We use figurative language every day — whether we're talking with our friends or we're talking with our colleagues and bosses. In fact, when used correctly and wisely, figurative language can be a beneficial communication skill in the workplace.
What Is Figurative Language?
The difference between literal and figurative language is that literal language should be taken at face value, whereas figurative language often has a different meaning or intentions beyond the ways in which the word or phrase is typically used.
"Figurative language refers to the color we use to amplify our writing," according to Your Dictionary. "It takes an ordinary statement and dresses it up in an evocative frock. It gently alludes to something without directly stating it. Figurative language is a way to engage your readers, ushering them through your writing with a more creative tone."
Essentially, figurative language can help to convey, persuade, convince and impact someone when they receive your verbal or written message. That said, however, it should still be used sparingly. A speech or paragraph that is riddled with figurative language can be tough to understand and, frankly, exhausting to follow.
What Are Some Examples of Figurative Language?
There are debates regarding just how many types of figurative language there are out there, and as we come up with evermore catchphrases and colloquialisms, figurative languages expand. However, these are some staple, oft-used examples of figurative language in our everyday discourse.
A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action, though it is not literally applicable.
Examples: "Time is a thief." Time is not literally a thief, but it does often seem to disappear. Therefore, though time itself cannot literally be a thief, the figure of speech implies that it's like a thief in that it seems to disappear quickly before our eyes. Another example is "This weekend was a rollercoaster." The weekend wasn't actually a rollercoaster, but it felt as chaotic as a rollercoaster can make one feel.
A simile is a figure of speech in which one thing is used in comparison with another thing of a different kind. The comparison is intended to make a description more emphatic or vivid for effective communication.
Examples: "She's as sly like a fox." A fox is a sly animal and, therefore, someone who is sly could be sly like a fox. Another example is "He's as salty as a pretzel." This means that someone is agitated because "salty" is a colloquialism for being agitated, and pretzels are also salty.
A hyperbole is an exaggerated statement or claim that is not meant to be taken literally.
Examples: "Her smile was a mile wide." While someone cannot actually have a mile-wide smile, the figure of speech simply means that they have a very big smile. Another example is that someone's feet are "as big as clown's feet." No one really has feet as big as a clown's feet, but someone with big feet might be described this way.
An idiom is a group of words that, when put together, mean something not deducible from meanings of the individual words.
Examples: "It's raining cats and dogs out there." It can't literally rain cats and dogs, but the meaning implies that it's raining heavily. An idiom takes on a meaning of its own. Another example is when someone "rubs you the wrong way." They don't physically rub you when they rub you the wrong way; rather, they bother or irritate you perhaps because they're a catty coworker or an unreliable teammate.
A synecdoche is a figure of speech in which a part of a phrase is used to represent the whole phrase or vice versa.
Examples: "The president of America..." America is often used for short instead of the United States of America. "The Giants" is short for the "The New York Giants," and the team is often referred to that way.
Personification is when an attribution of a personal nature or human characteristic is used to describe something nonhuman.
Examples: "The wind whistled in the night." The wind does not actually whistle like a human can. Instead, the wind made noise that sounded like a whistle. Another example is "a spitting sprinkler." A sprinkler doesn't actually spit, but it does spew water.
An allusion is an expression that intends to call something to mind without explicitly mentioning it. In other words, it's an indirect or passing reference.
Example: "I was worried my nose would grow like Pinocchio's." The person using this figure of speech had lied, and they are referring to the story of Pinnochio from The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, in which Pinnochio's nose grew each time he told a lie. They don't directly mention the story but they indirectly reference it. Another example of an allusion is to call someone "a Scrooge." Scrooge is a reference to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
An oxymoron is a figure of speech in which two terms that are apparently contradictory appear in conjunction. In short: It's a contradiction of terms used to reveal a paradox.
Examples: "The deafening silence was spooky." Silence cannot be deafening — the two words have very different literal meanings. It just means that the silence was too much to handle like deafening music might be — and being in one's own thoughts in a silent room can feel deafening. Another example is "only choice," because if something is a "choice," it cannot be the "only" option.
A pun, also called paronomasia, is a joke (in the form of wordplay) that exploits the different possible meanings of a word, or of similar-sounding words. (But be careful: Office humor can be tricky.)
Examples: "The woman had a photographic memory; she just never developed it." The pun here is that you can't, of course, develop a photographic memory like you can develop photos. It's mean to be humorous and play on the different meanings. Another example of how puns can use similar-sounding words is: "The writer was successful, probably because she had a lot of comma sense." "Comma," here takes the place of "common" because they sound similar. Again, this is used for relevant and humorous effect.
Onomatopoeia is a word (sometimes made up) that is associated with a sound. The word phonetically imitates, resembles or suggests the sound that it describes.
Examples: "The bees were buzzing around the flowers." Bees make a buzzing sound, and thus they were buzzing. Other onomatopoeic words include swish, boom, wack, beep, etc.
Alliteration is a stylistic figure of speech identified by the repeated sound of the first or second letter in a string of words, or by the repetition of the same letter sounds in stressed syllables of a string of words.
Examples: "She sells seashells down by the seashore." The "se" and "she" sounds are repeated in this series of words. Another example is "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers."
When Should You Use Figurative Language at the Workplace?
Figurative language is used in the workplace every day as a professional communication skill. Of course, figures of speech may vary depending on who you're speaking to or what you're speaking about, and when you need to state the facts and get to the point, you shouldn't litter your speech, presentation, review, etc. with figurative language. But figurative language can be used at work in a variety of ways to help make and drive a point— and it should be used in certain circumstances to enhance your speaking or writing.
1. When You're Giving Presentations
When you're giving presentations, you might use phrases like "We've had a lot of success this year, and here's the icing on the cake: We're opening a new office." This metaphor refers to the good news the add to all the good news. You might also tell your audience that, thanks to the new office, "Hope is on the horizon for all of you wishing you had more natural light in the office." Maybe you show them a slide with the new floorplan and explain that the new office is "as big as Alaska."
2. When You're Explaining or Delegating Tasks
When you're explaining tasks, using figurative language can be help the person to whom you're explaining the task better understand. For example, if you're asking them to complete the slideshow for an upcoming presentation carefully but quickly, you might tell them to "make haste slowly," which is an oxymoron that means that it's urgent but it needs to still be done well. You might also tell them that you have a relationship "as old as the hills" with the person who will be coming in to view this presentation, so you want to impress them. This means that you have a long-standing relationship with this person and you'd like to maintain that.
3. When You're Proposing an Idea
When you're proposing an idea, figurative language can be an effective way of communicating it. You might say that your new idea is "as slick as a fox" because you're introducing a new social media growth strategy that targets people's interests "like a mind reader." You might also compare your idea with similes to make it easier to understand and more appealing. You might say that your new social media growth strategy is based on shared interests, so it promises results, unlike your former strategy of inviting random people to like your page that was "went over like a lead balloon." This means that the original idea didn't work, but that you know yours will. You might also explain that you've been watching your social media numbers slowly increase like "watching grass grow" (read: super slowly) but that you know your new plan is "as solid as the ground we stand on" (read: legitimate). You might also use an idiom like "I don't want to jump the gun here but I have an idea."
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.