Figurative Language

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Learn the difference between literal and figurative language, and how to interpret different types of figurative language you may encounter as you read.

0:00 Owl: Welcome to Figurative Language, an instructional video on reading comprehension brought to you by the Excelsior College Online Writing Lab.
0:10 Sometimes authors use language to mean something other than its literal definition.
0:15 This type of language is called figurative language.
0:18 Figurative language is non-literal language that needs to be interpreted in order to understand what the author is trying to say.
0:25 Often, it is used to make comparisons or paint a picture in the reader’s mind.
0:31 Figurative language is frequently used in literature.
0:34 For instance, in the classic novel Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, Melville introduces the infamous Captain Ahab by comparing him to a man who has been burnt at the stake.
0:45 “He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness….”
0:59 Of course, Ahab wasn’t literally burnt at the stake!
1:02 The point is that his grim and wasted appearance resembles someone who has.
1:07 Melville is trying to paint a picture of Ahab by making this comparison.
1:11 This technique is called simile.
1:13 A smilie is the comparison of two different things using “like” or “as.”
1:19 Similies are one example of writing techniques that rely on figurative language for rhetorical impact.
1:25 We call these techniques figures of speech.
1:29 A figure of speech is a word or phrase that has a different meaning from its literal meaning.
1:34 To help you identify and interpret figurative language, we’ll go over a dozen of the most common figures of speech in alphabetical order.
1:46 An allegory is a story or picture that has a hidden meaning, usually a political or moral one.
1:53 One example is Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” from The Republic.
1:57 In this text, Plato describes the process of becoming educated by comparing it to a situation in which a person escapes from a dark cave, which represents ignorance and illusion, and enters the light of day, which represents truth and reason.
2:13 A euphemism is a mild, indirect, or pleasant word or phrase used in place of words that are unpleasant or offensive.
2:22 An example is “Letting someone go” instead of “firing someone.”
2:29 An hyperbole is an exaggerated statement or claim not intended to be taken literally.
2:35 An example of hyperbole is the statement, “I told you a million times not to leave your dirty socks on the floor!”
2:42 There are three types of irony.
2:44 One type is verbal irony, which is the use of words to mean the opposite of their literal meaning.
2:50 An example of verbal irony is the sarcastic statement, “That cake is as moist as paper!”
2:56 Sarcasm is a form of verbal irony.
3:00 Another type of irony is situational irony, which refers to the difference between what is expected to happen and what actually happens.
3:09 Situational irony occurs when a fire station burns down or a police station gets robbed.
3:15 Because fire stations are built to prevent fires, and police stations are built to prevent robberies, it’s ironic to see a fire station burn down and a police station get robbed.
3:25 Finally, there is dramatic irony.
3:28 This occurs when the audience is more aware of what is happening than a character.
3:32 For example, in Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour,” the characters believe the recently bereaved wife is crying tears of sorrow because of the loss of her husband.
3:42 However, the audience knows that she is crying tears of joy because she is now free from her husband.
3:49 A metaphor is a comparison between two things that are unrelated but share common characteristics.
3:55 For example, the statement “Your voice is music to my ears” implies that the person’s voice is as pleasant as a song.
4:04 William Shakespeare’s poem “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day” is an example of an extended metaphor in which the narrator compares his beloved to a summer’s day.
4:14 Onomatopoeia refers to words that sound like the things they mean.
4:18 Examples include: bang, bark, clang, click, cuckoo, meow, moo, sizzle, tweet, and whiz.
4:38 An oxymoron is a phrase in which two words with opposite meanings appear side by side.
4:44 Examples include: act naturally, bib baby, deafening silence, jumbo shrimp, original copy, pretty ugly, and random order.
4:58 Personification is the attribution of human qualities to inanimate objects.
5:04 For example, the statement “the daffodils danced and frolicked in the breeze” gives inanimate flowers the human qualities of dancing and frolicking.
5:14 A pun is a play on words that exploits the different possible meanings of a word or the fact that it sounds like another word.
5:22 The statement, “A boiled egg every morning is hard to beat,” plays on the two meanings of the phrase “hard to beat.”
5:29 Taken literally, it means that boiled eggs are literally hard to beat with a whisk.
5:34 However, taken figuratively, it means that boiled eggs are a very good breakfast option with few rivals.
5:41 In the second example, the statement, “The clown held open the door for the other passengers. It was a nice jester,” exploits the fact that the word “jester” sounds just like the word “gesture.”
5:53 A simile is like a metaphor, only it uses the words “like” or “as” to make the comparison more direct.
6:01 Examples of simile are: “my love is like a red, red rose” and “she was busy as a bee.”
6:09 Symbolism is the use of an object, person, place, or event to represent something other than its literal meaning.
6:17 Examples include:
6:18 A dove is a symbol for peace.
6:21 A rose is a symbol for love.
6:24 A torch is a symbol for knowledge.
6:27 A broken chain is a symbol for freedom from tyranny.
6:30 An example of symbolism in literature is Shakespeare’s famous monologue in As You Like It in which he compares the world to a stage where people are the actors and they play various roles throughout their lives.
6:43 “All the world’s a stage,
6:45 And all the men and women merely players;
6:48 they have their exits and their entrances;
6:50 And one man in his time plays many parts,”
6:54 – William Shakespeare, As You Like It
6:57 An understatement is a manner of presenting something as being smaller, less serious, or less important than it actually is.
7:06 For example, a person totals his car in a wreck and tells his friend it was “just a scratch.”
7:13 Interpreting figurative language, such as figures of speech, might seem difficult at first.
7:18 But learning them and even practicing them yourself in conversation and writing will help you improve your reading comprehension by teaching you the difference between literal and figurative language.
7:29 To recap, literal language is language that literally means what it says, whereas figurative language, such as figures of speech, is language that is non-literal and needs to be interpreted.
7:41 By keeping this lesson in mind, as the saying goes, you’ll be as wise as an owl!
7:48 Thanks for listening to this instructional video on Figurative Language!
7:53 Visit the Excelsior College Online Writing Lab for more support with reading and writing skills.

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The following texts were sampled in this video:

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. 1851.


Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. 1623.


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