5 Tips for Using and Understanding Literal and Figurative Language Part I

Tip #1: Use clear definitions and illustrations to distinguish literal from metaphorical.

For writers and readers alike, understanding the terms literal and figurative (metaphorical) is essential: what do they actually mean? And how can we distinguish the way language is being used, whether in conversation, on social media, in literature, in advertisements, in business documents, in poetry, or in the Bible?

Recognizing the type of language used in any text or conversation is an essential skill

  1. LITERAL language represents a physical or actual being, object, process, event, idea, or statement (process: sterilization, event: celebration; idea: E=MC2 ; etc.).

EXAMPLES: “I saw a heron fly up from the creek one morning last winter.”(statement/event)

  • CHAIR – an object (furniture) to sit on
  • FOX: a mammal with four legs, red or gray fur, a long, pointed snout, and a bushy tail.
  • KING: a man with political authority over a country or region; he is treated with respect by his subjects and ambassadors from other nations. He may have inherited his kingship, taken it by force, or received it by agreement of those he governs. Bible references to God or Jesus as King are literal claims of His rightful authority to rule.
  • EGGSHELLS: the hard, thin outer covering of a bird’s or other animal’s egg.
  1. METAPHORICAL language represents a concept, idea, or experience using figures of speech which people in a cultural group recognize. Examples include symbol, embellished language, simile, formal [ceremonial] language, humor, sarcasm, exaggeration, understatement, irony, satire, etc.

EXAMPLES: “the wild, light, slender bird that floats and wavers, and goes back like an arrow presently to his home in the green world beneath.  [“A White Heron” -Sarah Orne Jewett] simile

  • CHAIR: “My chair gave me two new projects this week.” We recognize that furniture is not bossing someone around. Here, CHAIR means a person in charge of a company or department, who can give orders because of the position of authority that person holds.
  • FOX: Jesus (when told that Herod wanted to see Him) said, “Go tell that fox . . . “

Why does Jesus call Herod a fox? Foxes’ stealthy behavior gives them a reputation of being sneaky. Calling someone a fox indicates that person shouldn’t be trusted

  • KING: In the game checkers, a piece that crosses the board to the back row of the opponent’s side becomes a “King,” with extra power to move and change direction. A player whose piece reaches this point says, “King me!” The player hasn’t become a ruler, but the king reference symbolizes the increased power of the player’s doubled piece.

A celebrity who is acknowledged as the first or best in an art form or sport may be called “King of . . . “ Jazz, Rock and Roll, etc. [or simply, as with Elvis, “the King.” ]

  • EGGSHELLS: People complain about having to “walk on eggshells.” Children might picture someone walking on a broken egg with or without shoes (‘yuck” and ouch”). What we mean is a sensitive person or situation that we’re trying not to make worse by something we say or do.

Seeing literal and figurative language in books for young children

Writers for very young children work mostly with literal language, helping children learn basic vocabulary. Some board and picture books simply show words and pictures of objects, actions, and people. Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb (Al Perkins, Eric Gurney), depicts various functions these body parts can do and introduces plurals and number concepts (one thumb, two thumbs, one or more monkeys) . . . [https://vimeo.com/54193963 ]

Inside, Outside, Upside Down, by Stan and Jan Berenstain, illustrates prepositions and adverbs like in, out, inside, outside, over and under Pictures show different positions of objects or persons and objects in relation to each other.

Go, Dog, Go! by P.D. Eastman, begins with literal words like “Go” and “Stop” before moving on to humorous, fictional, and more abstract concepts as dogs drive cars, ride skateboards, and end up partying in a huge tree house.

Ramona the Pest, by Beverly Cleary, reveals problems caused by literal/metaphorical confusion for five-year-old Ramona. One literal situation that turns out well, though, comes when Ramona allows her neighbor and classmate, Howie, to remove a back wheel of her tricycle. Initially skeptical that this will ruin her trike, she accepts Howie’s assertion that she will have a “two-wheeler,” and careens, zooms, and balances on her newly modified ride.

Other episodes focus on Ramona’s imagination, assumptions, or misinterpretations of what grown-ups say. Ramona herself feels constantly misunderstood as the youngest child in her family. Rejecting anything she thinks makes her look “babyish,” she nonetheless emphasizes her individuality by putting a tail, ears, and whiskers on the “Q” of her last name.Her teacher’s direction to “Sit here for the present” results in a standoff when Ramona refuses to budge until she sees “the present.”

Do kids really need to interpret literal or metaphorical concepts?

We introduce children to imagination and figurative language with humor and games: puns, teasing, peek-a-boo, “let’s pretend,” hide and seek. Most children’s books include these elements, which children enjoy. Through them, they learn to deal with experiences like separation or loss, social interaction and complexity, interpreting differences in tone, facial expression, situations, and words. The combined input of words and personal interaction helps children acquire language skills and distinguish literal from metaphorical usage.

When you read to kids or discuss stories with them, do they demonstrate awareness of differences in literal or metaphorical language? What stories or activities help kids learn how to distinguish figures of speech from literal language? We’d love to see your comments here, on our social media, or email info.write2ignite@gmail.com .

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3 Comments

  1. I love using figurative language in my writing and hearing my grandkids use in their speech. I’m looking forward to the other articles in this series!

  2. Thanks, Debbie, for this clarification. I don’t think we realize how much figurative language we use.

  3. I have a friend whose son misunderstands the measurement “yard” with a literal grassy outdoor yard. In his mind, 3 yards would be a spacious area to play in!

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