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Thursday, August 3, 2017

Figuring out figurative language

Would you rather someone show you something or tell you about it?

Both choices can be put to good use. For instance, if you want to teach other people about a subject unfamilar to them, you'd explain as literally as possible the topic you're addressing. But, if you want the person to experience what you've been through or have come to believe, you'll need to show them.

A figure of speech figures on showing this in terms of that.

When someone speaks figuratively, they’re using some kind of picture or figure to show an abstract concept or something that cannot otherwise be seen. For instance, “love” cannot be envisioned without a picture or symbol such as that big red Valentine heart commonly used to show it.

Figurative language enlivens all genres of writing. Not only does a figure of speech add imagery, it usually uses less words than if you were trying to explain.

For example, 1 Corinthians 13 takes a whole chapter to define true love. Even then, the apostle Paul tossed in some metaphors to explain what love is not: “sounding brass” (i.e., an overbearing boom!) or a “tinkling cymbal” (too faint to be witnessed or heard.)

When someone speaks literally, they rely on factual data and dictionary definitions. Using 1 Corinthians 13 again, but this time for examples of literal speech, we read: “Love is kind” and “Love never fails.” Those statements accurately describe the standard for love, but literal definitions just don’t show what love is the way a loud, headache-producing gong figuratively shows what love is not!

Literal language depends on dictionary definitions and, often, flat statements that can come across as blah, boring, or uninspired.

Figurative language needs pictures to show This in terms of That.

For instance, if I wanted to tell you about the beauty of the evening sky, I’d have trouble doing that without figurative language such as “the lavendar film of sunset.”

Or to describe the big, fat, white clouds on the horizon, I might figuratively speak of “cauliflower clouds.” (If those clouds were literally made of cauliflower, wow! We could eat the sky!)

To include figurative speech in your poems and other writings, figure on using:

Metaphor – This IS That, such as “God is a strong tower.” If you said, “God is strong” or “God protects me the way a strong tower would,” those flat statements would be literally true. Literally speaking, though, God is not actually a strong tower to be worshipped. But, figuratively speaking, I can truthfully say, God is a strong tower to me, and you’ll immediately get the picture.

– Similar to metaphor, simile points out similarities. Simile says This is LIKE That. For example, “The puppy is like a tornado.” Similes can also use “as.” i.e., “That dog is as active as a tornado.”

– once-fresh similes gone stale, for example, “quick as a bunny,” “sly as a fox,” or “hard as a rock.” However, you can have fun playing with a cliché until it becomes fresh again by substituting another picture for the faded one. Since this takes time, thought, and observation, it’s not as quick as a computer search.

– a concrete object used to symbolize or illustrate a concept, belief, or principle. For example, a flag symbolizes patriotism and loyalty to a particular country. The six-pointed Star of David is a symbol for Judaism, and a cross symbolizes Christianity.

To be effective, figurative language focuses on one picture at a time. Therefore, each surrounding word needs to be consistent with that image. These aren’t to be just any images, though, but ones your readers will instantly envision and understand.

Mary Harwell Sayler, ©2017. For more on figurative language, these e-books will help: Christian Poet’s Guide to Writing Poetry and the Poetry Dictionary For Children and For Fun.


  1. This is great! I get caught up with cliches. I have noticed poets who use it yet are applauded then others who use it and don't. I try not to use them and sometimes they slip through. I recently wrote a poem that one editor didn't mind my slip and stated so and another didn't like it. These were friends of mine who edit for journals. So when you say cliche I'm a little bit confused. Could you clarify?

  2. A cliche is a simile that was fresh when new but is now in such common use, it's stale.