Figurative Language

Figurative Language goes beyond the literal meaning of the words on the page, computer screen, phone screen.

Figurative Language is

  • the use of non-literal language, including the use of allusion, hyperbole, idioms, metaphor, personification, simile. For instance, a sentence like “Writing Commons is the cats meow“, which is an idiom, doesn’t make much sense if you literally translate the words of the sentence.

Figurative Language differs from concrete, sensory language in the sense that the diction is more abstract: there’s greater separation between the signifier and the signified.


“All the world’s a stage”—have you ever wondered why people remember and quote lines from Shakespeare so much?

One of the reasons is because he used figurative language very effectively in his writings. You may have heard the term figurative language before, and perhaps when you heard it you were in a class analyzing novels or poetry. But figurative language is not just used in literature: you can employ it in your academic and business writing writing to great effect. Figurative language adds color to your writing by taking your words and applying them to other, often unexpected, objects or concepts. By using figurative language, you can create vivid images in your reader’s mind that will not only give your writing a more distinctive style and make it more enjoyable to read but will also help make your argument more convincing.

Writers, speakers, knowledge workers . . . use figurative language to make a text more clear, engaging, interesting, evocative. Because figurative language is more dramatic and visual than concrete, sensory language, it enables you to better arrest your reader’s attention and perhaps cause him/her/they to pause and think more about your assertions. 

When interpreting texts, metaphors, similes, and personification can help you better understand complex and abstract ideas because you are attaching these abstract ideas to an image or human role and in that way making it more concrete and understandable.

Figurative language can also just make your writing more pleasurable to read and consequently more likely to gain your reader’s thoughtful consideration.  We all like to be entertained, even in just little ways, and are more likely to pay attention to things that seek to interest us.

Tips for Using Figurative Language:

  • Engage in rhetorical analysis. Practice rhetorical reasoning to ensure that the use of figurative language is appropriate for your rhetorical context
    • Some genres—especially genres of poetry and fiction—rely extensively whereas other genres reject the use of figurative language or call for sparase use figurative language. Thus, as always, you need to engage in rhetorical analysis in order to determine whether or not it’s appropriate to use figurative language.
  • Make your metaphors and similes understandable (you want to interest and maybe intrigue your reader, not confuse him/her/they)
  • Stay away from clichéd comparisons (what’s the point of using figurative language if you’re just going to recycle the same tired metaphors?)
  • Avoid using too much figurative language (a little goes a long way).

Figurative language can be used in any part of your text