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An Introduction to Figurative Language

EF_Team [Moderator] 41 / 222 15  
Sep 9, 2006   #1
In order to be successful in English or literary studies at any level, and for that matter, to be considered a good writer yourself, at least a basic understanding of figurative language is absolutely essential. This series will explore the basic types of figurative language that you are likely to encounter in high school and early university settings; without knowledge of these, getting good grades is not a likely outcome, and succeeding in upper level literature courses will simply not happen.

Although many teachers and professors do underline the importance of various kinds of figurative language, not many take the time to define it and explain its importance as a whole. Figurative language can most efficiently and simply be seen as a way of writing and speaking that goes beyond (or even against) the denotation of given words, and begins to explore their connotations. Denotation refers to the literal, dictionary meaning attributed to words or phrases, whereas connotation refers to the various associations that have been added to the words and phrases through their use in a given context. A simple example shows the difference between these two modes of language use: If I make the comment "He is a house," on the level of denotation (the literal level) I am stating that the person to whom I am referring is actually a house. This does not make much sense, unless the person is standing in such a way as to provide a living-place for some life forms, which of course isn't likely what I mean.

Since this statement does not really make sense in a literal, denotative way, I am prompted to look at it as an example of figurative language. The man is obviously not a house literally, so by saying that he is, I mean that he shares some characteristics with a house. In this case, the person is likely very large, and because I have heard this phrase being used in society previously, I know what the speaker means even though, objectively speaking, the comparison of a person to a house could mean dozens or hundreds of things. Figurative language therefore gains its power through use and common social recognition.

Identifying figurative language in general is not too difficult once you have a good definition in mind, but for many students, its function remains puzzling even after they know what it is. After all, if you want to state that a person is large, why not just say that he is large, rather than comparing him to a building of residence? This perfectly legitimate question is deceptively complicated and vitally important to literature itself; in fact, it could be argued that without figurative language, literature ceases to exist.

Think for a moment about a lab report or text book. The focus here is on making the message as clear as possible, and on eliminating misunderstanding. As a result, such writing tends to be clear and concise, but also at least somewhat dull. Compare this to a novel, or a poem, where figurative language is everywhere. The writing can be far more confusing, but it also tends to be far more entertaining and emotionally involving. The reason for this difference is that when I state a bare fact or sentence, I grasp it immediately, and I don't need to think about it much after I read it; I can simply move onto the next sentence. My purpose here is to glean information, and the writer's style of straightforward writing is intended to make this as easy for me to do as possible. In the case of literary writing, however, the purpose is not simply for the writer to convey information, nor is that my purpose in reading. I read literature for enjoyment, to have an interesting encounter with characters I don't know in a different time and place. The goal then is not to press through quickly, but to become involved and to enjoy the experience. As a result, authors employ figurative language. This causes me to move more slowly, lingering on the details, sounds, and interestingly unexpected comparisons that I come across. It allows me to focus on and enjoy the text for itself, rather than for the information I can get from it, meaning that I am able to have an emotional experience, rather than just undergoing a purely mental exercise.


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