"What is Figurative Language?" A Guide for English Students and Teachers

View the full series: The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms

What is Figurative Language? Transcript (English and Spanish Subtitles Available in Video, Click HERE for Spanish Transcript)

By Peter Betjemann, Oregon State University Professor of American Literature and Former Chair

29 October 2019

In both literature and daily communication, many sentences contains figurative language. Figurative language makes meaning by asking the reader or listener to understand something (a "vehicle") by virtue of its relation to some other thing, action, or image (a "tenor"). Figurative language can be contrasted with literal language, which describes something explicitly rather than by reference to something else.

Here’s a very basic example. Let’s say I want to describe how I took a rafting trip down an Oregon river. I could say “our raft bumped through Class IV rapids and I felt scared.” That’s a very literal way of describing my experience.

Or I could say “our raft bucked like wild bronco as we shot through walls of water, my heart jackhammering in my chest.” That’s a highly figurative and much more evocative way of characterizing the experience.

In the figurative version, I used a simile (“our raft bucked like a wild bronco”) and two metaphors (one: “we shot through walls of water” and two: my heart was “jackhammering” in my chest). You can find Oregon State videos that will teach you about simile and metaphor, as well as two additional kinds of figurative language that have complex names but that aren’t hard to understand, metonymy and synecdoche. I recommend that you watch all four videos together, as the similarities and differences between simile, metaphor, metonym, and synecdoche will give you a great overview of how figurative language works to characterize all kinds of vivid experiences.

Want to cite this?

MLA Citation: Betjemann, Peter. "What is Figurative Language?" Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms, 29 Oct. 2019, Oregon State University, https://liberalarts.oregonstate.edu/wlf/what-figurative-language. Accessed [insert date].

Further Resources for Teachers

Other terms referenced in this video are explained in the following links.

"What is a Metaphor?"

"What is a Simile?"

"What is Metonymy?"

"What is a Synecdoche?"

"What is a Vehicle and a Tenor?"

A good type of story to explore these different kinds of figurative language is an allegory, in which two stories--a literal story and a figurative story--are superimposed upon one another. Consider the story "Young Goodman Brown" by Nathaniel Hawthorne, which contains all four of these terms.

Writing Prompt: Identify at least one metaphor, simile, synecdoche, and metonym in Hawthorne's story. When you have finished making these assignments, identify the vehicle and tenor of each example of figurative language. Finally, write a brief explanation of how these vehicles and tenors work together (or, perhaps, against one another) to enable allegorical meanings to emerge in this story.

Interested in more video lessons? View the full series:

The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms