How To Use Figurative Language To Enhance Your Writing

In writing, we use a lot of different figures of speech. In your own writing, you have likely used a simile in a sentence such as It was as hot as the sun. Or perhaps you like creating clever puns such as She brought the planks of wood to the board meeting. Both of these popular types of wordplay are examples of figurative language. Not only is figurative language fun, but it can also really spice up your writing if used effectively. 

In this article, we will:

  • explain what figurative language is
  • give examples of different types of figurative language
  • offer tips for using figurative language creatively

You probably use figurative language already, but learning a bit more about it will ensure that your metaphors, similes, puns, idioms, and hyperbole shine like diamonds. Without any further ado, let’s cut to the chase and learn all we can about figurative language.   

What is figurative language?

Figurative language is language that uses creative wordplay, expressions, and figures of speech to mean something beyond the literal definition of words. 

Figurative language can be described as the opposite of literal language. When we use words literally, their meaning is usually the same as the meaning that appears in the dictionary. For example, the sentence I went to the grocery store literally means that you traveled to a place that sells food. 

When we use words figuratively, on the other hand, they mean something beyond the definitions of the words themselves. Often, we use figurative language to inspire colorful mental images or make our writing and speech more exciting. 

Let’s look at the sentence It was raining cats and dogs. If we read this sentence literally, it says that cats and dogs fell from the sky. If we recognize it as figurative language, we know that the sentence is actually saying that it was raining a lot. As you can see, figurative language requires us to go beyond the literal meanings of words to understand the intent behind them. 

Examples of figurative language

Figurative language includes many different figures of speech and types of wordplay. The following list gives some popular examples of figurative language but is not exhaustive.

1. simile

A simile is “a figure of speech in which two unlike things are explicitly compared.” Typically, similes make comparisons using the word like or as.

Example: She ran as fast as lightning. 

2. metaphor

A metaphor is another form of comparison in which something is said to figuratively be something else.

Example: I am a sloth in the morning until I drink my coffee. 

Learning the difference between a metaphor and a simile can be a walk in the park and as easy as pie!

3. idiom

An idiom is an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its elements.

Example: You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.

4. hyperbole

A hyperbole is an intentional exaggeration.

Example: The dish exploded into a million pieces.

5. irony

Irony is the use of words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of its literal meaning.

Example: I failed my exams and lost my wallet, so it has been a fantastic day so far. 

6. onomatopoeia

An onomatopoeia is a word that imitates the sound it refers to.

Example: The cymbals crashed, and the drums boomed.

7. pun

A person is making a pun when they humorously use words with multiple meanings or words with similar sounds to create wordplay.

Example: The article on fishing lures made by secret societies looked interesting, but it turned out to be clique bait.

When they’re not formal and serious, words are perfect for playful linguistic shenanigans, antics, and amusement!

8. personification

Personification is the act of giving human elements to non-human things.

Example: The leaves danced gracefully in the wind.  

9. metonymy

Metonymy is when the name of something is replaced with something related to it.

Example: He loved music from the cradle (birth) to the grave (death).

10. synecdoche

Synecdoche is when a part of something is used to refer to a whole.

Example: She saw a lot of familiar faces at the party.

Figurative language vs. literary devices

A literary device is an element, like a metaphor, that draws us into a story. Some consider literary devices to be the building blocks of literature. When used correctly and effectively, literary devices give writers a way to infuse their work with detail and hint at larger themes, ideas, and meaning.

Some forms of figurative language, such as metaphors and similes, are considered to be types of literary devices. However, common literary devices may make use of figurative language, literal language, or both to accomplish whatever goal an author has in mind. 

Elevate your writing by getting to know some of the most common types of literary devices.

For example, foreshadowing is a commonly used literary device. When establishing foreshadowing, an author may use actual events to hint at something that will happen later in a story. For example, a heroine may repeatedly see a black cat wandering around before she discovers that the evil sorcerer disguises himself as a black cat.  

Alternatively, a literary device such as symbolism may use figurative language to express meaning to a reader. For example, a group of knights in a story may wear clothing with lions on them, and the author may refer to them as lions in the narrative. In this case, the author is using symbolism; the knights are not literal lions. The author compares them to lions using figurative language in order to emphasize their courage, pride, and ferociousness. 

Often, figurative language and literary devices are used together by writers in order to draw readers in with clever and imaginative use of words, themes, and plots. 

How to use figurative language

Using figurative language in your writing is a great way to catch a reader’s attention and make your text more creative and exciting. However, there are some important tips to keep in mind when using figurative language. 

Arguably the most important part of figurative language is ensuring that your reader understands what you are saying. If you use an expression your reader doesn’t know or make a comparison that your reader doesn’t understand, you have unnecessarily made your writing worse. As a writer, you must always keep your audience in mind. So if you’re unsure who your audience is, it is best to stick to common expressions and make your wordplay easy to understand. 

For example:

❌ Confusing: The pickpocket was a hyena among oryx; it was like shooting fish in a bucket. 

✅ Better: The pickpocket was a wolf among sheep; it was like taking candy from a baby. 

The second example shows how to use figurative language effectively. It relies on common, well-known animals in a simple metaphor and also uses a common expression. Even if a reader hasn’t heard the expression like taking candy from a baby, it is pretty clear from the context that it is referring to easily committing a crime. 

Another thing to keep in mind before using figurative language is the type of writing you are doing. Specifically, are you engaging in formal writing or informal writing? Figurative language is more likely to be used in informal writing. While formal writing does usually allow for figurative language, it is often a lot more difficult to use figurative writing effectively in formal writing. 

In formal writing, lighthearted figurative language such as puns, hyperbole, and whimsical similes will often come across as distracting, unprofessional, and inappropriate. In formal settings, it is best to stick to serious uses of figurative language that don’t detract from the tone or professionalism of the writing. 

For example:

❌ Informal language: The senator had to get out while the getting was good because he knew his argument wasn’t going to cut the mustard. 

✅ More formal: The senator had to cut his losses because he knew his argument didn’t hold water. 

Think you’re one smart cookie? Take the quiz!

If you’re confident you’ve got a good grasp on figurative language, try blowing us out of the water, knocking our socks off, and showing us you’re quick as a whip by acing our figurative language quiz.

Give your writing even more of a leg up by learning some rhetorical devices.

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