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Figurative vs Literal Language

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Figurative Language versus Literal Language

Professor Veronica S
Critical Thinking – PHI 210
January 22, 2013

Figurative Language versus Literal Language

Figurative language is writing or speaking where ‘figures of speech’ such as metaphors and similes freely occur (Oxford Reference, 2003) where as literal language is opposed to figurative it suggests the influence of the letter as a measure of strictness and rightness: the literal truth is seen as being true in a basic and absolute way. If something is done literally, a person follows instructions ‘to the letter’, without flexibility or imagination (Oxford Reference, 2003). In this paper several figurative language expressions will be defined and discussed by providing examples for each term, appropriate circumstances for using the expressions and when it might lead to misunderstanding. An idiom is an expression established in the usage of a language that is peculiar to itself either in grammatical construction (as no, it wasn’t me) or in having a meaning that cannot be derived as a whole from the conjoined meanings of its elements (as Monday week for “the Monday a week after next Monday”; many a for “many taken distributively”; had better for “might better”; how are you? for “what is the state of your health or feelings?”) (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, 2002) Also an idiom doesn’t mean what its individual words mean. In Italian, “In the mouth of the wolf” is an idiom, it means “Good luck”, and “kick the bucket” in English has nothing to do with buckets (Language, 2009). An idiom could be employed by the user to make the conversation or writing less formal. However, unfamiliarity with the expression could create a misunderstanding of the meaning of the expression and it could be taken literally. An analogy is a figure of speech embodying an extended or elaborate comparison between two things or situations (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, 2002). Some examples would be; dumb as dirt, I’ll be toast when I get home, as quiet as a mouse. Analogies could be used to add some literary color when getting a point across or to emphasize your meaning. As with most figurative language it can be misunderstood if your listener is not familiar with the concept of analogies. A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase denoting one kind of object or action is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them (as in the ship plows the seas or in a volley of oaths): an implied comparison (as in a marble brow) in contrast to the explicit comparison of the simile (as in a brow white as marble) (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, 2002) A better example is “you are the wind beneath my wings”. A metaphor could be used to add a little drama for the user and the listener or reader. The only misunderstanding one might take from a metaphor is if the words are taken literally.
A simile is a figure of speech comparing two essentially unlike things and often introduced by like or as (as in cheeks like roses, a heart as hard as flint) (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, 2002). Another example could be ‘as cute as a button’ or ‘sweet as a dewdrop’. Cleary these types of flowery analogies can be useful in making the users writing or speaking more imaginative and to paint a clear picture of what is meant. However, using the wrong simile could give your reader the opposite of your intended meaning as well. A cliché a trite or stereotyped phrase or expression; also: the idea expressed by it b: a hackneyed theme, plot, or situation in fiction or drama: an overworked idea or its expression in music or one of the other arts (such as photographic clichés as indicating change of seasons by the transition from snow to fruit in the orchards – John McCarten) (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, 2002). In other words clichés are expressions that lose their punch through overuse. Used sparingly, “That’s really great!” may get a listener’s special attention. If it’s used too often, however, it does not mean much to most listeners (Language, 2009).
An amphiboly is ambiguity in language; it’s a phrase or sentence susceptible of more than one interpretation by virtue of an ambiguous grammatical construction – contrasted with equivocation (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, 2002). These are grammatical fallacies usually used with a sense of wit and humor. An example would be ‘Headline: Killer Sentenced to Die for Second Time in Ten Years.’ It appears the killer will die again, but when the reader really thinks the true meaning is clear. Amphibolies could be used to be funny literary works, but could definitely be made to deceptive; as in advertising.
A “Flame Word” is a word or phrase used to insult, incite or call to action. These words are stated to stir emotion and can inflame you by the tone in which they are used. Examples of “Flame Words” are stupid, fat, coward, and ugly. A writer or speaker might use a “Flame Word” to coax; as in “Are you going to be a coward all of your life, or are you going to fight back”. It goes without saying that these types of words can easily bring negative reactions and if this is not the intent careful review of how they are used is necessary.
A hyperbole is and extravagant exaggeration that represents something as much greater or less, better or worse, or more intense than it really is or that depicts the impossible as actual (as “mile-high ice-cream cones”) – opposed to litotes (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, 2002). Hyperbole examples are ‘I am as hot as fire’, ‘I’ve told you a million times’, ‘I’m so hungry I could eat a horse’. These are fun ways to describe someone or a situation. Still an exaggeration can go too far and make your reader or listener imagines the wrong picture because a mile-high cone to you may be somewhat smaller than in someone else’s imagination.
A Euphemism is defined as the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive word or expression for one that is harsh, indelicate, or otherwise unpleasant or taboo; an allusion to an offensive thing by an inoffensive expression, contrasted with dysphemism. It is a polite, tactful or less explicit term used to avoid the direct naming of an unpleasant, painful, or frightening, reality (as pass away for die; or underprivileged for poor) (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, 2002). Euphemisms are, of course, preferable in many instances when having to discuss things you may not want to say in direct literal terms. Misunderstandings can occur if one is not familiar with the language, customs and/or slang sometimes used as euphemistic expressions.
A Colloquialism is defined as an expression considered more appropriate to familiar conversation than to formal speech or to formal writing; “Slang words frequently rise to the rank of colloquialisms – G. L. Kittredge”: an expression belonging to local or regional dialect – not used technically. Colloquialisms are informal or conversational style in language <the appeal of Wordsworth’s colloquialism> (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, 2002). Some examples would be “What’s up, meaning ‘how are you?’ This type of expression could be used to gain an understanding or an ease with the listener; to show you have similar backgrounds. Colloquialisms may be misunderstood because they are often slang or regional and may not be comprehended by someone not familiar with them.
In conclusion, although most languages needs literal words to be understood there is also great need for figurative language. Figurative language allows the listener to paint a picture in their mind of what is meant by the user and brings humor to an otherwise dull presentation. True there are many opportunities for figurative expressions to be misunderstood, but without colorful ‘figures of speech’, most writing and speaking would be monotonous, lack-luster and boring.

References
Kirby, G. R., & Goodpaster, J. R. (2007). Thinking. Prentice Hall. Chapters 4 - 5
Nelson, A. (2012). Cultivating Writers: Figurative Language in the Developmental Class. Teaching English In The Two-Year College, 39(4), 388-397.
Nagy, W., & Townsend, D. (2012). Words as Tools: Learning Academic Vocabulary as Language Acquisition. Reading Research Quarterly, 47(1), 91-108.
Merriam-Webster’s Third New International Dictionary Unabridged. (2002) http://mwu.eb.com/mwu Accessed January 22, 2013.
(2009). language. Compton's by Britannica, v 6.0. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from http://elibrary.bigchalk.com…...

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