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Figurative Language vs Literal Language

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Figurative Language versus Literal Language

The English language encompasses a myriad of different techniques to convey ideas and feelings. There are two ways that we use language: we use language literally, and we use language figuratively. When we use language literally, we actually “say” what we want the sender to hear. What actually comes from the speaker’s mouth can be comprehended and no add-ons are needed. Sometimes being literal is not enough to convey meanings or thoughts. At these times, we use figurative language, or figures of speech. Often, people will use figurative language to enliven ordinary conservations; thus, turning a dull conversation into an interesting conversation. There are several types of figures of speech that we sometimes employ in conversation: idioms, analogies, metaphors, similes, clichés, amphibolies, “flame words”, hyperboles, euphemisms, and colloquialisms. Below I will define each term of speech and how they are sometimes used in communication. According to The American Heritage Dictionary (1991), an idiom is “a speech or expression of a given language that is peculiar to itself grammatically or that cannot be understood from the individual meanings of its elements”. A common idiom that we may recognize is that “friends come a dime a dozen”. This does not mean that twelve (12) friends can be purchased for a dime; but what it does suggest, is that friends can be made anywhere. Depending on the context of the sentence the use of an idiom can help the receiver to understand the speaker’s feelings and emotions. An analogy is a figurative part of speech that allows the speaker to make comparisons of two similar things. We often hear the analogy of the heart to a pump. We know the function of a pump is to keep something going. Like a pump, the heart is responsible for pumping blood throughout our bodies to help it function. If the heart stops pumping, we will die. Just as if a water pump stops pumping there are sure to be car problems. A metaphor is a word or group of words used to make a comparison of two unlike things in which the phrase can replace the literal meaning. In other words, metaphors help to transmit one meaning to the other. Metaphors help us gain deeper insight to the speaker’s emotions and feelings. We use metaphors when we say things like “the wind tossed us like grains of sand”. While we know that we are much heavier than grains of sand, but the use of likening ourselves to grains of sand lets the message receiver know that the wind must have been blowing hard. The use of metaphors should not confuse the audience, but enhance the message so that the audience may connect with the speaker. The text Kirby and Goodpaster (2007) says that we become geniuses in communicating when we know how to make effective use of metaphors. Similes are like metaphors in that they make comparisons of two unlike things also. Typically when we hear similes we also hear the word “like” or “as” somewhere in the phrase. It’s because two things are being compared to each other. For example, “She is as cold as ice” suggests that someone is not pleasant, for whatever reason. Pat Benetar composed a song “Love Is a Battlefield”, in which she likens being in love to that of fighting on a battlefield. Similes can be useful in communicating, especially when they add depth to the message. Similes should only be used to strengthen the message; otherwise, it is appropriate to merely select words that help to convey the correct feeling(s). Next we will talk about clichés. The American Heritage Dictionary (1991) defines a cliché as “a trite or overused expression or idea”. These expressions are over-exaggerations of the truth. They are often used to enliven messages; but often bore the message receiver. At one time, clichés were considered to be inventive and witty expressions that could be used in communicating; but many have lost their effectiveness over time because they have been used too often. We often hear phrases like “He was as quiet as a church mouse” or “She was green with envy”. These examples are used so much, that their over-use has made them ineffective. The speaker should be aware of their audience when using clichés, because their use can make the speaker seem thoughtless or lazy. Most of the time, clichés are not needed because they can confuse the message receiver. In place of using clichés, the writer or speaker should evaluate the effectiveness of the cliché and adjust accordingly. An amphiboly is a phrase that can be interpreted in more than one way; and they are sometimes hard to identify when writing. Our text (Kirby and Goodpaster, 2007, pg. 109) suggests that amphibolies can cause ambiguity when used incorrectly. This means that the wrong understanding is gained or the reader is left confused. For instance, “A reckless motorist Thursday struck and injured a student who was jogging through the campus in his pickup truck” (Kemerling, 2011). The way that the sentence is structured suggests something that is impossible to do; and it’s just not logical. Typically amphibolies occur due to improper use of punctuation, so communicators must ensure that they use good sentence structure so that ideas are communicated properly. “Flame words” are words that can have a positive or negative impact on the reader. An example of an inflammatory phrase is “You’re as dumb as dirt”. While not a very nice thing to say to anyone, these words will definitely incite a negative emotion. In professional writing “flame words” should not be used because of their nature to create the wrong emotions. Again, the writer/speaker should always know their intended audience when creating messages so that no one is offended. A hyperbole is an “an exaggeration or extravagant statement used as a figure of speech” according to The American Heritage Dictionary (1991). Hyperboles are used to help expand the readers mind. For instance, the statement “His feet are as big as boats” suggests that his feet were so big that they could actually be boats. We know this not to be true, but the reader gets a glimpse of just how big his feet must be. Using hyperboles in conversation can be useful if they will create the desired emotions within readers. Clella Jaffe (2010) defines as such “Euphemisms are words or phrases that substitute an agreeable or inoffensive term for a more embarrassing, unpleasant, or offensive word” (pg.75). Writers use euphemisms in the place of saying something politically incorrect. For example, talking about sex openly can be offensive and/or embarrassing. In conversation one may make reference to sex as “making whoopee” or “having relations”. The use of one, or both, euphemisms conveys the message, but in a less obtrusive way. The goal of using euphemisms is to create the desired interpretations with readers. The last figure of speech that we explore is a colloquialism. Colloquialism is a figure of speech that is informal, but common. In layman terms, colloquialisms are informal expressions that make comparisons of two things that have no similarities. The use of colloquialisms depends on the audience. They are terms that one may use in casual conversation. They should not be used in formal conversation because they can be offensive. For example, I use the phrase “It’s colder than a witch’s tit out here” with family and friends. In a formal setting the choice of words could make the audience uncomfortable. Colloquialisms can be used, but the writer/speaker must be careful not to offend with their intended perceptions. We’ve discussed what figurative and literal language is; and we have also provided a few examples and discussed some instances of when they should be used to help convey messages. Language is the medium at which we are able to think and communicate. Evaluating the audience is perhaps the most important step in becoming an effective writer/speaker. The importance of keeping the audience entertained, as well as enlightened will prove to be rewarding for the both parties.

Jaffe, C. (2010). Public speaking: Concepts & skills for a diverse society (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Wadsworth – Cengage Learning.
Kemerling, G. (November 12, 2011). Fallacies of Ambiguity. Philosophy Pages. Retrieved January 27, 2013 from
Kirby, G. R. & Goodpaster, J. R. (2007). Thinking (4th ed.). (Edition for Strayer University) Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall.
The American Heritage Dictionary (2nd. Ed.) (1991). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

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