Figurative Speech and Meanings

Figurative speech includes any word or phrase not intended to be taken literally. Writers and speakers frequently use figures of speech to make prose more lively and memorable, to add emotional impact, or to paint a picture--so to speak--with their words. A reader can deduce the meaning of a figure of speech if he is familiar with the literary devices used to create them. Some figures of speech, however, are unique to a particular language and must be learned.


Writers often describe an object by comparing it to another dissimilar object. The tropes used to do this are categorized as similes and metaphors. A simile compares two unlike objects by the use of the words "like" or "as." For example, the phrase "the box is as light as a feather" assigns a characteristic of the feather (lightness) to the box. A metaphor makes a similar comparison between two dissimilar objects but without the words "like" or "as" to announce the connection. The phrase "the pavement is a frying pan" implies that, like a frying pan, the pavement is very hot.

Sound Effects

The manipulation of sounds in figurative language gives a passage a melodic or rhythmic quality. A phrase structured by repetitive consonant sounds at the beginning of two or more neighboring stressed syllables is called alliteration. A popular example of an alliteration is the phrase "what a wonderful world." The repetition of vowel sounds is termed assonance. Onomatopoeia refers to a word that sounds like the action it describes, like "hiss" or "clink."


When a writer assigns human qualities to a non-human object, animal, or an idea, she is personifying the object. Emily Dickinson personifies a train when she says, "I like to see it lap the miles,/ And lick the valleys up." In the example, the poet depicts the train through actions that it is literally incapable of performing, but the imagery presented invites the reader to think of the train in a whole new light. Other common examples of personification in figurative speech include Mother Earth, Father Time, and the Four Muses.


Users of figurative speech are frequently prone to exaggerate. This literary technique is called a "hyperbole." A writer uses the hyperbole to accentuate or draw attention to the idea he wants to express. The familiar expression "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse" exemplifies the use of hyperbole. In this example, the speaker implies that he is in a state of extreme hunger. Such a statement is not meant to mislead but to highlight the intensity of his state.


Idioms are proverbs and familiar sayings in which the meaning can only be understood by becoming familiar with the saying itself. Idioms are common to all languages, and a reader cannot deduce the meaning simply by understanding the literal meaning of the words. The phrase "he is driving me up the wall" is an example of an idiom in the English language. This common idiom implies that the speaker finds the other person very irritating.

About the Author

Based in Los Angeles, Claire McAdams has been writing professionally since 2006. Her work has appeared in "The Tennessean" and also online at and She holds a Bachelor of Music Degree from Belmont University and a Bachelor of Arts Degree in History and Political Science from King College.

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