How to Identify Figurative Language

Reading could become very boring if authors only wrote what they meant or described things exactly as they are. Figurative language gives poetry, fiction and other writings a bit of spice and flair. This language often appeals to the senses and describes things in a way that allows the reader to imagine what those things look, feel, taste, smell or sound like.

Common Figures of Speech

Before you can identify figurative language, you must first be able to define the different figures of speech and recognize examples. Metaphors and similes are two figures of speech used most often. A metaphor describes an object or person as if it is something else; a simile does the same thing but uses the words “like” or “as.” A metaphor would state “Her eyes are the sea,” while a simile would be phrased “Her eyes are like the sea,” according to Professor Debora B. Schwartz of California Polytechnic State University. Irony makes a statement opposite of what it means literally -- saying, “Oh, that’s wonderful!” after getting a parking ticket is an example of irony, according to the Doyle Online Writing Lab at Reed College.

Other Figurative Language Devices

The the Doyle Online Writing Lab contrasts the devices hyperbole and understatement. Hyperbole is a grand exaggeration, such as the phrase, “I have a ton of homework.” Opposite the hyperbole is an understatement, a figure of speech that underemphasizes what is true, an example of which is, “The middle of a freeway isn’t the best place for children to play.” There a still more devices. Personification gives human characteristics to animals or inanimate objects. An idiom is an everyday saying that holds a meaning other than its literal one, such as the example offered by South-Western City School District: “a piece of cake.” Synecdoche uses a part of something to represent a whole, and metonymy substitutes the name of something with an object or attribute associated with it, such as, according to Schwartz, saying “the crown” in place of “the king.” Periphrasis uses a descriptive phrase in place of a single word.

Spotting Figurative Language

Some figures of speech are easy to recognize -- similes, for example, use the words “like” or “as.” Start by looking at a short block of text and highlighting anything you think could be a figure of speech. Many figures of speech use imagery or unusual comparisons rather than literal phrases, so certain phrases might jump out at you as being odd or interesting. Consider writing some phrases using figurative language to enhance your understanding of the different figures of speech.

Reading Critically

Read a piece of text and ask questions that require you to think about the work critically. For example, if you read about a character who has a bad day, and he says, “Well, hasn’t this just been a wonderful day,” do you think the character meant what he said literally? Knowing the character had a bad day, you are likely to rationalize that he must be using a figure of speech -- in this case, irony. Consider another text that calls red flowers “crimson cotton balls” or describes the sea as “throwing itself against the shore.” You will begin to realize the author did not mean that the flowers were literally cotton balls or that the sea could throw itself.

About the Author

Cara Batema is a musician, teacher and writer who specializes in early childhood, special needs and psychology. Since 2010, Batema has been an active writer in the fields of education, parenting, science and health. She holds a bachelor's degree in music therapy and creative writing.

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