Literal and figurative language  

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"Look how far we’ve come. It’s been a long, bumpy road. We can’t turn back now. We’re at a crossroads. We may have to go our separate ways. The relationship isn’t going anywhere. We’re spinning our wheels. Our relationship is off the track. The marriage is on the rocks. We may have to bail out of this relationship." --Philosophy in the Flesh (1999) by Lakoff, George & Mark Johnson

"He is a fortunate man to be introduced to such a party of fine women at his arrival; it is literally to feed among the lilies."--The History of Emily Montague (1769) by Frances Brooke

"I've got a hole in me pocket!"

This page Literal and figurative language is part of the linguistics series. Illustration: a close-up of a mouth in the film The Big Swallow (1901)
This page Literal and figurative language is part of the linguistics series.
Illustration: a close-up of a mouth in the film The Big Swallow (1901)

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Literal and figurative language is a distinction within some fields of language analysis, in particular stylistics, rhetoric, and semantics.

  • Literal language uses words exactly according to their conventionally accepted meanings or denotation.
  • Figurative (or non-literal) language uses words in a way that deviates from their conventionally accepted definitions in order to convey a more complicated meaning or heightened effect. Figurative language is often created by presenting words in such a way that they are equated, compared, or associated with normally unrelated meanings.

Literal usage confers meaning to words, in the sense of the meaning they have by themselves, outside any figure of speech. It maintains a consistent meaning regardless of the context, with the intended meaning corresponding exactly to the meaning of the individual words. On the contrary, figurative use of language is the use of words or phrases that implies a non-literal meaning which does make sense or that could [also] be true.

Aristotle and later the Roman Quintilian were among the early analysts of rhetoric who expounded on the differences between literal and figurative language. A comprehensive scholarly examination of metaphor in antiquity, and the way its early emergence was fostered by Homer's epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey, is provided by William Bedell Stanford, Greek Metaphor, In 1769, Frances Brooke's novel The History of Emily Montague was used in the earliest Oxford English Dictionary citation for the figurative sense of literally; the sentence from the novel used was, "He is a fortunate man to be introduced to such a party of fine women at his arrival; it is literally to feed among the lilies."

Within literary analysis, such terms are still used; but within the fields of cognition and linguistics, the basis for identifying such a distinction is no longer used.


In literary analysis

A simile is a figure of speech in which one thing is explicitly compared to another using the words "like" or "as" to show how they are similar.

Example: "His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry.../And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow." - Clemment Clark Moore

A metaphor is figure of speech in which two "essentially unlike things" are shown to have a type of resemblance or create a new image. The similarities between the objects being compared may be implied rather than directly stated.

Example: "Fog comes on little cat feet" - Robert Frost

An extended metaphor is metaphor that is continued over multiple sentences.

Example: Suzie is a beautiful young flowering girl. Her cheeks are flush with the spring of life. She has the fragrance of youth about her.

Onomatopoeia is a word designed to be an imitation of a sound.

Example: “Bark! Bark!” went the dog as he chased the car that vroomed past.

Personification is the attribution of a personal nature or character to inanimate objects or abstract notions, especially as a rhetorical figure.

Example: "Because I could not stop for Death,/He kindly stopped for me;/The carriage held but just ourselves/And Immortality." - Emily Dickinson.

Dickinson portrays death as a carriage driver.

An oxymoron is figure of speech in which a pair of opposite or contradictory terms are used together for emphasis. Examples: Organized chaos, Same difference

A paradox is a statement or proposition which is self-contradictory, unreasonable, or illogical.

Example: This statement is a lie.

Hyperbole is a figure of speech which uses an extravagant or exaggerated statement to express strong feelings.

Example: They had been walking so long that John thought he might drink the entire lake when they came upon it.

Allusion is the reference to a famous character or event.

Example: Like Hercules, he is so strong.

An idiom is an expression consisting of a combination of words that have a figurative meaning.

Example: You should keep your eye out for him.
To keep an eye out for someone means to watch out for it.

A pun is an expression intended for a humorous or rhetorical effect by exploiting different meanings of words.

Example: I wondered why the ball was getting bigger. Then it hit me.
"Then it hit me." has two different meanings:
The ball hit the person.
The person figured out why the ball was getting bigger.

Traditional analysis

In traditional analyses, words in literal expressions denote what they mean according to common or dictionary usage, while words in figurative expressions connote additional layers of meaning. When the human ear or eye receives the message, the mind must interpret the data to convert it into meaning. This involves the use of a cognitive framework which is made up of memories of all the possible meanings that might be available to apply to the particular words in their context. This set of memories will give prominence to the most common or literal meanings, but also suggest reasons for attributing different meanings, e.g., the reader understands that the author intended it to mean something different.

For example, the words, "The ground is thirsty and hungry," mixes the usages. The ground is not alive and therefore does not need to drink or have the essence of life to be able to obtain the characteristics needed to eat. The reader can immediately understand that a literal interpretation is not appropriate and confidently interpret the words to mean "the ground is dry": The stimulus that would trigger the sensation of thirst in a living organism. But a sentence, "When I first saw her, my soul began to quiver," is more difficult to interpret. It might mean, "When I first saw her, I began to fall in love," or, "When I first saw her, I began to panic," or something else entirely. Whereas the ground's thirst can only sensibly refer to its dryness, the soul may quiver to represent a whole range of feelings, including mutually exclusive ones. Only someone familiar with the speaker's feelings could accurately interpret this statement. A different way of expressing the difficulty is that, without a context, a few words can only be given a provisional set of meanings, the most appropriate only becoming apparent when more information is made available.

Classical and traditional linguistics by some counts identified more than two hundred and fifty different figures of speech. More recently, some have reduced the list to more manageable proportions; others have claimed to be able to classify all figurative language as either metaphor or metonymy.

The modern view

It has been customary to characterize literal as the antonym of figurative as if the two are in dialectical opposition. But this view is not sustainable. Each semiotic niche within a culture will reach agreement about the usual or actual meaning of words in common use. This will not be fixed but will change over time. Hence, for example, the original definition of wicked referred to behaviour that was immoral or sinful, but in some subcultures, the word now carries connotations of positive approval. So, when the audience begins to decode the incoming message, the literal meaning of the whole will be the one using the commonly-used meaning for each word. Word-for-word translation between two languages won't translate the understanding of the original. The full system of interpretation requires the application of a complex set of rules to place the provisional meanings allocated to the individual words into a full context in which all the available information, linguistic and nonlinguistic, will be applied to determine where the final translation will sit on the spectrum of meaning from literal to figurative.

Cognitive linguistics, in particular, may ultimately declare all distinction between literal and figurative language irrelevant. Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner say

What gets called literal meaning is only a plausible default in minimally specified contexts. It is not clear that the notion "literal meaning" plays any privileged role in the on-line construction of meaning.(Fauconnier and Turner, p. 64)

The "literal meaning" is not a special form of meaning, as demonstrated by the example above; it is only the meaning the reader is most likely to assign to a word or phrase if he or she knows nothing about the context in which it is to be used.

Further reading

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See also

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