Figurative Language – Definition, Types & Examples

Figurative Language Definition and Examples

Have you ever felt so tired that “you could sleep for years,” or maybe your boss set a deadline you have to meet “come rain or shine”? If you have heard or used these expressions before, chances are you have already used figurative language despite not knowing or noticing it. Figurative language, or figures of speech, is more common than you think. We use the figurative language every day. It regularly comes up in literature, news, media, pop culture, and even your work life. When used accurately and wisely, figurative language can be an excellent communication skill to possess in your workplace. But what exactly is figurative language? And what are the figures of speech commonly used in everyday speech? We will take you through figurative language, an excellent and creative literary device that can refine how we read, write, and speak. Stick with us as we go through figurative language, why it should be used in the workplace, and examples of figurative language commonly used in everyday speech and writing.

What is Figurative Language?

Figurative language refers to the usage of words or phrases in a way that goes beyond its conventional or literal definition. It is used to convey complex meaning, provide clarity, and make your writing that much more interesting. The aim of using figurative language is to reinforce or heighten its descriptive effect. It utilizes conventional phrases to convey something without directly stating it.

Figurative language uses devices known as figures of speech, like metaphors, idioms, and similes, to draw comparisons or describe something in greater detail. It particularly aids when you are trying to convey a specific message or emotion to another person. For instance, your mom asked you to defrost the chicken before returning home, but you forgot to do so. To this, you might say, “Oh no! My mom is going to kill me!” Of course, your mother wouldn’t actually take such extreme measures if you forgot to defrost the chicken. However, this expression uses figurative language, which helps to express the urgency of the situation you are facing and the pressing nature.

Figurative language is common across all types of writing and spoken languages. Figurative language plays a key role in communicating to its readers. Readers create new connections and associations between images, concepts, and objects that had almost no correlation or association to begin with, which allows them to understand things better, visualize concepts and pictures more vividly, and discover new ideas. The figurative language also helps when attempting to explain complex and abstract ideas by associating them with more tangible and concrete ideas that are easier to grasp. It can add more nuance to ordinary, run on the mill ideas, and make them more dynamic and consequential.

It is important to know the distinction between figurative language and figures of speech. Figurative language refers to the language that employs the figures of speech. Figures of speech are specific literary techniques or devices that help convey ideas and images through unconventional language use. Imagine if a figurative language was like swimming; the speech figures would be the different swimming moves that make up the sport. It is a commonly believed misconception that vivid description or imagery is figurative language. In truth, the use of figurative language is aimed to create vivid imagery.

This is why figurative language is a critical component of all literature. Authors and poets frequently employ these literary devices to determine the exact emotion they are attempting to convey, which they would otherwise be unable to convey with the conventional and literal use of words. Brands often employ figurative language to persuade you to purchase their product. Politicians often employ figures of speech during speeches to connect with and persuade their audience. 

Figures of Speech and Figurative Language

To fully comprehend figurative language, it is equally important to know figures of speech. It particularly helps if you know the two key kinds of speech figures, which are tropes and schemes. Essentially tropes are figures of speech that play with the literal definitions of words and phrases. Schemes, on the other hand, play with the typical structure and arrangement of words and phrases.

Why should you use figurative language in the workplace?

Figurative language is used in offices and workplaces commonly as a professional communication skill. Figures of speech are used depending on different contexts: who you are communicating with and the subject of the discussion or conversation. When you present facts and need to cut to the chase immediately, cluttering your speech, discussion, or presentation with figures of speech would not be a good idea. But there are situations where you can use figurative language when attempting to make a point or even impress clients. It should be used in certain situations to improve your communication skills visibly.

  • During Presentations

Based on what you are giving a presentation on, you can use expressions and phrases like “We have accomplished many goals this year, and here’s the icing on the cake, we have acquired shares of a major competitor!” This is an example of how you can use figurative language while giving a presentation, but you can be creative and do much more. Expressions like this during presentations can help convey good or bad news and can be used to impact your coworkers or employees. Perhaps you are disappointed in your employees’ performance; you can use figurative language to express this disappointment, making them want to do better next time. And if you are delighted with their performance, figurative language can be used to let them know how well they have done, which will inspire them to keep up their pace.

  • Delegating Tasks

When you are delegating and explaining specific tasks, figurative language can effectively and clearly communicate details of the task to help them understand better. For instance, if you ask someone to finish a particular task, you might ask them to “make haste slowly,” which is an oxymoron and means that the task at hand should be completed quickly but still maintaining its quality. Using figurative language, you can give clear instructions to people while handing out tasks and avoid any miscommunication or misunderstandings.

  • Presenting a Proposition or Idea

When you propose a new idea, you can use figurative language to communicate your idea and its significance effectively. Using figurative language can make your idea sound appealing and impressive to your clients and coworkers.

Common Types of Figures of Speech Used

There are countless figures of speech typically used in figurative language, some of which include:

  • Metaphor

A metaphor is a speech figure that contains an implied comparison between two things or concepts that may or may not have any association. A metaphor applies words or phrases typically associated with a type of item or concept to apply it to a new or different type of thing or concept that is not normally associated with that wording.

Metaphors typically are not true literally, but they are not lies or erroneous statements. They are not meant to be interpreted in a literal way. They are a type of figurative language that aims to communicate a meaning different from the conventional and literal meaning of the word or expression used. They are used in literature and creative writing, speech, normal writing, and everyday conversations.

Metaphors are used to serve several functions. They are used to visualize intangible and unfamiliar concepts and offer explanations for them. They make writing more interesting and engaging. They also create vivid imagery that leaves a lasting impact on the readers.

Examples of Metaphors:

  1. Metaphors Expressing Emotions: Metaphors can often help verbalize and express the intensity of emotions that an individual is experiencing.

    • Her words cut deeper than a knife. This metaphor is expressing how hurtful and upsetting the words of a person are for another person. They could have used “I’m hurt,” but this metaphor compares the emotional pain and hurts a physical wound caused by a deep knife cut to express emotional pain.
    • I’m boiling with anger. This metaphor expresses anger by comparing it to something boiling and hot. This indicates the intensity of their anger.

  2. Metaphors for Describing Behavior: Metaphors can be used to describe behaviors.

    • He is way out of line. This metaphor is expressing someone’s behavior as being beyond the accepted and established limits or boundaries.
    • They have a bubbly personality. This metaphor is explaining how cheerful someone’s personality is.

  3. Miscellaneous Metaphors: Other popular metaphors and expression include:

    • Cherry-picked. This metaphor expresses how a certain product or group of people to provide services is carefully chosen and best.
    • Chaos is a friend of mine. This famous metaphor by Bob Dylan expresses how someone is familiar with and enjoys chaos.
  • Similes

A simile is a speech figure that draws comparisons between two things or concepts in an interesting way. The objective of a simile is to create an interesting link or connection between two objects. A simile is one of the most commonly used types of figurative language.

Similes and metaphors are often mistaken as one another. The key difference between similes and metaphors is that similes use the words “like” and “as” to make a comparison between two things, while metaphors compare ideas and things without the use of “like” or “as.” Similes intend to describe one item by comparing it to another item that may be seemingly unrelated.

Examples of Similes

  1. Similes in Colloquial Language: Similes are often used in everyday conversations to convey meaning faster and effectively. These include:

    • She is as busy as a bee. Bees are typically associated with being hardworking, so this expression indicates that an individual is hardworking and has a lot of work to do or is busy.
    • This box is as light as a feather. This expression indicates that the box is extremely lightweight, much like a feather.

  2. Similes to Make Writing Interesting: Similes can help make our language and writing more engaging and interesting. By drawing comparisons in creative ways, writers can describe ideas and things by painting pictures in readers’ heads. Reading similes can create descriptive and vivid imaginative images that the audience can dive into. This also makes reading that much more fun and enjoyable. Some common similes used in writing include:

    • They were as brave as a lion. This indicates the person was brave and courageous, qualities typically associated with lions.
    • My love for you is as deep as the ocean. This simile expresses the intensity of love that a person feels for another person.

  3. Miscellaneous similes: Similes are commonly used everywhere, from pop culture to literature. Some other popular similes include:

    • It tastes Like Awesome Feels. This simile may sound familiar since it is the company slogan of Doritos. 
    • My heart is like an open highway. This song lyric from Bon Jovi expresses the openness of their heart and feelings, and they are ready to accept and give love to anyone.
  • Idioms

Idioms are a group of words or phrases used as a common saying or expression whose meaning is different from their literal and conventional meaning. Idiomatic expressions are not meant to be taken literally. For instance, if someone uses the expression, “the cat is out of the bag,” it does not mean that there was a cat in a bag that has now escaped. Rather, it means that what was being kept a secret has now been revealed.

Idioms cannot be understood or deduced simply by studying the words or sentences. Idioms typically vary based on different social groups, as well as cultural and language differences. Each culture and language has its own idiomatic expressions. Let’s take a look at some common idiomatic expressions in American colloquial language and some idioms from across the globe.

Examples of Idioms

  1. Common American Idiomatic Expressions: These examples give an insight into how idioms cannot be solely deduced based on their literal meaning; they are varied based on their context.

    • After listening to what she said, I decided to leap of faith. This expression doesn’t actually mean the person is taking a leap, but rather means you believe in something or someone without knowing the possible outcomes and hoping for the best.
    • He wears his heart on his sleeve. You cannot literally wear your heart on your sleeve, but this expression means that the person openly shows his feelings and emotions rather than keeping them hidden inside.

  2. Idioms Around the Globe: Every language has its own unique set of idioms and expressions. Some of these include:

    • An elephant made out of a fly. This idiom from the German language means to make a big deal out of something rather petty and small.
    • My cheeks are falling off. This is a Japanese expression, which is used to express how delicious the food is.

  3. Miscellaneous Idioms: Like different cultures with their unique set of idiomatic expressions, smaller social groups tend to adopt their own unique expressions. Actors, performers, and writers have idioms unique to their craft. Some of these include:

    • Break a leg. Typically used by performers, this expression is another way to say “good luck” before a performance.
    • Sink your teeth into. This expression is used to indicate your excitement to begin reading something new.
  • Hyperbole

Hyperbole is a figure of speech that uses extreme exaggeration to state or make a point, as opposed to understatement. Hyperbole is extensively used in literature and everyday language, but should not be used in non-fiction works, research papers, or presentations. Authors and writers typically use hyperbole for the humor and comedic effect and to make characters more dynamic.

Unlike metaphors and similes, hyperbole does not draw comparisons but rather makes exaggerated and ridiculously unrealistic overstatements that are not intended to be taken literally. In literature, hyperbole is typically employed for comedic relief, get the reader’s attention, or display two contrasting things.

Examples of Hyperbole

  1. Hyperbole in Everyday Language: Hyperbole is used colloquially in our everyday language to drive a point or emphasize an idea. Some examples of commonly used hyperbole include:

    • I am so hungry I could eat a horse. This hyperbole is used to express the intensity of hunger one is feeling by ridiculously overstating one hunger.
    • After seeing the angry dog, he ran faster than the speed of light. Of course, it is not possible to run at the speed of light, let alone faster. But the hyperbole implies the person ran extremely fast.

  2. Hyperbole in Advertisements: When used correctly, hyperbole can effectively persuade consumers and the audience to invest in a product. Some hyperbole from advertisements include:

    • The best a man can get. This slogan is from Gillette and implies that this product is excellent for men.
    • It adds amazing luster for an infinite, mirror-like shine. This is from Brilliant Brunette shampoo advertisement and suggests it can make the customer’s hair very shiny.

  3. Miscellaneous Hyperbole

    • “It’s raining, men.” This hyperbole is from the song “It’s raining men” by The Weather Girls, which implies that the singer has many male suitors instead of men falling from the sky.
    • “I would fly to the moon and back.” This is from “To the Moon and Back” by Savage Garden and suggests the person would be willing to do something impossible and unrealistic to be with another person.
  • Personification

Personification is a speech figure used to attribute human qualities and characteristics to something nonhuman or not even alive. Personification is a type of metaphor and a commonly used literary device where a thing or idea is given human characteristics and emotions or is spoken of as human. It uses the non-literal and unconventional use of language to convey ideas that are relatable to the readers.

It typically serves to make vivid descriptions of nonhuman objects to help readers understand ideas and concepts and sympathize with or connect emotionally with nonhuman entities. It relies on imagination and visualization for understanding. Writers also use personification to make their writing more interesting and engaging and make it relatable.

Examples of Personification

  1. Personification in Literature: Poets and authors often use personification to make ideas and concepts more relatable for their readers. Some examples from the literature include:

    • “Ah, William, we’re weary of the weather,’ said the sunflowers,” This is borrowed from Two Sunflowers Move Into the Yellow Room by Nancy Willard, where the sunflowers are seemingly holding a conversation with famous poet William Blake, which is typically a human attribute.
    •  “A host, of golden daffodils; Beside the lake, beneath the trees, Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.” This is taken from the poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” by William Wordsworth, where he personifies the daffodils as “dancing” in the lightly flowing breeze while the poet watches them dance.

  2. Miscellaneous Examples: Some other examples that can be commonly used in everyday language include:

    • The sun glared at me through the sky. Here the sun is personified by implying it is “glaring” at the individual to express how sunny and hot the weather is.
    • He couldn’t finish his work because his laptop was throwing a fit. Here, the laptop isn’t actually throwing a fit but is facing trouble working properly, which is personified by the human tendency to throw a fit or tantrum.
    • The toast jumped out of the toaster. This personifies the toast popping out of a toaster after it’s ready and comparing it to the human attribute of jumping.
  • Synecdoche

Synecdoche is a figure of speech where a word or phrase that typically refers to a part of something is replaced to represent its whole. Synecdoche is useful as it allows a person the emphasize specific parts of a whole and calls attention to its importance by replacing it for the whole. It also emphasizes the power of associative and referential thinking, as readers can deduce that the part is used to stand in for the whole.

There are several synecdoche forms, but all of them always have to do something with substituting parts and wholes. Let us examine the popular types of synecdoche with examples.

Examples of Synecdoche

  1. A Part to Represent a Whole: A synecdoche can use a part of something to substitute for the whole, which the most common way of using synecdoche. Some examples include:

    • All hands on deck. This phrase usually used during sailing uses the part of people by using the word “hands” to substitute for the whole people, which is the crew. This phrase typically means the entire crew is required to work on the task at hand.
    • The daily bread. This replaces the whole of the food and replaces it with bread to represent the whole. It can be used to represent food in general, and in some cases, may even represent a daily wage or money earned.

  2. A Whole to Represent a Part: A synecdoche can be used as a whole to substitute for a part. Some examples of this include:

    • The Daily Mail published a new story. Here, the news publication’s name, “The Daily Mail,” represents a specific story by a specific journalist.
    • Life is not treating me well. Here, an individual may have certain troubles and hardships due to specific reasons, but they express that they feel like the entirety of life is only hardships and barriers for them.

  3. A Specific Class to Represent a Whole: A synecdoche may use words as a class to substitute for other words. Some examples of this include:

    • Coke. Many people often use the word “Coke” as a substitute for any variety of cola.
    • Band-Aids. Although Band-Aid is a specific product, it is often used to refer to all other forms of medicated adhesive tapes and bandages.

  4. Material to Represent an Object: The material used to create or make something, or materials used to make something in the past, can often replace a whole object. Some examples of this include:

    • “Can you pass me the silverware?” In this sentence, silverware is used to refer to the word cutlery, even though they are no longer made out of silver.
    • She was pressing the ivory keys. The word “ivories” or “ivory” is commonly used to refer to piano keys, although they are no longer made out of ivory.
  • Allusion

An allusion is a figure of speech where references of a person, place, thing, event, history, religion, or even pop culture are used to call something to mind. These references can be overt and direct, or indirect, but the intention is to enhance the reader’s understanding. An allusion is typically made under the assumption that there is a common or shared body of knowledge between the author and the reader, which is required to identify and understand the allusion. Allusions make references to something completely outside of the discussion topic, so readers can fail to pick up on them if they don’t understand or know the reference point.

Allusions are extremely helpful as they help convey a great deal of meaning and information through lesser words and sentences. For instance, one might say, “Cake is my Achilles’ Heel.” Here the allusion is made to Greek mythology, particularly to Achilles, who had a weakness in his heel. Therefore, the person is trying to say that cake is their weakness.

Allusions are creative and crafty ways of conveying a message and telling a story. They allow the writer to avoid boring and bland writing and can even often be used for the reader to run their minds to try and figure out the meaning and the aim of the author.

Examples of Allusions

  1. Literary Allusions: Many popular works of literature have used allusion to convey a theme or message. Some of these include:

    • “Mildred ran from the parlor like a native fleeing an eruption of Vesuvius.” This is a line from Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury that alludes to the volcano Vesuvius eruption in 79 A.D. Pompeii that destroyed the entire city its residents. This allusion is trying to express that Mildred’s character in question ran as if her life depended on it.
    • Pequod. The 19th Century whaling ship in the book Moby Dick by Herman Melville was called Pequod. This is a direct allusion to the Native American tribe known as Pequot. During the Pequot War that lasted between 1636 to 1637, the tribe almost went extinct. Naming a ship after a group of people almost driven to extinction foreshadows the destruction of the Pequod by the whale and everyone on it except the narrator.

  2. Biblical Allusions: The Bible happens to be one of the most widely read and studied texts of all time. It is also the source of heaps of allusions in both literature and everyday language.

    • “Thank you for your assistance Good Samaritan.” This is an allusion to the Good Samaritan story from the bible, who was the only person who willingly stopped and offered his assistance to someone seeking help.
    • “This place is beautiful, just like a Garden of Eden.” In the Bible, God created a paradise called the Garden of Eden, especially for Adam and Eve.


These are just a few examples of figures of speech used in figurative language. Still, there are countless other speech figures used in literature and everyday speech, which you may have used before without even knowing! Figurative language is excellent in conveying a clear meaning and should be used in workplaces and other contexts to make your writing and speech engaging and colorful.

Also read What Is Passive Listening?

Figurative Language – Definition, Types & Examples

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