What are the types of figurative language?
How often do you hear people use phrases that don’t really make sense? For example, when someone is about to perform, someone might say: “Break a leg!” Or when it’s raining a lot, people say: “It’s raining cats and dogs!” Or if you’re having a bad day, you might say it’s the worst day ever. These are all examples of figurative language. There are many types of figurative language, and many ways to use them.
Students usually start learning about figurative language in elementary school. But figurative language, or figures of speech, are used in daily life. They’ll probably recognize similes before even knowing what the word “simile” means.
Read on for:
- the formal definition of figurative language
- why we use these phrases in class, in stories, and in life
- types of figurative language used as literary devices
- examples of figurative language
Once your students master these 12 concepts, they can spice up their writing and their everyday conversations.
Define figurative language.
Figurative language is any use of language to say something more than what the literal words on the page mean. You can use figurative language to be more creative, colorful, or express a certain mood when you write or talk. You can also use it to explain more complicated subjects, or to compare and contrast different objects or ideas.
You can also use more than words to convey meaning. The ordering of words, the way words sound when put together, and different forms of grammar can be tools for you to say something more in writing or speaking.
Related: Students identify figurative language through close reading. Learn what close reading is and how to teach it.
2 Main Types of Figurative Language
There are two overall categories or types of figurative language: tropes and schemes.
A trope is any word, phrase, or image that is used to express something other than their literal meaning. You use words you already know, and use them in a different context to convey something less well known.
For example, you know what an eye is and what it looks like. So, when you hear about the “eye of a needle,” you can probably tell which part the “eye” is on a needle:
Schemes, on the other hand, rely on the sounds of words and phrase/sentence structure to create rhythm, musicality, and emphasis. When you craft schemes, you don’t write in a “normal way.” Instead, you intentionally turn away from standard sentence structures to create artful writing.
Schemes are often used in poems, speeches, and plays because they capture the rhythm of schemes better than just seeing them on paper. They sort of “jump out” at you when someone is reading them aloud.
You can combine tropes and schemes in a single statement or creative work.
8 Types of Figurative Language that Use Tropes
Comparing and contrasting can be kind of boring. But with similes, your comparisons get a lot more interesting.
Similes are the comparison of two or more different things using “like” or “as.” When you write similes, you compare some characteristic or feature of something you (and your audience) knows about to some other thing. Similes function as context clues that give your audience information about an item, subject, or idea.
For example: “Today is so wonderful and everyone is being so nice to me – it feels like it’s my birthday!”
Just about everyone understands how you’re supposed to feel on your birthday. You feel happy and special. So in the example above, you know this person had a great day because they compared it to their birthday. It wasn’t their actual birthday, but the day had some of the same characteristics of their birthday: it was wonderful and they felt special.
When and how to use similes:
- You are comparing two or more things.
- The sentence or phrase can or should be creative. Don’t use a beautiful simile in a science paper (unless it’s somehow appropriate.)
- You have to know about the objects, subjects, or ideas you are comparing. Don’t compare the taste of a pineapple to the taste of a dragon fruit if you’ve never actually tasted them!
- The comparison makes sense.
- The comparison tells the reader/listener exactly what feature or characteristic is being compared.
- Try to make one comparison at a time, so you and your audience don’t get mix up similes or get confused.
Metaphors are exactly like similes, except they don’t use the word “like” or “as.” You still compare two or more different things.
Take the following example of someone describing a girl they like:
In this example, the simile tells us that the girl is a close match of what they consider the perfect match for them.
But the metaphor implies that she is perfect.
Simile vs. Metaphor: Which one should you use?
It’s a personal choice, really. There’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to creative writing.
Similes are a more direct comparison of one feature. You specifically say which feature you’re comparing and the reader/listener can follow along. Metaphors are more subtle. You don’t tell your audience exactly the point you’re trying to make. This gives your statement more power and flow, but can lead to misinterpretation.
For example: “Her smile was like a bright ray of light” is a specific comparison. “She was a ray of sunlight on an otherwise cloudy day” is less direct, but it’s also more memorable.
When and how to use metaphors:
- You are comparing two or more different things.
- Those different things share some common feature(s).
- You want your statement to flow more than it does when you use a simile.
- The reader will be able to interpret the statement’s meaning without a lot of extra help.
- You are familiar with the objects, subjects, or ideas you want to compare.
- You are trying to convey a stronger, more matter-of-fact image or feeling to your audience.
People have certain feelings, character traits, and abilities that other creatures and objects do not. Some people are neat, while others are messy. Sometimes we feel happy, and at other times, we feel like the world is ending. (That’s a simile right there!) We can dance and laugh. And most other beings and things don’t do these things.
Personification is when we describe something nonhuman using human characteristics. Personification is one of several types of figurative language used to describe pets or things in nature. You can also use it to describe abstract ideas like love, death, or beauty.
You can use human sounds, actions, feelings, etc., when describing anything nonhuman. Here are some more examples of personification to give you more of an idea:
- The stars whispered the secrets of the universe – but they were too far away, and I could never hear them.
- Our back door had been broken for most of my life. It told visitors the tale of a lifetime of forgetfulness and neglect.
- The afternoon moved slowly. As it got closer to 3 p.m., time crawled forward, and looked about ready to stop.
- My dog was a senior citizen at that point, with an old man groan and no desire to go anywhere.
- The phone whined in the background, crying out for someone to pick it up.
- Love is a beautiful and dangerous thing.
When and how to use personification:
- You are describing a specific action, feature, or characteristic of something nonhuman.
- This feature is relatable to people.
- You are writing something creative.
- Using this type of figurative language will add to the creativity of your writing without confusing your audience.
Related: Here are various types of character traits and how to teach students about them.
Hyperboles are big exaggerations. They are, if not the first, then one of the first types of figurative language children use. They especially exaggerate how long or far away something is.
We use hyperboles in our day-to-day language, and in writing. Young students can note when they hear or use hyperboles and bring examples back into the classroom. They start to notice how hyperboles can be used in funny, emotional, and serious ways.
More examples of hyperbole:
- Her high pitched voice could shatter glass.
- This is a never ending pile of homework.
- Their determination gave them the strength to move mountains.
When and how to use hyperboles:
- You want to really emphasize or point out an idea or feeling.
- Think about the quality that you want to emphasize. It can be anything: volume, beauty, emotion, size, length, etc.
- Think of a really big, exaggerated way to describe that quality.
- The piece is persuasive or creative.
There are certain expressions that we just seem to understand, despite the fact that they just don’t make any sense. They’re used so often that you can catch the context without knowing the origin of the statement.
Common examples and their actual meaning:
- She had cold feet before the wedding. = She was nervous and unsure about her decision.
- My friend spilled the beans, and now everyone knew. = My friend told a secret.
- I give up. = I quit what I’m doing.
- He’s on thin ice right now. = He is in a dangerous or risky situation, with the potential for things to go wrong.
Idioms are different than slang. Almost everyone in a culture, regardless of age, can understand an idiom, because almost everyone around them uses it. With the rise of social media, many slang terms are branching out, almost reaching idiom status. But rapidly changing trends make it hard for slang to spread out and stick in a language.
When and how to use idioms:
- You want to quickly convey an idea, characteristic, situation, etc., without going into too much detail.
- There is an idiom to match what you are describing. For example, if you want to describe how hard it’s raining, you can use “it’s raining cats and dogs.”
- You (usually) are trying to exaggerate or create an image in your audience’s mind based on the idioms they already know.
Most importantly, your audience has to be able to recognize the idiom. If you are writing for a global audience, or a younger audience that does not know many idioms, then don’t use them in your work.
Oxymorons are the pairing of two or more words or phrase that appear to be opposites. Or, they might actually be opposites. They are put together to create a new meaning. You can use oxymorons to tell a joke, to add some creativity to your work, and to make your audience stop and think.
You can’t just pair any number of opposite things together and expect it to make sense. The terms you choose have to produce a new meaning when you put them together. For example, a “damp dry washcloth” doesn’t work together because a washcloth just can’t be wet and dry at the same time.
But you can be clearly confused. This is because “clearly” can be taken as “obviously,” and it can be obvious that a person is confused by the look on their face or inability to complete work that checks for understanding.
When and how to use oxymorons:
- You want to emphasize or add dramatic effect to your writing/speaking.
- You’re looking for a new way to describe something.
- There are two or more things that appear opposite, but can work together so that you can build an oxymoron.
- The oxymoron makes sense to your audience.
For more oxymoron examples of figurative language, click here.
In literature, an allusion is an expression that references another person, event, artwork, myth, story, moment in history, or other cultural work. You do this to tell your audience something without actually saying it.
To create an effective allusion, you have to rely on an audience’s outside knowledge.
To give an example in literature: If an audience is reading at a third grade level, then a piece of writing can’t reference Catcher in the Rye. Many high schoolers and young adults, on the other hand, have read this book as a part of their curriculum. In that case, you could reference Holden Caulfield when talking about another character’s personality.
Allusions that students would relate to:
- She’s such a Gemini. This person is being described using the qualities people commonly associate with Gemini, an astrological sign.
- If she’s Beauty, then I must be the Beast. The speaker is referencing the Disney film, Beauty and the Beast, to talk about how they see themselves in comparison to someone else.
- I’m addicted to Starbucks. This person is referencing a popular coffee chain to describe what they are addicted to.
When and how to use allusions:
- You want to describe a characteristic, feature, situation, concept, etc. without talking about it in-depth.
- There is a cultural work that your audience has probably seen or read about before.
- It’s a good reference that fits the genre, mood, and flow of your writing.
Allusions are like idioms because you have to make your references accessible to your particular audience, both age- and culture-wise.
Imagery is pretty much what it sounds like: an image, one that you put in your audience’s mind using words. It helps your audience follow along with a narrative and recognize different characters in a scene. But mostly, imagery exists to make a narrative or description more original, personal, interesting, and memorable.
Read these two sentences to see how imagery can enhance a moment:
- He grabbed my arm: a sentence describing what happened in a generic, unmoving way.
- He collapsed in my arms, his nails digging into me as if he were going to float away: a powerful snapshot of a moment (that was created using a simile.)
You can create imagery using in-depth literal description, and by using any other types of figurative language.
To create vivid, interesting imagery that adds to your work, you have to be specific. You can use the 5 senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch) to explain to your reader/listener what it would be like to be in a setting or situation.
When and how to use imagery:
- The piece you are writing can be creative, or at least very descriptive.
- You want to move your audience in some way. Imagery is a great way to connect with your readers, as you’re trying to “put them in the moment” and/or relate to your characters, topic, situation, etc.
- Use adjectives to describe, especially ones that relate to the 5 senses.
- You can use other forms of figurative language. Just don’t get too complicated, or you risk losing your audience’s attention.
4 Types of Figurative Language that Use Schemes
Onomatopoeias are words that describe sounds. The words themselves sound like the noise you are trying to describe. Some really common sound words:
- Animal sounds: moo, oink, meow, woof, cluck, howl, hiss
- Electronic sounds: beep, ring, ping, click, tick tock
- Movement sounds: rustle, crash, crunch, splat, plop, drip, boom, blare, bang, flick, thud, vroom, zap, zoom, rev
- Talking/”people” sounds: shush, glug, belch, burp, hum, clap, groan, smack, sniff
Use these words whenever you want to describe something/create imagery using sound.
Alliteration is a phrase or string of words that all start with the same consonant sound. You use it to create rhythm and musicality in poetry, speeches, or text.
When and how to use alliteration:
- You want to create rhythm in your writing or speaking.
- It won’t be too hard to read, especially when you’re reading poetry. (Slow down while reading if you have to. It’s better to read slowly and correctly, rather than quickly and make mistakes.)
- Your alliteration makes sense. The words you choose are connected to what you’re trying to talk about or describe.
Pro tip: If you or your students have difficulty coming up with words, then look up “words that start with.” Then type in whatever letter you want to use for your line of alliteration.
Related: Students need to learn phonemic awareness to use alliteration.
Assonance is similar to alliteration. However, in this case, you repeat vowel sounds in your phrases.
Examples of assonance:
- Go slow over the road. (long ‘o’ sound)
- We need to see the sea this evening. (long ‘e’ sound)
- I might die of fright. (long ‘i’ sound)
You use assonance in the same way you use alliteration.
Consonance is very similar to assonance, except now the focus is on repeating consonant sounds.
Examples of consonance:
- There is no right time to imitate the teacher. (‘t’ sound)
- He struck a streak of bad luck. (‘k’ sound)
- Soothing a seething sailor seems harder than I first suspected. (‘s’ sound)
Alliteration, assonance, and consonance are all examples of figurative language that can be used to create rhythm and momentum.
Teach in creative ways.
Give students examples of figurative language first, so they can get familiar with new words, syntax, and meanings.
But then, take it one (or a few) steps further.
Challenge them to use figurative language in different context, from informative articles to persuasive essays, from narratives to spoken word poetry. Give them different devices to use, and even pair devices to use together. For example, ask students to try and combine a simile and alliteration, or a hyperbole and an allusion.
Give them a chance to use these devices on paper and aloud – after all, that’s what figurative language was made for.