Figurative vs. Literal Language, Essay Example

Figurative language asserts the creative potential of language. Language here is not used in any conventional manner, where words simply signify specific objects, i.e., the word tree only means tree. Rather, figurative language takes on an entirely new meaning. This, however, does not signify that figurative language is ultimately obscure: figurative language is also communicative, since it wishes to convey meaning. The following essay shall look at forms of figurative language in terms of both its creativity and communicability.

An idiom employs both linguistic creativity and communicability. For Giora (2003), idioms are “more familiar than their literal interpretation” (p. 137), which means that the words that compose an idiom are understood in their figurative as opposed to literal sense. For example, the English idiom “to spill the beans” (Giora, 2003, p. 137) means to reveal some information that is to be kept secret: here, the literal meaning of the terms has nothing to do with its idiomatic function. But proficiency in the English language community means understanding the figurative as opposed to the literal meaning; it is when the idiom is literally understood that leads to misunderstanding. Idiom is thus both creative and pragmatic: It is not a literal use of language, simultaneously this does not mean it is nonsensical.

Analogy employs creativity and communicability, although in a form that is arguably more literal than the idiom. Analogy invites a comparison between terms that thereby intends to communicate, creating a “context” (Giora, 2003, p. 37) where the terms being used in the analogy to foster a “coherent interpretation.” (Giora, 2003, p. 37) As Lord (1854) notes, one of the commonest examples of analogy is to use “head” for “chief” (p. 218): the connection is made between the head, understood to be the seat of the individual will, to the chief of a “body” of individuals. The meaning of this analogy is misunderstood if it is taken literally; furthermore, it can be understood incorrectly if the context has not been established, i.e., that the speaker intends to make such an analogical comparison.

Metaphor uses figurative language to confer a quality to an “object.” What makes it metaphorical is that it is not literally “in” the object. Hence, consider the well known metaphor of a concrete jungle: here, the metaphor takes one quality– “concrete” of the object in question, i.e., the urban environment, – and then combines it with something that is not found in the urban environment, a literal “jungle”, so as to convey the “wildness” of the urban environment. Both communication and creativity exist in the metaphor; the latter is misunderstood once again when the figurative aspect of language is omitted in terms of only literal interpetations.

Simile employs the comparison present in metaphor, but with a clearer link between the terms being compared. Hence, an example of a simile, such as “he is stubborn like a mule”, adds the term “like” to show that a clear comparison is being made. The “like” can even be interpreted here as attempting to prevent a literal interpretation of the simile: the individual himself is not a “stubborn mule”, but is like a stubborn mule. The misunderstanding occurs when either the comparison is not grasped, for example, some one does not know that a mule is stubborn, or that the structure of the simile itself is misunderstood.

A cliché is when figurative language becomes overused. Hence, the initial creative aspect of figurative language is destroyed by constant repetition. Consider the phrase: “think outside the box.” The example is cliché because it is constantly repeated; simultaneously, the very meaning of the phrase implores creative thinking, but is also an example of someone not creatively using language, but merely employing an already existing example of figurative language. The misunderstanding of cliché occurs when someone does not know that this phrase itself is a cliché.

Amphiboly also differs in terms of figurative language to the extent that it involves a confusion, which seems to be the exact opposite of communicability of language. Amphiboly is based on “the structural sequencing of words in a sentence.” (Terzidis, 2005, p. 105) Hence, an example of amphiboly is that of an oracle who stated to a king: “if you cross the river, you will destroy a great empire.” (Terzidis, 2005, p. 107) The confusion here is whether the king will destroy his own empire or the empire of his enemy, and to the extent that the statement is figurative, what such a destruction of a great empire means. The amphibology almost invites its own misinterpretation; however, it is based on communication and creativity, since information is being conveyed in an unconventional linguistic form.

The  “flame word” has emerged with the Internet age as a figurative form of provocation. One of the most common “flame words” is “noob”: it is meant to communicate the naivety or inexperience of the one to whom the term is addressed. The term is therefore communicative, but also creative, since the provocation here takes a figurative form. The flame word becomes misunderstood when it fails to communicate this very provocation, perhaps because of an ignorance of the particular flame word used.

Hyperbole is an exaggeration that cannot be literally true. Hence, if one is exhausted he or she may state that “I could sleep for a thousand years.” The creative use of hyperbole in terms of years is not literal, but communicates the fatigue of the speaker. Once again, the misunderstanding of hyperbole is based on its literal as opposed to figurative interpretation.

Euphemism is employed when wants to reduce the severity of a term’s meaning. Hence, in military jargon the term “collateral damage” is used for “civilian casualties.” The attempt is to communicate a particular reality which, for whatever reason, is not desired to be directly or literally communicated, therefore figurative language is employed to minimize the trauma of the initial statement. Euphemism becomes misunderstood when the logic behind its use is taken too literally: i.e., one therefore does not understand that actual civilian deaths occurred in a given military action.

Colloquialism belongs to informal discourses. Hence, for example, the use of “butt” instead of “cigarette” is a colloquial way of stating the latter. To misunderstand the colloquialism is therefore to strip it of its informal context and place it within the standard and literal interpretation of language, for example, if one asks for a “butt” and therefore receives a used cigarette butt in return.

The above examples demonstrate the diversity of forms of figurative language. Simultaneously, however, they can be defined in terms of both their relation to creativity of language and communicability of language. Although figurative language differs from standard or literal language, this means it is creative but not incomprehensible. Rather, figurative language becomes misunderstood when language is reduced to only its literal aspect.


Giora, I.R. (2003). On Our Mind: Salience, Context, and Figurative Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lord, D.N. (1854). The Characteristics and Laws of Figurative Language. New York: Franklin Knight.

Terzidis, K. (2006). Algorithmic Architecture. London: Routledge.