Literal and figurative language is a distinction that exists in all natural languages; it is studied within certain areas of language analysis, in particular stylistics, rhetoric, and semantics.

Literal usage confers meaning to words, in the sense of the meaning they have by themselves.[2] It maintains a consistent meaning regardless of the context,[3] with the intended meaning of a phrase corresponding exactly to the meaning of its individual words.[4] On the contrary, figurative use of language (a later offshoot being the term figure of speech) is the use of words or phrases with a meaning that does make literal sense but that might also be true.[5]

The Ancient Greek philosopher of rhetoric Aristotle and later the Roman rhetorician Quintilian were among the early documented language analysts who expounded on the differences between literal and figurative language.[6] A comprehensive scholarly examination of metaphor in antiquity, and the way its early emergence was fostered by Homer's epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey, is provided by William Bedell Stanford, Greek Metaphor,[7]

In 1769, Frances Brooke's novel The History of Emily Montague was used in the earliest Oxford English Dictionary citation for the figurative sense of literally; the sentence from the novel used was, "He is a fortunate man to be introduced to such a party of fine women at his arrival; it is literally to feed among the lilies."[8] This citation was also used in the OED's 2011 revision.[8]

Within literary analysis, such terms are still used; but within the fields of cognition and linguistics, the basis for identifying such a distinction is no longer used.[9]

Figurative language in literary analysis

Figurative language can take multiple forms, such as simile or metaphor.[10] Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature says that figurative language can be classified in five categories: resemblance or relationship, emphasis or understatement, figures of sound, verbal games, and errors.[11]

A simile[12] is a comparison of two things, indicated by some connective, usually "like", "as", "than", or a verb such as "resembles" to show how they are similar.[13]

Example: "His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry.../And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow." (emph added)—Clement Clark Moore[14]

A metaphor[15] is a figure of speech in which two "essentially unlike things" are shown to have a type of resemblance or create a new image.[16] The similarities between the objects being compared may be implied rather than directly stated.[16] The literary critic and rhetorician, I. A. Richards, divides a metaphor into two parts: the vehicle and the tenor.[17]

Example: "Fog comes on little cat feet"—Carl Sandburg[18] In this example, “little cat feet” is the vehicle that clarifies the tenor, “fog.” A comparison between the vehicle and tenor (also called the teritium comparitionis) is implicit: fog creeps in silently like a cat.

An extended metaphor is a metaphor that is continued over multiple sentences.[19][20]

Example: "The sky steps out of her daywear/Slips into her shot-silk evening dress./An entourage of bats whirr and swing at her hem, ...She's tried on every item in her wardrobe." Dilys Rose[21]

Onomatopoeia is a word designed to be an imitation of a sound.[22]

Example: “Bark! Bark!” went the dog as he chased the car that vroomed past.

Personification[23] is the attribution of a personal nature or character to inanimate objects or abstract notions,[24] especially as a rhetorical figure.

Example: "Because I could not stop for Death,/He kindly stopped for me;/The carriage held but just ourselves/And Immortality."—Emily Dickinson. Dickinson portrays death as a carriage driver.[24]

An oxymoron is a figure of speech in which a pair of opposite or contradictory terms is used together for emphasis.[25]

Examples: Organized chaos, Same difference, Bittersweet.

A paradox is a statement or proposition which is self-contradictory, unreasonable, or illogical.[26]

Example: This statement is a lie.

Hyperbole is a figure of speech which uses an extravagant or exaggerated statement to express strong feelings.[27]

Example: They had been walking so long that John thought he might drink the entire lake when they came upon it.

Allusion is a reference to a famous character or event.

Example: A single step can take you through the looking glass if you're not careful.

An idiom is an expression that has a figurative meaning often related, but different from the literal meaning of the phrase.

Example: You should keep your eye out for him.

A pun is an expression intended for a humorous or rhetorical effect by exploiting different meanings of words.

Example: I wondered why the ball was getting bigger. Then it hit me.

Standard pragmatic model of comprehension

Prior to the 1980s, the "standard pragmatic" model of comprehension was widely believed. In that model, it was thought the recipient would first attempt to comprehend the meaning as if literal, but when an appropriate literal inference could not be made, the recipient would shift to look for a figurative interpretation that would allow comprehension.[28] Since then, research has cast doubt on the model. In tests, figurative language was found to be comprehended at the same speed as literal language; and so the premise that the recipient was first attempting to process a literal meaning and discarding it before attempting to process a figurative meaning appears to be false.[29]

Reddy and contemporary views

Beginning with the work of Michael Reddy in his 1979 work "The Conduit Metaphor", many linguists now reject that there is a valid way to distinguish between a "literal" and "figurative" mode of language.[30]

See also


  1. ^ "Figure of speech." Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Merriam-Webster, Inc. 2015.
  2. ^ Jaszczolt, Katarzyna M..; Turner, Ken (2003). Meaning Through Language Contrast. Volume 2. John Benjamins Publishing. pp. 141–. ISBN 978-1588112071. Retrieved 20 December 2012.
  3. ^ Glucksberg, Sam (2001). Understanding Figurative Language:From Metaphor to Idioms: From Metaphor to Idioms. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0195111095. Retrieved 20 December 2012.
  4. ^ Harley, Trevor A. (2001). The Psychology of Language: From Data to Theory. Taylor & Francis. pp. 293–. ISBN 978-0863778674. Retrieved 20 December 2012.
  5. ^ Montgomery, Mar; Durant, Alan; Fabb, Nigel; Tom Furniss; Sara Mills (2007). Ways of Reading: Advanced Reading Skills for Students of English Literature. Taylor & Francis. pp. 117–. ISBN 978-0415346337. Retrieved 23 December 2012.
  6. ^ M.H. Abrams; Geoffrey Harpham (2011). A Glossary of Literary Terms (10 ed.). Cengage Learning. ISBN 978-0495898023.
  7. ^ W. Bedell Stanford, Greek Metaphor (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1936)
  8. ^ a b "Language Log » Frances Brooke, destroyer of English (Not literally)".
  9. ^ Barber, Alex; Stainton, Robert J (2009). Concise Encyclopedia of Philosophy of Language and Linguistics. Elsevier. pp. 230–. ISBN 978-0080965000. Retrieved 23 December 2012.
  10. ^ Montgomery, Martin; Durant, Alan; Fabb, Nigel; Tom Furniss; Sara Mills (2007). Ways of Reading: Advanced Reading Skills for Students of English Literature. Routledge. pp. 117–. ISBN 978-0203597118. Retrieved 3 April 2013.
  11. ^ Merriam-Webster, inc. (1995). Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature. Merriam-Webster. p. 415. ISBN 978-0877790426. Retrieved 23 April 2013.
  12. ^ Origin: 1350–1400; Middle English < Latin: image, likeness, comparison, noun use of neuter of similis similar. "Simile". simile, n. Oxford English Dictionary.
  13. ^ Kennedy, X. J., and Dana Gioia. An Introduction To Poetry. 13th ed. Longman Pub Group, 2007. p. 594.
  14. ^ Terban, Marvin; joi, Giulio Maestro (1993). It Figures!: Fun Figures of Speech. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. pp. 12–. ISBN 978-0395665916. Retrieved 23 December 2012.
  15. ^ Origin: 1525–35; < Latin metaphora < Greek metaphorá a transfer, akin to metaphérein to transfer. See meta-, -phore"Metaphor". metaphor, n. Oxford English Dictionary.
  16. ^ a b Miller, Carol Rawlings (2001). Irresistible Shakespeare: 6 Sensational Scenes from Favorite Plays and Dozens of Fun Ideas That Introduce Students to the Wonderful Works of Shakespeare. Scholastic Inc. pp. 25–. ISBN 978-0439098441. Retrieved 23 December 2012.
  17. ^ I. A. Richards, The Philosophy of Rhetoric (New York: Oxford University Press, 1936), 119–127.
  18. ^ Fandel, Jennifer (2005). Metaphors, Similes, And Other Word Pictures. The Creative Company. pp. 30–. ISBN 978-1583413401. Retrieved 3 April 2013.
  19. ^ "Extended Metaphor".
  20. ^ Oliver, Mary (1994). Poetry Handbook. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. pp. 103–. ISBN 978-0156724005. Retrieved 6 March 2013.
  21. ^ Liddell, Gordon F.; Gifford, Anne (2001). New Scottish poetry. Heinemann. pp. 131–. ISBN 978-0435150983. Retrieved 3 April 2013.
  22. ^ Origin: 1570–80; < Late Latin < Greek onomatopoiía making of words = onomato- (combining form of ónoma name) + poi- (stem of poieîn to make; see poet) + -ia -ia"Onomatopoeia". onomatopoeia, n. Oxford English Dictionary.
  23. ^ Origin: 1745–55; personi(fy) + -fication"Personification". personification, n. Oxford English Dictionary.
  24. ^ a b Moustaki, Nikki (2001). The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Poetry. Penguin. pp. 146–. ISBN 978-1440695636. Retrieved 23 December 2012.
  25. ^ Origin: < post-classical Latin oxymoron, figure of speech in which a pair of opposed or markedly contradictory terms are placed in conjunction for emphasis (5th cent.; also oxymorum) < ancient Greek ὀξυ-oxy- comb. form1+ μωρόςdull, stupid, foolish (see moron n.2)."Oxymoron". Oxford English Dictionary.
  26. ^ Origin: < Middle French, French paradoxe (1495 as noun; 1372–74 in plural paradoxesas the title of a work by Cicero; paradoxon (noun) philosophical paradox in post-classical Latin also a figure of speech < ancient Greek παράδοξον, especially in plural παράδοξαStoical paradoxes, use as noun of neuter singular of παράδοξος (adjective) contrary to received opinion or expectation < παρα-para- prefix1+ δόξαopinion (see doxology n.), after ancient Greek παρὰ δόξαν contrary to expectation"Paradox". paradox, n. Oxford English Dictionary.
  27. ^ Origin: < Greek ὑπερβολήexcess (compare hyperbola n.), exaggeration; the latter sense is first found in Isocrates and Aristotle. Compare French hyperbole (earlier yperbole)."Hyperbole". hyperbol e, n. Oxford English Dictionary.
  28. ^ Katz, Albert N. (1998). Figurative Language and Thought. Oxford University Press. pp. 166–. ISBN 978-0195109634. Retrieved 20 December 2012.
  29. ^ Eysenck, Michael William; Keane, Mark T. (2005). Cognitive Psychology: A Student's Handbook. Taylor & Francis. pp. 369–. ISBN 978-1841693590. Retrieved 20 December 2012.
  30. ^ Ortony, Andrew (1993). Metaphor and Thought. Cambridge University Press. pp. 204–. ISBN 978-0521405614. Retrieved 20 December 2012.