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Figurative language | Reading

Figurative language is when you say one thing but mean another. Examples are similes (using like or as), metaphors (not using like or as), personification (giving non-living things human characteristics) and hyperbole (exaggerating for emphasis). Allusions are references to characters or events from literature, movies or culture. Figurative language is a way to express yourself without saying something literally true. Created by David Rheinstrom.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] Hello readers, we've got a bear of a lesson today and it's all about figurative language. Sorry, I should back up. I know I said we have a bear of a lesson. I don't literally mean that I've got a bear. That would be extremely sweet. Love a bear, love bear's whole thing with the snacking and the sleeping and the eating of fish, but no. A bear of is a figurative expression that means something difficult. So a bear of a lesson is a difficult lesson and that's what we're talking about today. Not bears, sorry, but non-literal uses of language, which we call figurative language or figures of speech. Figurative language says one thing but means another. I could say that my colleague Allison is an eagle-eyed editor and when I say that I don't mean that she literally has an eagle's eyes in her head. That would be a terrifying achievement of medical science. No, I'm saying that she is sharp and attentive in the same way that an eagle is. So I'm saying something that is not literally true in order to express something that is true, that Allison is good at editing. Would you call that a lie? I'm not sure I would. It's just a non-literal way of expressing myself. So, having gotten the question of whether or not I'm a dirty rotten liar out of the way, let's talk about some different varieties of figurative language. First, the simile. A simile is a comparison between two things that uses like or as. If I were really hungry, I could say that my stomach was gurgling like a tar pit or that I was as hungry as a ravenous wolf, and again, neither of these things are literally true. If my stomach were making actual tar pit noises, I would probably need to go to a hospital. But what do those examples tell you about the way that I, the speaker, think about my hunger? Animals and people get stuck in tar pits, they're gloppy, they pull things into them, they slow things down. Sorry T-Rex. Therefore, I'm saying that my hunger is slowing me down. Or, if I'm comparing myself to a wolf, you can imagine me looking lean and desperate, saliva dripping from my jaws at the mere thought of food. I could really go for a cheese danish come to think of it. So that's simile. The second figure of speech I wanna talk about today is the metaphor. And what's a metaphor? Cows and sheep! Sorry, I couldn't help it. No, a metaphor is not a meadow for. Metaphors are another way of comparing two things, but this time there's no like or as. We're walking this language tightrope without a net now. You aren't signaling with like or as that you're making a figurative comparison, so you have to use context to communicate clearly. At the beginning of this video I said this was going to be a bear of a lesson. That's a metaphor. There's a Linda Ronstadt country song from the 70s, called "Love is a Rose," which is all about how to take care of a relationship through the metaphor of tending a flower with thorns on it. The difference between my stomach is gurgling like a tar pit and my stomach is a gurgling tar pit is the difference between simile and metaphor. Simile uses that like or as comparison whereas metaphor just straightforwardly says thing X is thing Y. Love is a rose, my tummy's a tar pit, which was not nearly as successful of a song. Another way to use figurative language is personification, which let's just break that word down. It means to describe something as though it were a person. To say that differently, it's ascribing human characteristics to non-living things. The wind howled through the mountains. The car grumbled as I threw it into gear. The storm raged. These are things that people do, but I'm applying that language to inanimate things, like wind and cars and storms in order to express the way these things are behaving. The car is not literally grumbling, "Aw man, I can't believe David has to drive me today." It's making noises that I am choosing to identify as unhappy. The greatest kind of figurative language in the entire universe is hyperbole. By exaggerating, I'm expressing emphasis and importance. This summer, I'm going to read a million books and eat a literal actual ton of hot dogs. This is not true. In fact, this is impossible. That is too many hot dogs, those are too many books, each of which are sentences I never expected to say, but I'm trying to express my enthusiasm for both books and encased meats, and I'm doing that by being, you know, extra. The final kind of expressive language I wanna talk about today isn't exactly figurative language, it's the language of allusions and references. Where you make comparisons to characters or events from literature, or movies, or culture. Also note that it's allusion with an A, as opposed to illusion with an I. An illusion with an I is like a magic trick. Here are some examples of allusions. Oh, you'd have to be Superman to lift that fallen tree. Or, you have a Gollum-like obsession with that stuffed animal. Now these comparisons only work if the person you're talking to understands the reference. Superman has super strength, Gollum, from "The Lord of the Rings," can't stop talking about how much he loves this one object, the ring. If you don't know the reference, then it's all just noise. One tip is to read up on mythology. You'd be surprised how many times ancient gods, like Zeus, Poseidon, and Apollo come up as you read. So that's what we're working with here. Simile, love is like a rose. Metaphor, love is a rose. Personification, my car grumbled. Hyperbole, my mom grounded me for eight trillion years. And allusion, I feel mightier than Hercules. That's figurative language folks. You can learn anything, David out.