Doyle Online Writing Lab

Figurative Language

Some definitions and examples

Metaphor: A metaphor speaks of something as though it were something else. There are three kinds of metaphor:

  1. The descriptive metaphor speaks of something concrete by referring to something else concrete. Take for example: "It was a fine day. The trees swayed like dancers lost in reverie. As they waltzed the afternoon away the breeze continued to wind its mournful tune."
  2. ( The abstract metaphor explains an abstract principle by comparing it to something more concrete. For example: "My cup runneth over." (The writer of this biblical Psalm speaks of the life that submits to divinity in terms of a cup that is full and continues to be filled.)
  3. The embedded metaphor uses a verb or a noun in a non-literal fashion. For example: "The darkness threw itself upon the land with a sigh of relief." (Obviously darkness cannot really throw itself upon the land-- it only seems to do so. The metaphor "The darkness threw itself upon the land" is embedded because it merely suggests that the night is like a lover overwhelmed after a long absence or a man exhausted after a hard day at work.)

Simile: A simile is a particular kind of metaphor that speaks of something as similar to something else. You can usually recognize similes by the presence of the word "like" or "as." For example: Alice is a very beautiful young woman: she is as pretty as a rose.

Hyperbole: A hyperbole is an exaggeration so great that no one could possible take it literally. For example: "He made my skin crawl." (We don't expect that the speaker in such a case be physically affected by her encounter with another person: she simply doesn't like him and has expressed the extent of her dislike by exaggerating).

Understatement: An understatement seeks to express a thought or impression by underemphasizing the extent to which a statement may be true. Understatement is the opposite of hyperbole and is frequently employed for its comedic value in articles, speeches, etc. when issues of great importance are being discussed. For example: "Jen had stolen his watch, put a dent in his car, and kept him from spending time with his buddies. Needless to say, Jack had acquired a less than favorable opinion of his ex-girlfriend."

Irony: Irony involves making a statement that means the opposite of what it states literally. Suppose you happen to be experiencing a streak of bad luck: your house has been robbed, your cat just died, your best friend is mad at you, and this morning you backed your car into a tree. You cry in exasperation: "Well that's just great!" Clearly you don't mean that you're happy about this sequence of events: you have just made an ironic statement. You may also encounter irony in pieces of literature or anecdotes. One of the most famous examples of literary irony is Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet: it is ironic that the lovers die as a result of the plan that was meant to ensure their spending the rest of their lives together.

Synecdoche: In synecdoche a part of something represents the whole. For example: "One does not live by bread alone." The statement assumes that bread is representative of all categories of food. Or: "All hands on deck!" The statement equates the workers with the part of the body that performs much of their work-- the hands.

Metonymy: In metonymy some attribute of what is being described is used to indicate the whole. When referring to a king, for example, one may instead say "the crown"-- that is, the physical attribute that is usually identified with royalty.

Some things to watch out for when employing figurative language:

Beware of clichés! Clichés are usually forms of figurative language ("dead as a doornail," "cutting edge," "an axe to grind," "a bone to pick," etc.). Clichés often contain antiquated or obscure terms that do very little to clarify topics of discussion. If you say that an issue is as "dead as a doornail" what does that mean? What does a dead doornail look like? Is a reader who has heard the phrase a thousand times going to take the time to make a comparison between the issue and the cliché? • Avoid extended metaphors. Occasionally you will come up with a metaphor that illustrates your point so completely that you want to share your ingenuity with the reader. A metaphor should make one point very quickly: its purpose is to clarify and stimulate. Extended metaphors tend to make readers less and less impressed with the comparison the longer it lasts. The same imagery just gets redundant and uninteresting after a while.

Avoid mixed metaphors. If you attempt to explain a point using a string of three or four metaphors the reader is likely to get either (1) confused as to which model is the most accurate, or (2) exhausted by reiterations of an idea that they understood the first time through. If the reader is examining your argument critically it is also possible that he will observe inconsistencies among the various metaphors. In any case, you ought to be more interested in discussing the topic directly; figurative language can help you along, but should never become more important than the argument itself.

Thus, you should never base an argument on figurative language. No analogy is flawless. Things can be compared on certain levels but there is a point at which every analogy breaks down. If your reader is paying attention to your rhetoric he will be able to refute the thesis of your paper quite easily.

BIBLIOGRAPHY (for more information)

Marius, Richard. A Writer's Companion. New York: McGraw-Hill Inc., 1995. 171-90.

Also Online

UVic Guide to rhetorical terms (index of terms, including concise definitions of figurative language terms discussed above)

"Literary Devices," by Cecelia Cook (Ch. 8 of Free to Change)

From PAL: Perspectives in American Literature: A Research and Reference Guide (Appendix F: Elements of Poetry-- a Brief Introduction)