What is figurative language? (With types and examples)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 22 June 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

The language you use is a basic form of communication that helps you influence how others perceive you and improve your work. Using figurative language to explain complex issues in writing allows you to share your ideas as clearly as possible. Learning how to put foreign concepts into familiar terms that others can easily understand may help you improve how you communicate with them. In this article, we explain what is figurative language and list 14 of its common types.

What is figurative language?

Understanding the answer to 'What is figurative language?' can help you improve your writing and how you communicate with others. The term 'figurative language' refers to the unconventional or abstract use of words to create comparisons that introduce more clarity. When using elements of figurative language, such as metaphors or hyperboles, you use words or phrases that don't have a literal meaning, but they help you define the concepts or objects you're talking about in a way that's easier to understand for others.

For example, if you're a writer, you can use figurative language to engage your readers and help them relate to the concepts you're sharing through your posts, articles or books. This is because figurative language often provokes thinking and works great when you want to introduce some humour to your texts. You may also use it to emphasise other emotions, for instance, to make a fiction scene more dramatic.

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14 types of figurative language, with examples

There are various elements and types of figurative language most writers use to engage their readers. Consider including these common types of figurative language in your speeches or writing:

1. Metaphor

A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two relatively unlikely things. You can use it to describe something as if it was something else. It makes sense to use metaphors when you know that a reader understands the meaning and connection between the two things you compare. For example, the phrase 'they cried a river of tears' doesn't refer to an actual river of tears. It just emphasises someone's discomfort and crying. Here are some other common examples of metaphors:

  • Time is money.

  • Love is a battlefield.

  • You are my sunshine!

  • I'm drowning in a sea of grief.

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2. Simile

A simile is also a comparison between two unlike things, but one that uses clear connecting words 'like' or 'as'. Similes often appear in everyday communication. In writing, they often serve as an element that creates an interesting connection in a reader's mind. A good example of a simile is the phrase 'I slept like a log'. It simply informs the reader that someone slept well, but it introduces an element of surprise that makes the information more fun to receive. Other examples of similes include:

  • The carer was as gentle as a dove.

  • He was graceful like a gazelle.

  • My son is as tall as a skyscraper.

  • He was wily as a fox.

3. Personification

Personification is a figure of speech that projects human qualities onto inanimate objects, animals, elements of nature or abstract ideas. Using personification to describe things allows you to help the reader use their imagination to build a connection or feel certain emotions towards those things. Here are some good examples of this type of figurative language:

  • Time flies.

  • The sky misses the sun at night.

  • My alarm clock yells at me every morning.

  • The last slice of pizza is calling my name.

4. Hyperbole

A hyperbole is an exaggerated statement you can use to emphasise something, make a clear point or introduce some humour to a situation. Similarly to similes, hyperboles are a natural element of everyday communication people use without noticing it. A good example of hyperbole is, 'I would die for you.' When someone says this, it doesn't mean they're literally ready to die, but this statement allows them to emphasise the feelings they have towards the other person. Other examples of hyperboles include:

  • I have a million things to do today.

  • I'm drowning in paperwork.

  • It's as light as a feather.

  • I'm so hungry I could eat a horse.

5. Onomatopoeia

The term 'onomatopoeia' refers to the use of words that actually sound like the objects or actions they describe. In many cases, they imitate the sound associated with those objects. This term also refers to sound effects, such as 'tick-tock' or 'ding-dong'. Using figurative language of this type in writing allows you to add some reality to your stories. Here are some other examples of onomatopoeia:

  • The fireplace hissed and crackled.

  • You can hear the hum on the engine.

  • I ordered food online with one click of a mouse.

  • Please do not beep your horn after 8 p.m.

  • The pig squealed.

6. Euphemism

A euphemism is the use of mild or indirect words to describe something unpleasant or embarrassing. It substitutes the literal expression that some people may consider too harsh or offensive. For example, it occurs when someone says 'passed away' instead of 'died' or 'let go' instead of 'fired'.

7. Paradox

A paradox is a contradictory or absurd statement that, in reality, makes sense or is true. For example, a paradox may refer to a person that combines contradictory features or qualities. Here are some examples of paradox:

  • Save money by spending it.

  • Deep down, they're really shallow.

  • It's the beginning of the end.

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8. Alliteration

Alliteration is the repetition of identical sounds in successive or close syllables within a group of words. You can use this method of writing to emphasise the meaning of something. Readers may pay special attention to alliterations, such as 'wicked witch', because they sound nice and are easy to notice in text. Other examples of alliteration are:

  • Black bug bit a big black bear.

  • Carrie's car crawled her couch.

  • Daniel's dog is drinking dirty water.

9. Synecdoche

A synecdoche is a figure of speech where a part of something refers to the whole of it or vice versa. Using synecdoches allows you to emphasise certain parts of a whole and highlight their importance in a story. For example, you could use the word 'wheels' to refer to a whole vehicle: 'I want to show you my new wheels'. Here are some other examples:

  • England beat India at cricket.

  • Can you spare your wallet?

  • He's behind bars.

10. Pun

A pun is a play on words you can use to achieve a humorous effect in speech or writing. A joke of this type exploits the different meanings of words or uses words that sound alike but have different meanings. There are different types of puns, including homophonic, homographic or compound puns. Examples of puns include:

  • A bicycle can't stand on its own because it's two-tired.

  • Trust a glue salesman, they always stick to their word.

  • She thinks my runny nose is funny, but it's snot.

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11. Oxymoron

Oxymoron is when contradictory terms appear together. In many cases, it's a rhetorical device that illustrates a point or reveals a paradox. What's interesting about this type of figurative language is that the word 'oxymoron' is also an oxymoron, as it derives from two Greek words 'oxus', which means sharp, and 'moros', which means dull. Here are other examples:

  • It's pretty ugly.

  • It's my only choice.

  • You're clearly confused.

12. Allusion

An allusion is an indirect reference to a text, person, place, thing or concept that has historical or cultural significance. It allows the reader to make a meaningful connection to something that allows them to better understand the meaning behind your speech or text. A good example of allusion is the phrase 'Chocolate is my Achilles heel', which means chocolate is your weakness.

13. Analogy

Similarly to a metaphor and simile, an analogy is the use of comparison to highlight a point or similarity. What's unique is that an analogy expresses a cognitive process of transferring information from one subject to another. For example, 'Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get.'

14. Idiom

An idiom is a phrase that you can use to express a figurative, non-literal meaning of something. Using idioms allows you to make your writing more dynamic or present complex ideas in a simpler way. Here are some other examples of idioms:

  • Break a leg.

  • Piece of cake.

  • Up in the air.

  • Stabbed in the back.

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