by Alysia Bartley

Adding to English Language Learning with Figurative Language – Part I

Green field and lonely tree

 What is a figure of speech (figurative language)?  Figures of speech are words or phrases that make up what is called “figurative language”. This type of language goes beyond the literal meaning. It provides emphasis. It offers freshness of expression. It brings clarity. It helps build English language. You can find figurative language throughout all aspects of communication – in speaking, reading and writing – and from Biblical times until now. Pop music and television commercials use figurative language for the audience/viewer to engage their imagination to understand much more than the actual words. Remember… They provide emphasis. They offer freshness of expression. They bring clarity. They help build English language.

How is literal language different from figurative language? Literal language means exactly what is said. For example, The runner ran fast.  You can picture someone running quickly. However, figurative language is the opposite of this. It means something different or more than what is said literally.  For example, He ran like the wind. The phrase ran like the wind is a figure of speech, as the subject “he” in this case is compared to the “wind”.  And this description of how “he ran” allows you to imagine what was happening. It provides emphasis and a freshness of expression. And if you didn’t know what the word “fast” meant, the image in your mind of the wind blowing would help you understand the true intent of the author’s words.

Let me ask you something. Which of these examples is more exciting to read? The runner ran fast or He ran like the wind? I think you would all agree that in the second example, the language provides emphasis. It offers freshness of expression. It brings clarity. It helps build English language.

What are some examples of figurative language? In the English language, there are many figures of speech and many of these words and phrases are commonly used.  You probably know some of these. Maybe even used some. People sometimes invent their own figures of speech, too. You probably have done that. You might have studied some expressions while exploring the language at home, learning English in the classroom or studying ESL online. It is important to learn about figurative language because if you think the text is only always literal, you will often have miscommunication or misunderstanding.  And when you write, your writing style will not be as colorful, expressive or entertaining.

In this blog post, I would like to talk about hyperbole, similes and metaphors. In subsequent writings, I will address additional figurative language – personification, alliteration, onomatopoeia, irony and oxymoron.

IDIOMS – A Short Review Before I begin, I wanted to just mention that idioms are also a figure of speech. Perhaps you have read several of these recent blogs about idioms on the talktocanada.com site:

http://www.talktocanada.com/blog/going-hog-wild-29-more-idioms-related-to-animals/

http://www.talktocanada.com/blog/idioms-and-memories-old-photos-in-the-attic/

http://www.talktocanada.com/blog/50-idioms-the-animals-keep-talking/

http://www.talktocanada.com/blog/a-dozen-idioms-who-said-animals-cant-talk/

http://www.talktocanada.com/blog/how-27-idiomatic-expressions-made-my-day/

http://www.talktocanada.com/blog/how-25-occupations-shaped-the-history-of-english-language-idioms/

http://www.talktocanada.com/blog/52-most-commonly-found-business-idioms-from-the-new-york-times-that-will-help-make-your-business-english-knowledge-spectacular/

http://www.talktocanada.com/blog/most-common-business-english-vocabulary-words/

http://www.talktocanada.com/blog/dotting-my-i-and-crossing-my-t-getting-those-business-idioms-in-order/

Idiomatic expressions are words that are put together to mean something other than their literal meaning. For example, It is raining cats and dogs means it is raining really hard. It does not mean that animals are coming down from the sky. And, An early bird gets the worm means that if you are energetic and get moving, then you can accomplish your goals. It does not mean that a bird got up early to eat a worm.

I don’t know what percentage of the English language is made up of idioms. I can only tell you that the percentage must be really high. Several other languages (German, Mandarin, French, Spanish, Hindi, Portuguese, Russian and Japanese, etc.) use idioms, too. Many people say that the English language uses more idioms than any other language. That could very well be.  Perhaps some of the English idioms are the same in different languages. That would be interesting to find out. If you know of any, feel free to share them with me. Since I have covered the topic of idioms quite extensively in previous writings, I am going to begin with the first type of figure of speech – the hyperbole. Let’s get the show on the road! (Idiom – let’s get going; let’s get on to business).

HYPERBOLE (hy-per-bo-le) is a figure of speech that uses exaggerated statements to create a strong emotional response. It is often used for humor. You might know of a few people who use hyperbole in their everyday speech. In fact, you might be one of those people yourself.  These people tend to report a situation as so much more than it is. Again, for the same reasons as mentioned before. Emphasis. Freshness of expression. Clarity. To help build the English language. Some examples of hyperbole include:

My boss makes tons of money.

I will die if I win the lottery.

He has told his son a million times not to lie.

Let’s face it. None of these things literally happen or will happen, but we get the picture when the figure of speech is used:

My boss has a lucrative salary. He makes lots of money.

I would be so shocked and maybe even faint if I won the lottery.

He apparently has talked to his son many, many times about telling the truth.

The Latin poet Catullus, in one of his most famous poems Catullus 5, crafts a hyperbole in this excerpt:

Suns may set and yet rise again, but

Us, with our brief light, can set but once.

One never-ending night must be slept.

Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred.

Then, another thousand, and a second hundred.

Then, yet another thousand, and a hundred.

Not only does Catullus compare (exaggerate that) the love of two individuals as something that will only end once (in death), but that the physical affection (with kisses) goes on and on and on, too.

I bet you have used hyperbole in your conversational English without even knowing. Have you ever said, I’m starving (when you were hungry) or That book or movie is the best in the world (when you liked the book or movie)?  Those expressions are examples of hyperbole. What I think is interesting about using hyperbole is that it comes from your perspective. Let’s explain it more clearly.

You go fishing with a few friends. When asked by a mutual friend upon returning home, each of you describes the fish you caught. Some will exaggerate more than others to create interest or to try to have you imagine his/her experience or feeling. Then there’s always the person who shares a story of how the big one got away. There’s another person who claims his fish was indeed several feet long. And then, there’s the person who tells it really like it is… he did not get any fish, or his fish was just a “normal” size. You will hear that fishing day described as being the best day ever or the worst day of my life, and everything in-between. That’s hyperbole!

SIMILE (ˈsim-ə-li) is a figure of speech in which things that are different in kind or quality are compared by the use of the words like or as. Common patterns for similes are comparing something (a noun) AS (adjective) AS something:

Her hands were as cold as ice.

The candy was as hard as a rock.

My father’s temper was like a volcano.

Those children fight like cats and dogs.

My grandmother is as blind as a bat.

That state is as flat as a pancake.

Her puppy is a light as a feather.

The story was as old as the hills.

That man is a strong as a bull.

His whiskers were as white as snow.

My teacher is as wise as an owl.

Another common simile pattern is using adverbs or words such as than and as if, for example:

The lion roared as loud as the ocean.

That singer is larger than life.

They laughed as if they were hyenas.

Similes can be made up of other figures of speech. For example, The winning car sped down the track like greased lightning. Greased lightning is a hyperbole. So this simile is made up of a hyperbole.

Like hyperbole, similes are also found in poems:

How like the winter hath my absence been – William Shakespeare

Jubilant as a flag unfurled – Dorothy Parker

Yellow butterflies flickered along the shade like flecks of sun – William Faulkner

They are found in popular songs:

It’s been a hard day’s night, and I’ve been working like a dog. – The Beatles

My heart is like an open highway. – Jon Bon Jovi

Do you ever feel like a plastic bag? Do you ever feel like a house of cards? – Katy Perry

Own the night like the Fourth of July. – Katy Perry

All eyes on me in the center of the ring just like a circus. – Brittney Spears

How could you be so cold as the winter wind when it breeze. – Kayne West

A day without you is like a year without rain. – Selena Gomez

METAPHOR (mt-fôr) is figure of speech in which a word or phrase that ordinarily designates one thing is used to designate another by making a comparison using the word is or are.

The simplest form of a metaphor is saying something is something else. For example, note the metaphors in these song lyrics:

You’re a firework. –  Katy Perry

Life is a highway. – Rascal Flatts

It’s the climb. – Miley Cyrus

You are the thunder and I’m the lightning. – Selena Gomez

That you were Romeo. – Taylor Swift

Metaphors are common in everyday language. The context clues help you with the meaning.  For example, George was a sheep is different from George was a lion. In the first example, we can infer that George was not very strong and that he was shy and weak. Maybe he was a coward and did not stand up for something. Maybe he was embarrassed. We don’t exactly know the situation, but we do get an image of how George acted.  In the second example, George is strong and confident. He is brave. He is a leader. After all, he is king of the world (referring to a lion as king of the jungle).

These are some common examples:

I smell a rat.

You are a pig.

He’s a sly fox.

You are my knight in shining armor.

The storm came like a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

She’s a doll.

It’s a rose between 2 thorns.

You are between a rock and a hard place.

He’s a bad egg.

You are the light of my life.

Like hyperbole and similes, metaphors are also found in poetry as in this famous phrase that begins a monologue from Shakespeare’s As You Like It.  It is spoken by Jaques in Act II, Scene VII. His speech compares the world to a stage, and life to a play:

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women are merely players.

You can see from these examples that using figurative language in speaking, reading or writing does add a flavor to your language. It is more apt to captivate the audience/viewer. It has a deeper connection to them and is richer in meaning.

Please make sure to also check out Part II that was written as a followup to this post.

Hopefully this helped you understand some types and characteristics of figurative language.  Why don’t you listen for some of these examples this week –hyperbole, similes and metaphors?  Write and tell me what you have heard. And, did you use hyperbole, and/or similes and metaphors yourself?  Write and tell me that, too. I will be on cloud 9 (very happy), as proud as a peacock (very proud), and over the moon (very excited) to know that you are moving forward in your English language learning. Remember, these words and phrases really do emphasize, express freshness, and clarify. They help to build English language.

About the author:

Alysia is a co-founder of TalktoCanada. Since founding the online English teaching company in 2006, she has gone on to teach over 10,000 hours of online classes and managed large and small English training projects around the world. During her free time you can find her listening to the latest business book, travelling and going to the gym.