Difference Between Literal and Figurative Language

by Matthew Bamberg
This image illustrates money laundering, which is figurative language.

This image illustrates money laundering, which is figurative language.

The difference between literal and figurative language is that when you speak, read or write literal language, it can be interpreted easily because you're saying exactly what you mean. When you speak, read or write figurative language, the meaning is less obvious. Figurative language contains figures of speech that are used for comparisons. Sometimes the comparisons don't seem to make sense. The difference between literal and figurative language is a concept that is taught throughout grades K-12. Recognizing the difference between literal and figurative language is a key skill when learning reading comprehension. Using a mixture of these types of language creates compelling writing.

Literal Language

Literal language is the llanguage you speak most of the time. When you speak, read or write literally, the combined words can be understood to have the same meaning that you would find for the words in the dictionary. For example, the following sentence is literal; it means exactly what it says: The women chatted for a long time.

Figurative Language

Figurative language is more elaborate than literal language. It create illusions beyond the literal meaning of the words. Many times when you speak, read or write figurative language, it can refer to human senses. For example, The girl praying looked like a statue in heaven. If that sentence were read, written or spoken literally, it would be kind of hard to believe. How can a girl be a statue in heaven? When you understand that the sentence is an example of figurative language, you can see how the meaning has changed from a girl being a statue to a girl being motionless and spiritual.

Reading Comprehension

Understanding what you read involves knowing the meaning of the words you are reading. If what you are reading contains mostly literal language, it is easy to comprehend; if it contains figurative language, it is more challenging to comprehend. Figurative language can range from easy comparisons using "like" or "as" to complex discourse with words used in unfamiliar ways. An example of the former would be, "The ballerina moves like a butterfly." An example of the later would be "To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's core," which is from the Edgar Allen Poe poem, "The Raven." Poe often used complex figurative language, which made his poems a challenge to understand.

Writing Skills

Writing using literal language is simple; you write what you mean. Using figurative language in writing is difficult; you write using words that infer different meanings than what they mean literally. When you are writing such things as emails and business letters, you are able to write quickly because most of the language is literal. When you write poetry and short stories, there is more figurative language, making the writing process slow and laborious. Many people enjoy the challenge of writing selections with figurative language.

About the Author

Matthew Bamberg is the author of several photography books, as well as an adjunct instructor at the University of Phoenix, National University and UC Riverside. He teaches English composition, sociolinguistics and photography, previously serving as a public school teacher in California for 14 years.

Photo Credits

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