Mix and Match: The Importance of Understanding Figurative Language

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Writing is an area that blends various elements mainly because it is a tool of communication. Whether the end game it intends to seek is for the sake of an argument, entertainment, or just informing someone it must be must be as precise in its execution as possible or it risks the possibility of miscommunication that damages the quality of its purpose. Often the most common cause of this comes in the form of figurative language which generally attempts to take two (or more) ideas and make a comparison between to aid in the purpose of making a point easier to understand. Some examples of this are: idioms, analogies metaphors, similes, clich?s, amphibolies, flame words, hyperboles, euphemisms, and colloquialisms.

Figurative Breakdown
According to Merriam-Webster (Idiom, 2013), “An idiom is an expression in the usage of a language that is peculiar to itself either grammatically or in having a meaning that cannot be derived from the conjoined meanings of its elements.” An example of this would be in the case of the phrase “A New York Minute.” While the actual meaning of this phrase is simply a very short period of time, so it could be used in a situation where you need to slip away for a phone call or some such brief activity. The risks of using it are that to any outsider who’s unfamiliar with the nature of New York City, this phrase would be lost upon them and they assume that New York has a strange alternative manner of keeping time due to the literal interpretation of the words as opposed to the figurative.

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An analogy (Analogy, 2013) is the “inference that if two or more things agree with one another in some respects they will probably agree in others.” They are commonly used in cases where some sort of fact based idea is being proven, such as mathematics, law, or philosophy and as such the obvious result of connecting false facts will lead to an inaccuracy in the argument, proof, etc. An example would be saying killing is to peace as shopping is to debt. These ideas are placed as opposites as each other to show the futility of the action, but to mix something up in one of these situations would create a false comparison that has no meaning.

Metaphors and similes are two of the most commonly mixed up types of figurative language due to the fact that they both serve to create a comparison. However, a simile will make the comparison using “like” or “as.” “Snug as a bug in a rug would a simple example of a simile.” The obvious reason for a simile being easily misused is that a reader will see like or as in a sentence and presume it to be a simile without checking the context. On top of that, similes often involve a temporary forgetting of reality and thinking in a more surreal style. During an argument or debate this sort of side tracking would not serve well even if the comparison itself were too satisfactory in making a point.

A metaphor, unlike a simile, will simply imply the comparison that is being made. Another example of how easily some expressions can be lost in translation, a metaphor such as “feeling blue” depends on a single cultural convention of what the color blue means, and will also likely suffer from the same drawbacks as similes.

Another type of figure of speech, clich?s end up under questioning. Though they tend to be the one of the easier concepts to recognize due to the overabundance with which they appear, they are a tricky to cut out because writing and verbal communication have survived so long with them as part of language. A clich? is essentially any turn of phrase that has been used an uncountable number of times and as such has lost any impact that it may have once had as a communication device. They are often found to be prevalent in particular styles of writing. In the western genre for example, we have the old adage “cut them off at the pass.” It is so commonly used that anyone would be hard pressed to find a source for it.

Defined by Dictionary.com (Amphiboly, 2012), an amphiboly, or amphibology as it’s also known, is a phrase that can be interpreted in multiple ways due to its grammatical construction. Obviously this kind of ambiguity is going to be the phrases biggest strength and its weakness as it will be hard to decipher in text what it means, but in conversation the tone and enunciation will usually reveal what is being said. An example would be a phrase such as “No food is better than our food.” It is ambiguous whether the food is being praised or if it is a statement saying that not eating would be better than eating that food.

Flame words are words that are intended to anger somebody, and have grown to be commonly associated with electronic communication where “flame wars” occur. One such example is “noob” which is essentially a novice or a beginner at something. In theory there should be no appropriate use of one of these as they only serve to be malicious, but if used in an ironic way between friends (like much insult based humor often is) would work.

According to Merriam-Webster, (Hyperbole, 2013) is “an extravagant exaggeration.” They should be used in cases where something feels so extreme that to describe it literally is to undermine the emotion attached to it. A common example would be someone saying “enough food to feed an army.” The biggest drawback to hyperbole is that has become more common than the literal description of something and so the reality of the situation is negatively impacted by exaggeration. In the case of younger children hearing hyperboles may be confusing simply because they are premised on a simple idea made more grandiose and as such ideas of quantity of something will not have any tangibility for them to grasp as they are growing into the use of language.

A euphemism is the substitution of a word or phrase for the purpose of making a statement less offensive or controversial. They are often used in the case of death, sex, or other topics that make people uncomfortable. Such an example would be “kicking the bucket” in terms of dying or “making love” in place of saying “to engage in sexual intercourse.” For euphemism to work effectively however the person(s) being addressed have to be in on the substitution or the meaning is lost. This does however come in handy in the case of literary devices such as double entendres or innuendo where the actual meaning can then be slipped in as a humorous joke. This was done quite often in older literature such as The Canterbury Tales.

Last, but not least, we come to colloquialisms. These are expressions that say something that isn’t in the literal word choice, but can be applied. A common example would be the expression “I wasn’t born yesterday” to mean that I won’t be tricked. The implication is that being born yesterday would make me na?ve and gullible and as such I would assume that what I was being was told was the truth.

Language allows for a diverse number of ways in which people can communicate. The trick is finding which method will work the best in each situation. Sometimes a simple simile will suffice to make a comparison, but other times a preposterous hyperbole may function better. Learning the tiny differences between types of figures of speech and mastering the use of the appropriate one will make someone a superior writer, communicator, or debater and ensure that they are able to be at the “top of their game” in whatever they do.

  • Hacker, D. (2007). A writer’s reference. (6th ed., pp. 154-6). Boston, MA – New York, NY: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

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