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Figurative Language versus Literal Language

Figurative language and literal language are conventional systems of analyzing language. Literal language is a set of words, which do not depart from their assigned meaning. Nordquist defines literal language as “the most obvious or non-figurative sense of a word or words; language that is not perceived as metaphorical or ironic.” The function of literal language is to indicate the real meaning of words according to their common usage or as given in the dictionary.

Figurative language is a set/group of words, which change and/or intensify the actual meaning of words. Wiehardt defines figurative language as “a word or phrase that departs from everyday literal language for the sake of comparison, emphasis, clarity, or freshness.” Figurative language can be used in texts, which have related concepts or in texts, which have different concepts. In many cases, the use of figurative language entails exaggeration of the meaning of the given text/word. Alteration of the original meaning of a word results into the creation of figures of speech. Therefore, in figurative language, figures of speech such as similes, idioms, metaphors, clichés, hyperboles, analogies, amphibolies, flame words, euphemisms and colloquialisms occur freely.

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Similes are phrases or sets of words, which create similarity. They use words such as ‘like’ and ‘as’ to create similarity. The function of a simile is to imply that two objects, ideas, or people are alike. Similes also have a function of creating emphasis. For example, ‘Mark is usually busy as a bee.’ The phrase ‘busy as a bee’ is a simile. It implies that Mark is like a bee. In addition, the simile ‘busy as a bee’ emphasizes that Mark is usually extraordinary busy. Meaning, he barely has time to rest. When a simile is used as a metaphor, it causes misunderstanding resulting into alternation of meaning in a sentence.

A metaphor is a set of words or a phrase, which states a fact through comparison but in an imagery manner. A metaphor usually compares two different concepts in order to create a new concept. Unlike simile, which compares one object or idea with another, a metaphor says that an object or an idea is something else. The function of a metaphor is to communicate a new concept to a reader/listener in a precise manner. For example, “Mark is a snake.” This is a metaphor because there is no human who is a snake. The word ‘snake’ denotes that Mark is unfriendly and dangerous like a snake. This helps to make the reader know about Mark’s bad/dangerous character in a concise manner. A metaphor can cause misunderstanding when used as a simile.

A hyperbole is a set of words, which creates exaggeration of an object, idea, or person. The function of hyperbole is to create unusual exaggeration to emphasize a point rather than to create deception. For example, “He was so hungry; he ate a whole loaf for breakfast, the wrapper, and all.” This sentence contains exaggeration. An individual cannot eat a wrapper after eating a whole loaf simply because he is hungry. This has only been included to emphasize that Mark was hungry and ate a lot of food. The use of hyperbole is appropriate for exaggeration purposes in order to lay emphasis. However, it can result in misunderstanding if used to create deceit.

A cliché is “an expression that has been used so often that it has become trite and sometimes boring”. There are different types of clichés. There are those that pertain to time, people, life, and love. Some of them have true meanings while others have false meanings. The function of a cliché is to add comic effect to artistic work. This is because the use of cliché in literary work is viewed as author’s lack of ideas or lack of originality. An example of a cliché is “Opposites attracts.” This is a cliché. It implies that people who have different opinions, views, and perceptions about life are likely to become friends or fall in love. The use of cliché is inappropriate in formal communication because it can lead to misunderstanding or distortion of information. For example, one cannot use a cliché such as ‘opposites attracts’ when resolving a dispute between two enemies.

Idiom is “an expression that does not mean what it literally says; its meaning is often quite different from the word-for-word translation”. This implies that one cannot get the meaning of an idiom through combining the individual meanings of the words used in it. The function of idioms is to help learners/readers get a greater understanding of the language used by the speaker. An example of an idiom is “The Monday a week after next Monday.” This is an idiom. It is rather difficult to understand its meaning. However, when uttered, a listener has to take time in order to interpret its meaning. The use of idioms is not appropriate for conducting formal conversations. This is because the listener may fail to understand the meaning of an idiom, which will lead to unnecessary misunderstanding.

Analogy refers to a word or a phrase, which indicates similarity in two ideas, objects, or concepts. The function of analogy is to convey the meaning of a certain word or phrase. For example, “Mark’s hair glistened in the rain like a nose hair after a sneeze.” This is an analogy. It means that Mark’s hair has a special shine in the rain. Analogy is appropriate for comparison purposes. However, it can create misunderstandings if used as a simile or metaphor.

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Amphiboly refers to an erroneous statement/belief/ phrase that arises because of grammatical or punctuation errors, or use of ambiguous words. The function of amphiboly is to create comic effect in artistic work. For example, “The dog wanted to eat the food, but it was not ready.” The word ‘it’ is ambiguous because it can refer to either the dog or food. The use of amphiboly is not appropriate in normal communication. This is because it creates confusion about the true meaning of a sentence.

A flame word is not as frequently used as other figures of speech. It is a literary type which utilizes a word or phrase for accentuating or making a strong point usually in the controversial technique. A phrase ‘damn war’ can clearly illustrate this stylistic device. One should avoid using flame words in formal writing.

Euphemism refers to an indirect word or phrase used instead of a harsh word. It is a way of substituting a shocking word with a pleasant one. For example, instead of saying, “She is a stripper” one can say, “She is an exotic dancer.” Therefore, the function of euphemism is to substitute a harsh word with a less rude word. However, it can cause misunderstandings when it alters the meaning of a sentence.

Colloquialism refers to the use of words or phrases, which are not literal in casual conversation. For example, “The grub was great.” The word ‘grub’ can mean either food or a dirty child. This can only be used in casual conversation. The meaning of the colloquial term depends on the context of the conversation. The function of colloquialism is to exclude non-members from a conversation. However, it can cause misunderstanding when used in formal conversation, especially when used in the presence of individuals who are not aware of the meaning of colloquial term(s).

One can find all of those figures of speech in everyday life. The problem is that it is not that easy to understand them correctly on the instant, especially if one is starting to learn a foreign language. For that reason, it is highly recommended avoiding any possible misunderstanding by using various stylistic devices sparingly and judiciously.

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