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5 Tips for Using and Understanding Literal and Metaphorical Language, Part IV

TIP#4 Recognize valid situations where literal and metaphorical meanings co-exist.

Statements may have both literal and metaphorical meanings without being ambiguous, equivocal, or contradictory.

Acronyms and acrostics, homonyms and antonyms, sound devices like alliteration and rhyme, humor, and even puns, function as literal content and also as helpful memory aids. Today’s icons, emoticons, GIFs, and memes combine devices like humor, symbol, and satire as communication shortcuts We see these in a wide variety of settings, from personal message to social media posts, advertising, and meetings.

Literal and metaphorical fusion in a class children’s tale

In Winnie-the-Pooh, Christopher Robin and his animal friends set off on an “expotition” [sic] to find the North Pole. It soon becomes apparent that they have no idea what this geographic “pole” literally is. They envision an object “stuck in the ground.” Amid this lighthearted fun at young children’s innocent misinterpretation, the group’s conclusion that they have, in fact, discovered the pole is not only a literal event but also a symbolic one.

When Roo falls into the river and is swept downstream, Pooh finds a long pole to use in rescuing him. Afterward, the characters decide that they’ve accomplished their mission. Placing the pole in the ground, they name it the “North Pole” and label it with a sign attributing its discovery to Pooh. Its metaphorical significance, however, is twofold. First, it affirms the value of Pooh’s quick thinking despite his often being characterized as a “bear of little brain.” Second, it commemorates the group’s efforts to save a friend in danger. The North Pole, a literal point of geographic orientation, also frequently symbolizes an ideal destination. A. A. Milne fuses both meanings in this delightful tale.

Biblical teaching models

Numerous examples of “both/and” meanings exist in Scripture. Referring to the history of God’s covenant with Abraham, Paul explains its spiritual significance. He uses the term “allegory” in Galatians 4 to show differences between law and grace, referring to both old and new covenants and “Jerusalem.”

In Ephesians 5, Paul describes God’s design for husband-wife relationships as literal practice, but also refers allegorically in v. 32 to “Christ and the Church.”

Claims and counter-claims often focus on interpretation of literal situations, but many lead also to metaphorical expression.

  • Pharisees called Jesus a literal commandment-breaker when He healed people on the Sabbath. He stated His actual purpose to fulfill God’s law and commandments.
  • The gospel encounter when Jesus insisted that children be allowed to come to Him leads to a teaching point. As these children come to God in faith, believers of all ages must recognize their need to seek God as their Father.
  • He supplies a bountiful catch of literal fish, and calls the disciples to become “fishers of men.”

Applying biblical models in children’s and YA stories

John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress uses allegory to retell the gospel as a quest journey in his own culture’s terms. Each character, place, and event represents a biblical parallel, with Christian recognizing his overpowering guilt and need to get rid of his sin “burden” as family and neighbors oppose his determination to set off for the Celestial City. At each stop along the way, readers share Christian’s experiences and find a new insight into faith, hope, doubt, failure, or commitment.

Max Lucado uses allegorical and symbolic elements to deliver literal truth in You Are Special. Stars and dots represent good and bad opinions people express about others, including the main character, Punchinello. He meets Lucia, who is immune to these “stickers” because she ignores them, instead forming her opinion of herself directly from Eli, the Maker. Her name, which means “light,” symbolizes wisdom and freedom found in the truth of God’s Word.

Questions for writers

Do stories you read or write treat literal and metaphorical references as mutually exclusive? How can children’s and YA literature help readers recognize situations in which one person, event, or object that has actually existed or happened, has added significance? Do you have a favorite example? We welcome your comments or questions below, on social media, or email: info.write2ignite@gmail.com

 

 

5 Tips for Using and Understanding Literal and Metaphorical Language, Part III

 

TIP #3 Don’t avoid tough literal situations by referring to them only as metaphors.

Taking literal language metaphorically is equally problematic.                        

Kids can be masters of metaphor. Ask “Didn’t I tell you not to play in the mud?” and they answer, “We weren’t playing, we were making a snack for the frogs.” One child, sent to the principal for throwing food in the cafeteria, protested, “I didn’t throw food. I catapulted it!”  Somehow, it sounds much better to use a word with visual and historical connections to ancient weaponry.

A lesson from children’s literature

Sam, Bangs, and Moonshine, a Caldecott winner by Evaline Ness, shows the danger of misrepresenting literal and metaphorical language. Sam, the opening line tells us, is a girl who is prone to lying. Instead of acknowledging her mother’s death, she says her mother is a “mermaid.” She tells everyone her cat, Bangs, can talk. But the cruelest, and most dangerous lie is the one she tells repeatedly to Tom, the little friend who believes everything she says. He longs to see the baby kangaroo she tells him she has, and each day she sends him on a wild goose chase to find it in a park or other location in their seaside town.

Tom’s problem is that he takes every word Sam says literally. Sam’s problem is that she prefers living in the metaphorical world she creates instead of in the literal world. Her father calls this “moonshine” (yes, a metaphor) and warns her that she needs to distinguish “real from moonshine.” Not until Sam’s lie nearly causes Tom’s death does she realize the importance of literal truth. This story is a great tool to help children recognize problems caused by lying.

Examples from Scripture

The Bible cautions that “the letter kills but the Spirit gives life “(2 Co. 3:6}. Yet God also confronted people who rationalized a way out of literally obeying His Word. The tithe (10% of earnings are God’s) is a practice people easily find reasons to question. (God can’t really expect 10% of my income, can He? I need to pay my bills . . . ).

Jesus called out the Pharisees’ method for circumventing the commandment to “Honor your father and mother.” If they “dedicated” a resource (even herbs like mint and rue) to God, they subtracted it from their income for tithing AND funds available to care for aging parents. They called this LITERALLY complying with the commandments for giving and caring but their METAPHORICAL interpretation  produced the opposite of honoring and tithing.

The Parable of the Talents illustrates another metaphorical spin on literal words and acts. The man entrusted with only one talent does not invest it, as those given ten or five did, and return it to the master with interest. Instead, he buries it and says he’s giving back exactly what he had received. Why is the employer displeased? This employee claims literal compliance, but he has actually evaded the real command. Denying his responsibility to manage the money responsibly, he metaphorically shifts the literal assignment to “take care” of the owner’s property and replaces it with hoarding, as though both are equivalent. The master recognizes this employee’s dishonesty and calls him a “wicked servant.”

The right mix of literal and metaphorical

Like Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, anyone can fall into this sin of metaphorical word-twisting. Hoarding resources (time, money, possessions, labor) isn’t the same as being frugal and careful.

Imagination is one of God’s wonderful gifts, exercised in all kinds of art: visual, musical, theatrical, and literary. But changing literal truth into rhetorical equivocation or metaphor is different from using metaphorical language to convey truth. Some deny biblical miracles by explaining them away as metaphors. God often uses natural phenomena to bring about His will. However, accepting God’s acts only when they fit literal “rules” observed in nature, substitutes human reason for God’s, and rejects His divine attributes.

Do adults or children ever misuse language in your stories? Do they encounter others who use words carelessly or deceptively? What consequences follow, and how do readers and characters discover the need to distinguish appropriate literal and metaphorical words? Comment below, on Write2Ignite social media, or email info.write2ignite@gmail.com

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

TIP #2 Don’t interpret literally what is supposed to be understood metaphorically.

Taking figurative language literally is a problem that leads to misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

Does the photo above depict sunshine or shadow? A literal book title based on this image might be Sunshine on the Pages or Shadows on the Pages [When Grandpa Reads]. A nonfiction book about sunshine and shadows could take this literal approach.

On the other hand, metaphorical application of either title in a fictional story might focus on various scenarios. A thunderstorm might frighten the children, and Grandpa’s reading helps calm them down until the sun comes out. Or Grandpa reads a scary story that makes them imagine being in a dark cave or forest. Suddenly, light appears – but how? who? why?

Sunshine and shadows represent different meanings in the fictional stories. So looking only for literal shadow or sunlight in these stories might prevent children from recognizing the actual message. The light and dark interplay reflect family closeness and  connections, security and trust, or imagination and emotions.

Examples of metaphorical interpretation and literal misunderstanding in children’s books.

The character “Amelia Bedelia” in Peggy Parrish’s children’s books is a classic example of someone who takes EVERYTHING literally. If her employer tells her to “plant the bulbs,” she’ll have a row of planters with light bulbs instead of flower bulbs in them. If she is told to “draw the drapes,” she sits in front of them with a drawing pad instead of pulling the cords to close them. You can imagine what she does when she’s told to “pitch the tent.”

In The Berenstain Bears and the Trouble with Money, Sister and Brother Bear picture a tree with dollar bills hanging all over it when Papa complains that they “must think money grows on trees!” The cubs learn to recognize figures of speech (often, associating them with their parents’ lectures). But they also learn that figures of speech can represent true and positive experiences.

Understanding biblical metaphors

Figures of speech provide visual or other sensory cues. These connect memory and emotions to help us recognize a situation’s true significance. When the prophet Nathan describes a rich man who selfishly takes a poor neighbor’s one ewe lamb instead of a sheep from his own large flock, King David is enraged at that man’s guilt. Then, Nathan drops the metaphor and reveals, “You are the man.” In that moment, David understands that God is confronting him with the deadly consequences of the sin he had tried to conceal. He repents, confesses, and prays for God to restore the fellowship David had broken. (2 Sa. 12, Ps. 51)

When Jesus calls Himself “the true vine” and His Father “the vine dresser,” the extended metaphor describes different outcomes for branches that bear or do not bear fruit (John 15:1 – 8). Clear interpretation (v. 5- 6) identifies “branches” as people who claim to follow Him. Comparing the gospel to plants, or evangelism to farming, occurs in numerous Old and New Testament passages. In a farming culture, these metaphors related to familiar scenes and processes the audience would recognize. The Bible also uses other metaphorical examples to deliver messages people need to hear. These include animals, weather, business and finance, construction, relationships and celebrations, daily work, even dirt and decay!

Where do we encounter figures of speech?

Metaphorical language occurs everywhere in daily conversation, activities, news reports, advertisements, hobbies, and entertainment like books, board games, or media. On social media, we’re constantly exposed to figures of speech (and often, disputes related to interpreting them).

How do we incorporate figurative language into stories and activities for children? Of course, we want to ground their understanding of literal meanings, but we also need to help them understand different uses of language.

An article about birds, or a story about a child finding and collecting bird feathers, will include facts about how feathers help birds. Waterproof coating, maneuvering and flight, or insulation from heat and cold are all parts of feather design. Writers may describe feathers’ size, colors, or design patterns.

A Bible story retelling that features birds, whether Noah’s raven and dove, or the ravens which fed Elijah, will focus on the literal people and events. [See an excellent example in https://www.keepbelieving.com/sermon/elijah-and-the-ravens/ ] But birds also have great symbolic meaning in scripture. Isaiah 40:31 says “They that wait upon the Lord shall  . . . mount up with wings like eagles . . . “ We want kids to understand that God gives endurance like the eagle’s, not to think they can literally sprout wings, jump off a roof, and fly.

Writing Takeaways

If we ask a teen to “break down” a piece of furniture, intending to store it in a more compact space, there’s a chance of misunderstanding that metaphorical instruction. What if, in their excitement at the chance to destroy something (think DEMOLITION instead of “taking apart”), they literally smash and destroy it? Yes, this has actually happened to me (name withheld to protect the guilty). After a shocked reaction, I recognized my mistake in choosing an expression that could be misconstrued. As a result, I had to say goodbye to a favorite antique chair that I just wanted to fit into a smaller space for transportation.

Are we careful to distinguish our own uses of literal and metaphorical language? Do we avoid confusion in our word choices, without sacrificing word variety or linguistic richness? Depending on the age of our target audience, do we provide clear definitions without over-explaining? Do we use effective comparisons, as Jesus did, with animals, objects, or situations readers can recognize and relate to? Can our stories deliver lessons without always spelling out “the moral of the story”?

Do you have questions about metaphorical and literal language? What are you favorite figures of speech? Do you use figures of speech in your writing for children/YA?  Do you have a story about literally interpreting a metaphor? Comment below, on social media, or email info.write2ignite@gmail.com

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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