by Becky L. Spivey, M.Ed.
We use figurative language to describe an object, person, or
situation by comparing it to or with something else. For example,
“She is as pretty as a picture” describes or compares a pretty girl
to a beautiful piece of art. Figurative language is simply a way to
add color and depth to what is otherwise a bland statement, “She
is pretty.” Students who have language difficulties may struggle
to compare items or situations that have no real connection to
each other (e.g., girl/picture). Some of these students may even
challenge the statement and argue, “I’ve seen art that is ugly.
She is probably ugly!”
Figurative Language Definitions and Examples
Simile – A simile (sim-uh-lee) uses the words “like” or “as” to compare two
explicitly unlike things as being similar. The sentence “Mom is as busy as a bee” paints
a mental picture of Mom swarming around like a bee when she’s busy. “Our old cat
moves around like molasses in wintertime” means that the cat moves around like thick,
Metaphor – A metaphor (met-uh-fawr, -fer) suggests something or someone
actually becomes or is something else. “Dad is a bear when he’s mad.” “The children
were angry hornets before eating lunch.” Metaphors use more specific words like is, are,
was, or were to paint a mental picture of Dad actually being a mad bear, and the hungry
children being angry hornets before getting something to eat! There is no “like” or “as”
in comparing the two.
Personification – Personification (per-son-uh-fi-kay-shuh-n) gives animals or
inanimate objects human-like characteristics. “The soft voice of the waterfall serenaded
me to sleep.” In this sentence, the waterfall has been given the human characteristic
of having a “soft voice” that “serenades” or sings the writer to sleep. “My dog, Bitsy,
counted the minutes until her next meal.” This suggests that Bitsy knows how to count
like a human.
Onomatopoeia – Onomatopoeia (on-uh-mat-uh-pee-uh) is a word that describes a
natural sound or the sound made by an object or a certain action. Dad lit the fuse, and
“POW!” the firecracker exploded. A horrible “Crash!” sounded as the vase hit the floor.
Remember the “Zoom!” “Zap!” “Pow!” on the old TV shows? These are onomatopoeias.
Hyperbole – A hyperbole (hy-pur-buh-lee) is a statement so exaggerated that
no one believes it to be true. “Dad drank a million gallons of water after his run.” We
all know that this is not possible. The exaggeration of a million gallons is simply for emphasis to describe the large quantity of water Dad actually drank. “I know I changed
the baby’s diaper a thousand times today” is another example of a
Idiom – An idiom (id-ee-uh-m) is an expression whose meaning
is not predictable from the usual meanings of the words that make
it up, as in “He’s a couch potato,” or “Hold your horses.” Idioms do
not present “like” characteristics to other things as in other forms of
figurative language. One needs the context of the sentence to help
understand the idiom.
Clichés – Clichés are statements that have been heard so often that their once
colorful play on words has become expected and stale. For example, “Birds of a feather
flock together.” “A rolling stone gathers no moss.” “Every cloud has a silver lining.”
“Many hands make light work.” Many times you will hear, “Well, you know what they
say…” which will usually be followed by a cliché like the ones listed above. Then the
person to whom the cliché was directed may follow up with the questions, “Who are
“they” anyway? What do they know?”
Figurative language is simply a colorful way to express an otherwise boring
statement. You can see how very young children, children with special needs or language
deficits, or ESL (English as a Second Language) students may have trouble understanding
these types of expressions. When your child has trouble understanding figurative
language, help your child see the comparisons or descriptions of objects, people, or
ideas presented as being like or taking on the characteristics of something that is