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Literal vs. Figurative Language


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if people only used literal language, it would be very easy to understand.  Literal language are words and phrases that mean exactly what they say.  If it's the middle of summer and you area very hot, speaking literally, you would say "I am very hot!"

However, people don't always speak literally.  Most often, they speak figurative, and this is where language gets 'fun.'  Figurative language means something other than what it says.  Sarcasm, similes, idioms and metaphors are all types of figurative language.

The best, and only, way to understand figurative language is by context - the way in which it is used.

For example, going back to that very hot day...figuratively you could say "it's a bit hot out side" (verbal irony) or you could exaggerate and say "I almost died of heat" 

What are types of figurative language that you know and use often?

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Honestly, it's too hard to name all the figurative expressions I use on a daily basis. 'Out of her mind' and 'big head' are two I used in my last conversation 10 minutes ago. Some of my favorite are 'busy as a bee' 'so hungry I could eat a horse' and 'clean as a whistle' :)

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This is a great topic as it makes us think about all of those rich, colorful and even poetic expressions so common in everyday speech.

Here are just a few of the expressions I use and/or have used recently that I can think of ....

"Down to the wire" -- completing something or something that concludes at the last minute.

"Field day"  - when things go extremely well.  Example:  "I was doing some online shopping and I had a field day; I couldn't believe all the bargains I got."

"On the same page"  -- when two or more people all agree on something. 

"Bend over backwards"  -- going above and beyond what is expected, especially to accommodate someone.

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We use figurative langauge so much that we don't even realise we do it. Its like breathing (see, there's one - simile). 

figurative language adds emphasis and interest to speech. Without figurative speech, language would be boring and flat.  However, many forms of figurative speech can also be cliché and detract from what you are saying. 

A cliché is an overused statement.  "Avoid like the plague,"  "love at first sight," and "flat as a pancake" are examples of clichés.  You should try to avoid them, and instead create original sayings (as long as it makes sense). 

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I would agree with you that figurative language is fun - it adds a lot of colour to a language. I use a lot of cooking metaphors. For example, if it's a hot day (like in your example!) I'd say it was, or I was, "roasting", whereas if it were particularly cold I'd say "freezing". I can't think of any other ones I use a lot...although I do often use verbal irony.

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Cooking analogies are very common "Roasting" and "Freezing" are two very common examples of this.  "Half Baked" is an expression that means very foolish or crazy.  Usually it's used when talking about a plan. "Your get rich quick scheme is half-baked, at best"

If you "put something on the back burner" it means you put it on hold temporarily or no longer consider it a priority.

If something is "put on ice" is similar to "the back burner" idiom, but means it's completely halted, rather than just slowed down or shuffled off the priority list.

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Congrats, Wowtgp. You used two items of figurative speech in your short post.

1.  "down the line": a metaphor whose origins likely refer to rail lines.  As you are not on a train, plane or automobile, this is figurative language for "Later on".

2.  "Stick to" You mean "keep on going" or "remain at this level".  You are not actually stuck to something with an adhesive. At least, I don't think you are.

See how its easy to use them all the time, without even knowing you are?

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Congrats, Wowtgp. You used two items of figurative speech in your short post.

1.  "down the line": a metaphor whose origins likely refer to rail lines.  As you are not on a train, plane or automobile, this is figurative language for "Later on".

2.  "Stick to" You mean "keep on going" or "remain at this level".  You are not actually stuck to something with an adhesive. At least, I don't think you are.

See how its easy to use them all the time, without even knowing you are?

This is very true.  When I was living in Germany I was surprised at how easily I did pick up on their figurative expressions (some of which overlap with English ones) and slang.  It is so seeped into the language that it's hard to avoid.

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Figurative langauge often crosses boundaries, there are similar ones is Spanish and English too. It does make it easier to learn.

Idioms (discussed on a different thread) are more difficult for a couple of reasons.  One, there is no implied similarity of relation between what it says and what it means. Unlike metaphors or similes, two of the most common figures of speech, when there's a more or less logical connection.    Its best not to worry about Idioms, except for a few simple ones, until you reach a more advanced level of English -  in my opinion, anyway.

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The first one that came to mind was "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse".  I think the figurative language makes language a lot more entertaining.  If everything was literal then language wouldn't have the same flare and style that it currently has.  It allows us to use our imaginations a little bit more.

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I love figurative language. It can be annoying at times but it really represents a culture quite well. I think rap epitomizes many of these ideas and is some what of a nightmare for foreigners.

Phrases like:

"That song is hot."

Means the song sounds cool and it has nothing to do with temperature.

"Chill out."

Means to calm down or relax and also has nothing to do with temperature.

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  • 2 months later...

As a creative writer by profession, I do use a lot of figurative language or idiomatic expressions in my work. I am also a poet so most of the time, I use different phrases that connote an underlying meaning behind them. Wordsmiths use flowery or figurative language to express their sentiments about different topics. :)

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  • 1 month later...
  • 1 month later...

I agree figurative language is excellent for poetry and songwriting, but we are so used to adding it into our everyday language, we usually don't even notice when we're not being literal. I don't think it would "easier" to understand each other if we only spoke literally. I think it would be boring.

William Shakespeare used figurative language non-stop in his sonnets and plays. In one of the first scenes of Twelfth Night he uses maybe 10 different metaphors and puns that pertain to sex! Puns, play on words, idioms and figurative language all have to do with the time and culture of the people speaking. That's what makes some of his work so hard for people to understand today. The people of Elizabethan England loved his plays because they understood the figurative language that was being presented to them, and found it enjoyable, funny, relateable or beautiful. This makes me wonder if a thousand years from now people will find it incredibly difficult to decipher what we consider "regular conversation" that's sprinkled with 21st century figurative language?

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I LOVE it when they get creative with figurative speeches in sitcoms and comedies. Here's one I can think of at the moment:

Guy A: We need you to take a look at this murder weapon.

Guy B: (looks at the murder weapon, then goes away) Okay then. Later, guys.

Guy A: The murder weapon! What about... the murder weapon?

Guy B: What about it?

Guy A: Well, I was hoping, you can tell us something about it.

Guy B: Oh, tell you something about it? You said just look at it.

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Sometimes I have to speak literally in order for people to understand what I'm saying. It's frustrating at times when they look at me confused and say, "What are you talking about?" but I have to deal with the fact that some people aren't smart (Okay, that's kind of mean of me to say :shy:)

So most of the time, I speak in a literal sense!

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English speakers all around the world use a mix of literal and figurative language in order to communicate their thoughts with other people. There is no general criteria as to in which proportion these languages are used by the people. People who are generally related to the arts tend to speak more in hyperbole, while the people of scientific community tend to use a more literal form of language.

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  • 8 months later...

Literal and figurative languages have their own uses. A language is developed by a society for communication purposes. Use the appropriate language that can best deliver your message across. If you use figurative languages so much because you want to appear more intelligent than the average person and you end up constantly confusing the people around you, then you aren't acting like the smart one. Primarily because you fail to adapt to the kind of language that is required of you at the moment.

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These days, I'm seeing a lot of people misusing the word literal so it's good that we remind ourselves of basic lessons like these. I often see comments that say they are "literally" dying of laughter or something similar and I know a lot of grammar nazis like me who come across those are just itching to correct it, but I personally choose not to. My favorite figurative phrase to use I guess is dying of hunger because I'm always hungry.  :wacky:

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