Figurative Language

Figurative language is language that one must figure out. Figurative language is the opposite of literal language, where the words convey meaning exactly as defined. In figurative language the reader must determine the writer’s intended meaning, as the words by themselves do not express it clearly.  The listener or reader must “figure” out what is meant.

We will look at some common figures of speech. I will discuss these examples alongside definitions of figurative language techniques. Then I will share some resources to help you learn, review, or teach figurative language. It’s important to note: I make a distinction between figurative language and poetic devices.  Though the skills are related, I find that it is more digestible to teach these concepts in separate units.  This page focuses exclusively on figurative language techniques.

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Hyperbole is when the writer or speaker exaggerates for emphasis or effect.

“Hyper” is a Greek word that means “over” or “beyond.” And “bole” translates roughly to “throw.” So the word “hyperbole” means to overthrow or to go over. Hyperbolic is the adjective form and hyperbolically is the adverb.  One way to help students remember hyperbole is to focus on their background knowledge of the word “hyper.” Ask students to describe the behavior of someone who might be considered hyper. Show students that when someone is hyper, they might be doing a little too much. Draw the connection that when someone uses hyperbole, they are going too far.

Examples of Hyperbole
  1. Yeah, I already beat that game 80,000 years ago.
  2. Nobody listens to that song anymore.
  3. Old Mr. Johnson has been teaching here since the Stone Age.
  4. Forget knocking it out of the park, Frank can knock a baseball off the continent.
  5. These shoes are killing me.

Hyperbole can be an effective technique for getting your point across.  As you continue studying and reviewing this concept, be conscious of the fact that hyperbole is often confused with understatement (saying too little or minimizing the effect of a statement).


Idioms are figurative expressions used so often that they become part of the language.

Idiom is not a distinct figurative language technique. Rather, most idioms are similes, metaphors, or other figurative language techniques. For example, the idiom “I’m so hungry that I could eat a horse,” is an example of hyperbole. And the idiom, “dropping like flies,” is a simile. But idioms have been used so commonly that they have become part of the colloquial lexicon of native language speakers. In other words, native speakers use them so much that many don’t even know that they are using figurative language.

Idiom Examples
  1. Bob’s new corner office was just the icing on the cake (metaphor).
  2. After eating candy, Billy ran around like a chicken with his head cut off (simile).
  3. The quarter back was running out of steam (metaphor).
  4. That new car cost an arm and a leg (hyperbole).
  5. Tom said that he changed but actions speak louder than words (personification).

Idioms are generally used so frequently by native language speakers that it often goes unnoticed that figurative language is even being used. When someone is learning a new language, one of the milestones of progress is when the learner begins to understand and use the language idiomatically or colloquially.


A metaphor is a comparison between two different things without using the word “like” or “as.”

One of my teachers once told me that the greater the difference between the two things being compared, the better the metaphor. This is an idea that I’ve grown to appreciate. For example, when asked to create a metaphor, a student of mine once wrote, “Football is baseball.” Though this is arguably a metaphor, it generally would not be regarded as a very good one. The objects of comparison are too similar. “Football is chess” would be an improvement, because those two things are more dissimilar.

Metaphor Examples
  1. The cast on Michael’s broken leg was a plaster shackle.
  2. She was just a trophy to Ricardo, another object to possess.
  3. The path of resentment is easier to travel than the road to forgiveness.
  4. Waves of spam emails inundated his inbox.
  5. Her eyes were fireflies.

Metaphors help us understand the world. They help us communicate and understand each other. They make for great poetry too.


Personification is when the speaker or writer gives human characteristics, qualities, or traits to an object or idea.

To put it even simpler, personification is when an object or idea does something that only people do.  Though animals are often given human traits and characteristics in poems and stories (such as in fables), when this technique is applied to animals it is more accurately called anthropomorphism.

Personification Examples
  1. Thunder grumbled and raindrops reported for duty.
  2. The moon turned over to face the day.
  3. One unhappy icicle wasted away in the day.
  4. The traffic noises argued long into the night and finally Cal went to sleep.
  5. The angry storm pounded the tin shelter.

Personification makes our language more exciting. It animates our world. Try using some in your writing today.


Similes are comparisons between two unlike things using the word like or as.

Similes are commonly used in both speech and literature.  Because of the signal words like and as, students are usually able to identify similes better than other figurative language technique.  However, students should know that just because the speaker or writer uses the word like or as, does not automatically mean that they are using a simile.  Like also expresses a preference for something.  In the statement, “I like pizza,” no comparison is being made; the speaker merely expresses a preference.  My point is that while like and as can be helpful signal words, in a simile a comparison must be made.

Understatement Examples
  1. My mother’s kitchen was like a holy place: you couldn’t wear your shoes, you had to sit there at a certain time, and occasionally we’d pray.
  2. The bottle rolled off the table like a teardrop.
  3. The handshake felt like warm laundry.
  4. She hung her head like a dying flower.
  5. Arguing with her was like dueling with hand grenades.

Similes are a good place to start teaching figurative language. They are pretty easy to grasp and fun to create as well.


Understatement is when the speaker or writer expresses an idea with much less force than is expected.

Understatement can be understood as the opposite of hyperbole. In hyperbole, the statement goes too far; whereas in understatement, the statement does not go far enough.  Understatements are often used to downplay something negative. They can also be humorous.

Simile Examples
    Here are some example understatements:
  1. Let’s just say that Elon Musk has got a few nickels to rub together.
  2. Learning to juggle flaming chainsaws might be a little tricky at first.
  3. It might take her a little while to get over her husband’s affair.
  4. Jeffrey Dahmer wasn’t exactly a good neighbor.
  5. Maybe the middle of the street isn’t the best place for your child to play.

Understatement can be fun and funny to write. Try to think of an extreme situation. Then try to think about how to express that in the most understated way possible. Give it a shot (which is a metaphor and an idiom BTW).

Now you know about figurative language techniques. I bet you want some practice now. The good news is that you are probably reading this on a computer screen. That means you have a computer. I made a bunch of online figurative language quizzes. Now you can practice identifying figurative language techniques on your computer or handheld device. Check it out!


How to identify figurative language techniques:


Common Core State Standards Related to Figurative Language

Anchor Standards

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.4 – Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.5 – Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.

Expand to View All Common Core State Standards Related to Figurative Language
ELA Standards: Literature

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.4 – Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, distinguishing literal from nonliteral language.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.4.4 – Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including those that allude to significant characters found in mythology (e.g., Herculean).

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.5.4 – Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative language such as metaphors and similes.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.4 – Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of a specific word choice on meaning and tone.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.7.4 – Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of rhymes and other repetitions of sounds (e.g., alliteration) on a specific verse or stanza of a poem or section of a story or drama.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8.4 – Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including analogies or allusions to other texts.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.4 – Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets a formal or informal tone).

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.4 – Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful. (Include Shakespeare as well as other authors.)

ELA Standards: Language

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.3.5 – Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships and nuances in word meanings.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.4.5a – Explain the meaning of simple similes and metaphors (e.g., as pretty as a picture) in context.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.4.5b – Recognize and explain the meaning of common idioms, adages, and proverbs.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.5.5a – Interpret figurative language, including similes and metaphors, in context.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.5.5b – Recognize and explain the meaning of common idioms, adages, and proverbs.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.6.5a – Interpret figures of speech (e.g., personification) in context.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.7.5a – Interpret figures of speech (e.g., literary, biblical, and mythological allusions) in context.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.8.5a – Interpret figures of speech (e.g. verbal irony, puns) in context.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.5a – Interpret figures of speech (e.g., euphemism, oxymoron) in context and analyze their role in the text.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.5a – Interpret figures of speech (e.g., hyperbole, paradox) in context and analyze their role in the text.

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