Figurative Language Notes

The Metaphor and Some Cousins

The title of this lesson may have struck you as a bit bizarre. It’s true that in a literal sense only living things have families; but when you speak metaphorically, all kinds of things can have brothers, sisters, cousins, and parents. When you use a metaphor, you state or imply indirectly that one thing is like something else.

For instance, in saying that a metaphor has cousins, the implication is that it’s like a member of a family. When you say a business has gone “belly-up,” you really mean that it’s gone bankrupt; but since a business doesn’t have a belly, you’re implying that it’s like a living being—in this case, a dead fish or some other animal floating in the water.

— Think of a metaphor as a connection or bridge between the new and the familiar.

No doubt metaphors are very familiar to you. You’ve almost certainly studied them in past courses—perhaps as far back as the elementary grades. And whether you know it or not, you use metaphors often in your everyday speech. Compare the two brief exchanges that follow.

Perhaps the second dialogue is a bit forced; maybe some of the expressions it uses aren’t ones you’d use yourself. But you have to admit that it’s more lively and colourful than the first dialogue. Do you see the metaphors? The second speaker employs the image of the razor to highlight the intensity of the hurt he/it feels, although no actual cut was made on his flesh.

Whenever people use expressions like these, they’re making comparisons, but note that they’re direct. Whenever you say that homework is a pain, your little brother (or sister) is a monster, or that English Language Arts 30 is a breeze, you’re using metaphors.

The Metaphor Family

Metaphors are part of the family known as figurative language. The members of this family are called figures of speech. You use figures of speech when your words don’t mean exactly what the dictionary might say they mean. Calling someone a chicken doesn’t mean that person is an egg-laying domestic fowl; you know that it’s a term implying cowardice.

Language used literally displays its meaning on the surface; it means just what it says it means and no more. Language used figuratively makes richer meanings by combining ideas and images in new and interesting ways.

Here’s another example: if a writer says “Her hair was fair,” this is a literal statement. By contrast, if the writer says “Her hair was pure gold,” or “Her hair shone like the sun,” figurative language is being used. You can see that figurative language allows for much more colourful, vibrant descriptions than literal language does.

1. Here are five phrases—some literal, some figurative. Decide how each is being used.

  1. fire dancing merrily
  2. eyes like jewels
  3. a rainy day
  4. a kind man
  5. a class clown

Journal Suggestion

Write two descriptions of your room using metaphors as much as possible. Take a different point of view in each description—perhaps that of a parent in one and that of yourself in the other. Remember, these very different perspectives should translate into equally different metaphors.

Your language probably consists of a mixture of figurative and literal speech. When you can understand a language both literally and figuratively, perhaps then you can be said to be truly fluent in that language.

In this lesson, you’ll be thinking more about the family of figurative language; in particular, you’ll be looking at similes, personification, apostrophes, and metaphors. Remember that this is a large and complicated family, and these four terms make up only a small portion of it.

Figurative Language: Making Things Come Alive

The Simile

When you use a simile (as you should remember from earlier years) you compare one thing quite directly to another; the words you use in creating a simile are usually like or as. Here are two simple examples of similes:

  • The stars are like diamonds.
  • The prairie was as dry as a desert.

2. Elizabeth Bishop uses similes in the vivid images she creates in “The Fish.” Find a copy of the poem in the “Writing Style” section of this site and read it carefully.  Quote three similes that you found particularly effective. Explain why you found each so vivid.

3. Now use each of the words or phrases that follow in a simile of your own. Always remember, however, that cliche is the enemy of voice!  Try to think of something unusual—something that would make a reader or listener stop and take notice. If you can, have a bit of fun with this. The first one is done as an example.

a. moon

– The moon hung in the sky like a silver dollar, tossed in the air with a flick of the thumb. (YES!)

The moon was like a big bright flashlight, the kind powered by a 9V battery. (YUCK!)

b. lake

c. the villain in a movie

d. walking alone in snowfall

e. an angry adult

The Metaphor

While poets do use similes (you’ve just found a few in “The Fish”), their most interesting comparisons are more often metaphors. This is true of other writers as well. The directness of a simile, and its use of the words like and as, tend to limit the impact of this figure of speech. However, saying or implying that one thing actually is another packs a stronger punch.

You should note that some metaphors are direct, while some are implied. If a poet says “the stars are diamonds,” a direct metaphor has been made. If, on the other hand, the poet says “the stars sailed majestically through the night sky,” the result is an implied metaphor. Readers aren’t told directly that the stars are being compared to ships, but they infer that this comparison is being made. In good poetry, implied metaphors are often more powerful, and poets expect active readers to be ready and willing to make inferences.

4. Here’s a list of not-so-obvious, implied metaphors. Explain what’s being compared in each example.

  1. The stars sailed across the sky.
  2. Her golden baked skin intrigued the boy.
  3. The man brayed his refusal to leave his bar stool.
  4. John was hit by the green blades of nausea when he saw his test mark.
  5. Suddenly the idea clicked on in his head and shone with a steady light.


You use personification when you attribute human traits to a non-human object. Here are two examples:

  • The wind cried softly.
  • The waves danced along the shoreline.

Note that in these two examples the personification is implicit, not direct. You aren’t told that the wind or the waves are acting in a human manner; this is something an active reader infers from the description.

5. Study the scene pictured here; then describe it using personification. Aim for two different descriptions.

6. Now describe the words that follow using personification.

  1. sun
  2. clouds
  3. a car

You should be able to see why personification is included in the metaphor family. Personification is, in fact, a kind of metaphor—the kind where something is said to be human in some respect. For example, in “The Fish,” the speaker describes the fish she caught by saying ” . . . a five-haired beard of wisdom/trailing from his aching jaw.”

At one level this is a direct metaphor: the old fishing hooks and the attached lines are being compared to a beard. At a deeper level, there’s an implied metaphor: the fish is being compared to a wise, ancient, bearded man. And, of course, this second-level metaphor is personification: the fish is being compared to a human being.

7. Read “Traveling Through the Dark” by William Stafford.  Can you find an example of personification here? If so, quote it.


You’re probably very used to dealing with apostrophes—though you may still have problems deciding when to use one in a sentence. But the word apostrophe doesn’t always refer to a punctuation mark. In an entirely different usage, apostrophe refers to a way of using language figuratively.

Generally, it means the way the speakers in some types of poetry address non-human objects as if they were people who could hear them. Or perhaps, in the same way, they address people who are far away or long since dead.

Apostrophe doesn’t occur only in poetry. Sometimes creators of other literary texts will “apostrophize” something or someone by addressing words to it, him, or her. In ancient Rome, for example, this was frequently done by people making public speeches. But today, most instances of apostrophe you’ll encounter will be in poems—and probably in older poems rather than more modern ones.

Why is apostrophe considered a figure of speech? Do you ever actually talk to the wind? Do you ever address a beautiful spring morning? Probably not. Poets who use apostrophe are, in effect, personifying the objects their speakers address; they’re giving them human qualities. So apostrophe, like personification, is a member of the metaphor family.

Here are two examples of apostrophe:

  • Wind, do not mourn the passing of the season.
  • O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?

8. You might find it fun to use apostrophe (after all, you probably used it as a child when you sang “Twinkle, twinkle, little star.”) Pretend you’re going to write some poetry. Think of a first line, using apostrophe, for each of the following subjects:

  1. the night sky
  2. a robin hunting for worms on a lawn
  3. the Rocky Mountains

9. Using apostrophe allows writers to transcend time and space. As a poet, try a few more first lines as explained in what follows.

  1. Use apostrophe to bring forward someone from your past (for example, a relative, a friend, an ancestor).
  2. Use apostrophe to address a non-human object that has a special meaning for you (for example, a motorcycle, a pair of skates, a favourite article of clothing).
  3. Use apostrophe to address your readers (“O reader, . . .”).

Lesson Glossary

the addressing of an object or an absent person in a work of literature
figurative language
language that goes beyond its literal meaning
figures of speech
expressions in which words are used in unusual ways to create special effects
literal speech
language that uses words according to their dictionary meanings
a comparison between two unlike things without using the words like or as
the assigning of human qualities to non-human subjects
a comparison of two unlike things using the words like or as

2 thoughts on “Figurative Language Notes

  1. Wow. Interesting perspective. I enjoyed how you protected this topic….
    A couple of things I dont agree with but hi…
    thats a different standpoint. I am super-keen to examine your following post.
    Can you make the next one more indepth? Thanks 🙂

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