Time is money we have to save it.
  • My only son is my sunshine.
  • Ali was a roaring lion during the fight, though now he is calm.


We use oxymoron to couple contradictory words to achieve or express some complex or new meanings. An oxymoron is the association or bringing together of two words or phrases having opposite meaning.

Example of oxymoron:

  • Jacky is a wisest fool character in the drama.

Here the word wisest fool is an oxymoron where two opposite words are coined together to get modified meaning.


Hyperbolic language is mostly used by poets who want to elevate the value and significance of something. Hyperbole is a deliberate exaggeration of the truth, used to highlight the significance of something or sometime used to create a comic effect by exaggerating the trivial matter or something of low value. An example of a hyperbole is to say that a hill top was touching the sky. No hill top literally touches sky, but to say “hill top height was thousand meters” doesn’t effectively communicate how much height that hill top has.


Personification is the beauty tool for literature. It adds beauty to the text and appeals readers’ mood and creates more interest in readingIn personification, human traits are attributed to non-human things or to some abstract ideas.

Examples of personifications are:

“Opportunities knock at the door but once,”

“Death lays his icy hands on kings,”

In the above sentence, the words knock and lays his icy hands are the traits of human being are attributed to abstract ideas.


Irony is a figure of speech in which the actual meaning is just the contrary of that which is literally conveyed by the language used. Irony is the reverse of what is stated. It can be a dramatic irony (in drama scene where audience know but actors doesn’t), situational irony (in physical action), or verbal irony (only in saying/ wording).

Example: In Shakespeare’s’ drama ‘Othello’ Iago is called an honest Iago which is used in ironic sense because he not not an honest.


Idioms are the short phrases that do not carry surface meaning but they have some implied meaning set by the spoken society and have common significance in spoken language. These phrases are confusing if the reader or listener is experiencing it first time. It is difficult to guess from the context but these are learned in a culture. Idioms are non-literal turns of phrase so common that most people who speak the same language know them.

Some examples are mentioned below. (Learn 100 common idioms)

  • A hot potato

Meaning: A difficult task or something difficult to deal

Example: Learning how to drive a car is not a hot potato.

  • A piece of cake

Meaning: Something that is very easy.

Example: The quiz was a piece of cake (very easy) so all the students passed it with an A grade. 


Onomatopoeias are words used to imitate sounds in poetry. Usually poet use onomatopoeias in their poetry, and are frequently used to form symbolism, imagery or repetition, which often point to the theme or message of the poem.

We will quote Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Bells” in which the poet uses onomatopoeia to set up a mood of content and then fear in his poem, which gradually become more frightening as death comes nearer:

“Hear the loud alarum bells,
Brazen bells!
What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!
In the startled ear of night
How they scream out their affright!
Too much horrified to speak,
They can only shriek, shriek,
Out of tune…
How they clang, and clash, and roar!”


The synecdoche word is derived from syn-with, ekdoche-succession, literally meaning “the understanding of one thing by another”. Synecdoche is a figure of speech in which a part of something is used to refer to its whole or a whole to. For example, abc for English alphabets.

Example in a sentence:

  • Kalidasa is Shakespeare of India.


The word metonymy is derived from the Greek words mate—after; onoma—a name, literally meaning substitution of name for example gray hair used for old age, throne for monarchy. In metonymy, a concept, idea or object is referred to not by its original name.

Example in a sentence:

  • The pen is mightier than the sword.
  • The word pen is used for author and the word sword used for soldier.


Alliterations are the figures of speech in which the initial consonant sound repeats in a group of words, such as the “h” sound in: “How high his honour holds his haughty head” Alliteration is used to create a musical effects in poetry. One more example of alliteration is:

  • “The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew, the furrow followed free”


 Assonance is the repetition of the vowel sounds in nearby words, such as the “ee” sound: “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Similar to alliteration, assonance also repeats sounds to create a musical effect in poetry.


An apostrophe is a figure of speech commonly used in literature to address directly to an inanimate object, or abstract idea.

Example in poetry:

  • O Solitude, where are the charms
  • That sages have seen in thy face”


Pun is the way to use a word in such a sense that it gives two meanings to a word to make the people laugh,


  • An ambassador is a gentleman who lies abroad for the good of his country.
  • In above example the word lies is used as a pun as it has two meanings and makes a sense of fun for the readers.


Allusion is a text reference which refers that text to some other text, author, person place, or an object. It can be in both forms: explicit or implicit. “We’ve entered a Garden of Eden” is an example of allusion to the biblical place.


Symbolism is a use of a word to represent something entirely different from the actual meanings as red rose symbolizes the love.

Examples in sentence:

  • By using the image of the one’s country’s flag to is used to represent patriotism and a love for one’s own country.
  • Black color represents fear and death in literature.
  • A chalkboard is used to represent education.
  • An owl is used to represent wisdom.
  • Shakespeare symbolizes the world in a world stage.


Epigram is a short pity saying expressing antithetical ideas or exciting surprise is called epigram

Example in a sentence:

  • The child is a father of the man.
  • Art lies in concealing art.