Figurative Language

Jack Miller and Michaela Pernetti

Figurative language is special language that uses certain words or expressions to express a special effect or meaning that is different from the literal interpretation. Understanding figurative language is an imperative part of understanding and interpreting literature. Here, we’ve included some common forms of figurative language and accompanying examples.

  • Allusion: an indirect or passing reference to some event, person, place or artistic work, the nature and relevance of which is not explained by the writer but relies on the reader’s familiarity with what is thus mentioned. Within a text, one part of the text may allude to another part of the same text. Literary allusion is what we will deal most often with: an instance where one text refers to another. An example of an allusion is in Frankenstein when Victor thinks that theres no way “Dante could have imagined something so horrible,” alluding to Dante’s “Inferno.”


  • Apostrophe: A rhetorical figure in which the speaker addresses a dead or absent person, or an abstraction or inanimate object. In classical rhetoric, the term could also denote a speaker’s turning to address a particular member or section of the audience. Apostrophes are common in Shakespeare’s plays, like in Hamlet when Hamlet talks to the skull.


  • Hyperbole:  The counterpart of understatement, hyperbole deliberately exaggerates conditions for emphasis or effect.  The hyperbole must be clearly intended as an exaggeration, and should be carefully restricted.  For example, “There are a thousand reasons why more research is needed on solar energy.”


  • Irony: A subtly humorous perception of inconsistency, in which an apparently straightforward statement or event is undermined by its context so as to give it a very different significance. There must be a gap between what is said and what is in fact true. But the gap has to be significant: it can’t be merely a factual error, nor even a lie; the irony depends on the audience’s recognition of the gap. Examples: verbal irony involves the discrepancy between what is said and what is really meant, as in sarcasm. For example: “This Motel 6 is Kensington Palace.” Dramatic irony is achieved when the audience knows more about a character’s situation than the character does, foreseeing an outcome contrary to the character’s expectations, and thus ascribing a sharply different sense to some of the character’s own statements.


  • Metaphor:  An analogy identifying one object with another and ascribing to the first object one or more of the qualities of the second. For example: He is a night owl.


  • Metonymy: A specific type of metaphor in which the thing chosen for the metaphorical image is closely associated with (but not an actual part of) the subject with which it is to be compared. A famous example of metonymy is the famous Edward Bulwer Lytton quote, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Here, the “pen” stands for “written communication” and the “sword” stands for “military aggression.”


  • Personification: Personification is a representation of an animal, inanimate object, or abstraction by using human attributes such as form, character, feelings, behavior, and so on. Personification is relatively easy to employ and commonly used in literature as well as popular culture. In the song New York, New York, Frank Sinatra calls the New York the “city that doesn’t sleep.” This saying gives human qualities (the ability to sleep) to New York City.


  • Pun: A play on words in such a way as to suggest two or more meanings or different associations, or of two or more words of the same or nearly the same sound with different meanings, so as to produce a humorous effect. The following pun works in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and French:
    • Where do cats go when they die? Purrgatory.
    • ¿De dónde van los gatos cuando mueren? Purgatorio.
    • Para onde os gatos vão quando morrem? Para o purgatorio.
    • Dove vanno i gatti quando muoiono? Nel purgattorio.
    • Où vont les chats quand ils meurent? Au purchattoire.



  • Synecdoche: A figure of speech by which something is referred to indirectly. Synecdoche can be used by naming only some part or constituent of it– for instance, “breadwinner” to represent food in general. Less frequently, this device is employed by naming some larger entity of which it is a part– for instance, in the Olympics you might hear that the United States won a gold medal, when it really just means a team or athlete won a medal, not the country as a whole.


  • Synesthesia: A blending or confusion of different kinds of sense-impression, in which one type of sensation is referred to in terms more appropriate for another. Common synesthetic expressions include the descriptions of colors as “loud” or “warm,” and of sounds as “smooth.” In “Ode to a Nightingale,” John Keats uses synesthesia in the line “tasting of Flora and the country green.”‘


Introduction to Literary History and Interpretation Copyright © by Jack Miller and Michaela Pernetti. All Rights Reserved.

Share This Book