Figurative Language

Figurative Language



Study Guide

At the end of this unit you will be able to:
  • define literal and figurative language
  • tell the difference in the two in selected writings


Recognizing Literal Language

You have probably read or heard someone make a comment similar to this one:


The store was literally bursting with shoppers!


In this case, the person is not using the word literally in its true meaning. Literal means "exact" or "not exaggerated." By pretending that the statement is not exaggerated, the person stresses the fullness of the store. Literal language is language that means exactly what is said. Most

of the time, we use literal language.




Recognizing Figurative Language

The opposite of literal language is figurative language. Figurative language is language that means more than what it says on the surface.

It usually gives us a feeling about its subject. For example, one poet writes about the "song of the truck." She does not mean that a truck can actually sing. Rather, she is speaking figuratively. She is referring to road noises as music. By using the word song, and suggesting music, she brings joyful feelings to mind.

Poets use figurative language almost as frequently as literal language. When you read poetry, you must be conscious of the difference Otherwise, a poem may make no sense at all.

For example, can you explain these lines from "The Storyteller"


He talked, and as he talked

Wallpaper came alive.


Of course, the poet is not using literal language. He doesn't mean that the wallpaper literally jumped off the walls. Rather, he is using figurative language. This exaggeration suggests the power of the storyteller.


Sometimes the literal meaning of a line does not make sense, and only the figurative meaning does. At other times, both literal and figurative meanings make sense. As you read poetry, you must be alert for statements with both literal and figurative meanings.



Recognizing Symbols

Sometimes a writer uses something physical, like an object or color, to stand for an idea. The thing that stands for something else is called a symbol. You are familiar with some symbols in everyday life. For example, in street signs, the color red is a symbol of danger.

In writing, a symbol is a type of figurative language. If a writer repeatedly refers to one object, you might suspect that it may be a symbol. Decide whether it might stand for something besides


Literature-Figurative Language-Part 1


Read these lines from poems. Identify the meaning you think fits best.



1. I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear.

a) I am aware of all the activities that make America special.

b) I am listening to a very large chorus.

c) It sounds as if everybody is singing today.


2. We can...leave behind us

Footprints on the sand of time.

a) We can make impressions as we walk on sand.

b) The beach is a good place to understand time.

c) Our lives can affect others in years to come


Read these lines from poems. Tell in your own words what the figurative language in each means. Write your answers.


1. When dreams go

Life is a barren field.