Figurative Language versus Literal Language: Comparison

The term figurative language describes the use of words or phrases that deviate from literal meaning to portray a different or related meaning to the original term. Application of figurative language in communication tends to interfere with the productive thinking and may make others not to contribute in a communication process (Carter, 1998). This study highlights some of the most common types of figurative languages used in communication. The study provides the meaning, application, and examples of the languages.


An idiom can be defined as a group of words, expressions or phrases that have an alternate meaning from the literal language. The main function of an idiom in communication is to describe situations or characteristics that usually surpass the unbiased perception (Cruse, 2004).The common example of an idiom is ‘keeping one’s head above the water’ the meaning of the idiom means the ability to manage a problem or a challenge. This idiom is usually applied when referring to a difficult situation that one needs to overcome. The idiom may sometimes lead to misunderstanding when it is confused with the activity of drowning into water. For instance, when the term is used in an environment where people are swimming, it is possible to misinterpret the meaning of the idiom (Carter, 1998).


Analogy is a comparison whereby ideas or items are compared based on their similarities. This figurative language relies on the relationship between two items or ideas. The main function of analogy is to highlight the level of agreement or closeness between two different items (Cruse, 2004). A good example of analogy is ‘just like a caterpillar comes out of its cocoon, so Tom must get out of the comfort zone’. This analogy compares the caterpillar coming out of its cocoon and Tom coming out of the comfort zone. This analogy is used in situations where someone is being advised to work hard in order to overcome the anticipated challenges in life. The analogy may be misunderstood in situations someone is already suffering or going through hard times (Carter, 1998).


A metaphor is a type of figurative language which compares items or ideas that are completely different. In metaphors, one item or idea is given qualities of another different item to make the look alike. Metaphors are used to create imagination and help in understanding something that may be complex to decode in literal language. The most common example that is used in the society is the phrase ‘broken heart’. This metaphor compares the heart with fragile things such as glasses and bottles. A broken heart is a phrase that is used to describe a situation whereby someone has been emotionally hurt or disappointed. Some people tend to confuse a broken heart with heart problems since they tend to give literal interpretations to the phrase (Cruse, 2004).


Simile is a figurative language that is used to compare ideas or items that have similar characteristics. Similes adopt the words ‘as ‘or ‘like’ in their comparison. The function of similes is to rate the qualities of an object by comparing it with the other. The common simile used in the society is the phrase ‘as beautiful as a queen’. The phrase compares anything beautiful to the queen. The phrase may be misunderstood where somebody has a different opinion on how to rate beauty (Carter, 1998).


The term cliché refers to a phrase that has been overused or has become common place in communication. Clichés are used to describe how things happen at present, future, or past (Cruse, 2004). A good example of cliché is the phrase, ‘time will tell’. The phrase expresses something that may happen in future due to change in time. It is used in circumstances where some secrete will be revealed or someone will come to learn. The phrase may generate misunderstandings in situations where future events are already known.


An amphiboly takes place when the structure of a sentence can be interpreted in two different ways. This figurative language is used in circumstances where one intends to convey to two different meanings from one sentence. For example, ‘they are flying cars’. The literal meaning of the sentence is that there some cars that are flying. The other meaning portrays the people who are flying the cars. When the sentence is taken literally, the second meaning may be lost, which may lead to misunderstanding (Cruse, 2004).

Flame Word

A flame word is a figurative language that is used to insult especially when describing someone’s level of competency, behavior, skills, or exposure. A good example of a flame word is the phrase ‘village boy or girl’. This insult is used to refer to someone who is not exposed to the current trends in the society. The term may be misunderstood especially when it is used in the village where the level of exposure is very low.


A hyperbole is figurative language that relies on intentional exaggeration to pass information. Hyperboles are mainly applicable in circumstances where fiction is important than reality. Hyperboles are similar to metaphors or similes; however, they tend to add unnecessary information that may not be achieved in real world situation. An example of a hyperbole is ‘the grandmother is older than the mountains’. This sentence compares the age of the grandmother to that of the mountains. However, it is very factious to say that she is older than the mountains which have existed even before the grandmother was born. The sentence conveys the information about the grandmother’s age but at the same time exaggerates her age. Hyperboles generate misunderstandings when they are interpreted literally (Carter, 1998).


Euphemism refers to the figurative language that is used to create humor. However, it may sound pleasant or offensive depending on the context in which it is used. In other circumstances, euphemisms may be used to expresses coded language especially where the subject of discussion may be embarrassing. For instance, when talking about things such as death or sex next to a child, corded language may be used to prevent embarrassment (Cruse, 2004). A common example of euphemism is the phrase ‘Asleep with Jesus’. The phrase means death. It can be used in a situation where one does not want to mention the term death when referring to the dead person. However, the phrase may be misunderstood in a situation where it is interpreted literally to mean somebody is sleeping with Jesus. In this case it may generate comedy and confusion in equal measure.


Colloquialism refers to the use of a word, phrases or sentences that are known to people in a particular geographical setting. Colloquialism is used among the people who understand them. They tend to create discrimination in communication and thinking. A good example of colloquialism that is common in the western culture is the phrase ‘red up your messes’. The phrase is used to inform an individual to clean or organize a place that has been used such as a bedroom. This phrase may create misunderstanding when it is used in communication where the one of the individuals is not used to the term (Carter, 1998).


Carter, R. (1998). Vocabulary: Applied Linguistic Perspectives.New York: Routledge.

Cruse, A. (2004). Meaning in language: Introduction to semantics and pragmatics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.