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Identifying Figurative Language and Its Different Meanings

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Have you ever heard someone make an unusual comparison—for example, “At our house, my mom is the quiet center of the storm”— and you knew exactly what they meant? Have you heard a friend describe something, and, from the words they used, you understood, not just what the thing is like, but how your friend feels about it? Have you ever discovered that a word you’re familiar with has a special meaning in a particular trade or field? These are examples of words used for their figurative, connotative, or technical meanings. Without thinking about it, we use words in these ways in our everyday speech. Authors use figurative, connotative, and technical language in a more deliberate way to convey complex ideas and precise information.

The Meaning of Language

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Here are the types of meaning you will learn about in this lesson. Figurative Type Definition Example Explanation of Example figurative meaning the nonliteral meaning of a word or phrase Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched. This adage doesn’t have anything to do with chickens. It means that you should not rely on something until it actually happens. Connotative meaning the emotional meaning of a word or phrase separate from the literal meaning The hikers could only carry so much food with them, and they ate frugally. Frugal implies that someone is not wasteful with a resource such as food or money. Frugality is usually considered a positive quality, and the word has a positive connotation. Compare this with the word stingy, which suggests that someone is a miser. Stingy has a negative connotation. Technical meaning the meaning of a word or phrase specific to a specialized field of knowledge. Celia aced the audition and was cast in the play’s leading role. In the world of theater, to cast someone means to assign them to a role. Cast has other technical meanings. Think about fishing and medicine. How is cast used in those fields?

Figurative Meaning

Figurative meaning and figures of speech are common. In fact, at some point today, you probably encountered figurative language and never stopped to think about it. Let’s look more closely at language used in this way.

Key Concepts & Ideas

Figurative meaning is the meaning of a word or phrase used in a nonliteral way. Figures of speech are also nonliteral. However, they rely on some sort of connotative meaning or suggestion that the reader is expected to know. Authors turn to figurative language when something is difficult to express directly, to paint word pictures, to elicit feelings, and to engage readers’ imaginations. Figurative meaning and figures of speech enliven language and help readers make connections.

There are several types of figurative language commonly found in literature and informational texts. Some are more appropriate to particular types of texts than others. For example, alliteration is commonly found in poetry, but it can also be used in persuasive texts as a rhetorical device. This chart sums up common figures of speech.

Type of Figurative Language

Alliteration the use of words close together that have the same starting letter or sounds The big baby bounced the ball. “Big,” “baby,” “bounced,” and “ball” all begin with the same letter. They are also close together in the same sentence, so it is easy to see and hear the repeated sound. Analogy a point-by-point comparison between two things or ideas based on similarities Learning to play chess is a lot like learning to bake: it takes patience, and you must expect to make mistakes when you begin. This sentence makes a specific comparison between playing chess and baking, even though these activities do not seem very similar at first glance.

Idiom a commonly used phrase with a meaning different from the meaning of the actual words It’s raining cats and dogs. This idiom means it is raining very hard. The reader needs to know this meaning, which cannot be inferred from context. Metaphor a figure of speech that suggests a likeness by making a nonliteral comparison of unlike things With ten children running around, my Aunt Tillie’s house is a circus. This metaphor compares a household to a circus. Simile a figure of speech that makes a comparison between two unlike things using the word like or as Tamika’s mom flipped out when she saw that Tamika had dyed her hair as green as the grass. This simile compare’s Tamika’s hair to grass using the word as.

Oxymoron a figure of speech consisting of words or a phrase that seem contradictory, but state something true We left the two dogs alone together when we went out for dinner. Can someone be both “alone” and “together” with someone else? It may sound contradictory, but there is some truth to this statement because it is implied that the two dogs were the only ones at home.

Parallel structure a sentence construction in which a grammatical form is repeated to create a logical balance My three-year-old nephew is very energetic, always jumping, running, bouncing, leaping, or rolling. The present participle form of jump, run, bounce, leap and roll is repeated for effect, illustrating how energetic the nephew is. Personification a type of metaphor that attributes human qualities to an object, an idea, or another living thing My coffeemaker hates me. This sentence implies that the coffeemaker does not work properly but attributes the malfunctioning to the emotion hate.

Synecdoche figurative language in which one part of something represents a whole, or a whole thing stands for one of its parts When my uncle was an actor who trod the boards on Broadway. The word boards means a stage. In this case, the individual boards that make up a stage represent the whole stage.

Other Types of Figurative Language

Earlier in this course, you learned about other kinds of figurative language, also popular in informational texts:

  • allusion
  • anaphora
  • anecdote
  • hyperbole
  • irony
  • paradox
  • understatement

Identifying Figurative Language

Let’s try to identify some figurative language. Read this passage from “Rivers and Stories: An Introduction, Part 1”:

Though the names are still magic—Amazon, Congo, Mississippi, Niger, Plate, Volga, Tiber, Seine, Ganges, Mekong, Rhine, Colorado, Marne, Orinoco, Rio Grande—the rivers themselves have almost disappeared from consciousness in the modern world. Insofar as they exist in our imaginations, that existence is nostalgic. We have turned our memory of the Mississippi into a Mark Twain theme park at Disneyland. Our railroads followed the contours of the rivers and then our highways followed the contours of the rail lines.

Robert Hass uses quite a bit of figurative language throughout his essay. Here is one example from the passage above: “Our railroads followed the contours of the rivers and then our highways followed the contours of the rail lines.” This is an example of parallel structure. Notice that “Our railroads followed the contours” and “our highways followed the contours” sound similar. In this case, Hass is using that repetition in structure to demonstrate how the contours are repeating. In addition, he creates an image of the railroads, rivers, and highways. Now it is your turn to identify an instance of figurative language in the passage. Question: What is another example of figurative language used in the passage above?

Feedback: Hass uses metaphor twice in the passage above. He begins with “Though the names are still magic. . .” Later on, he says, “We have turned our memory of the Mississippi into a Mark Twain theme park at Disneyland.” In both cases, a likeness between two unlike things is suggested without using “like” or “as.”

Connotative and Denotative Meaning

You can think of connotative and denotative meaning as opposites. Key Concepts & Ideas Connotative meaning is the emotional meaning of a word or phrase, separate from the literal meaning. Denotative meaning is the literal meaning, as you would find in the dictionary. Not surprisingly, authors of informational texts use a lot of denotative language. However, be aware that they also use connotative language as a way of provoking emotional responses from their readers.

Identifying Connotative Meaning

Let’s take another look at the passage above from “Rivers and Stories: An Introduction, Part 1.” Not only does the author use parallel structure and metaphor, he uses connotative meaning. When he says, “Though the names are still magic,” he uses the word “magic” connotatively to express a positive judgement. Many people have a childhood association with the idea of magic as something enchanted, dreamlike, and strangely powerful. The word magic stirs up warm and even innocent emotions. Hass also relies on connotation in the sentence “We have turned our memory of the Mississippi into a Mark Twain theme park at Disneyland.” A Disneyland theme park has a negative connotation in this context as something artificial. Hass is suggesting that, in our ideas about rivers, we have lost touch with reality.

But why would Hass want the reader to make these types of emotional connections? Essentially, it is because he loves and respects rivers and nature—and he wants others to feel the same way. If you associate rivers with magic and think of them as enchanted and wonderful, you are likely to feel angry that we have turned them into something as unreal as a theme park. Ultimately, positive and negative emotions can result in action, and Hass wants his readers to act to protect rivers.

Technical Meaning

Technical meaning (sometimes called technical language) is very different from connotative meaning.

Key Concepts & Ideas

Technical meaning is the meaning of a word or phrase specific to a specialized field of knowledge. Science, for example, has vast vocabulary of words with technical meanings. Technical meanings can be difficult to understand if you are not familiar with the field of knowledge the words and phrases come from. However, authors of informational texts use technical language for two main reasons. First, technical language is precise. And second, the audience for many informational texts are people who already possess knowledge of the subject matter. These people expect to have ideas expressed using technical language and have no problem comprehending it since it is at their level of knowledge. It’s also true that when technical language is defined within a text, it can help newcomers get a better grasp of a subject. Technical language can be helpful to both the experienced and inexperienced reader.

Identifying Technical Meaning

Read this paragraph from “Stress for Success”: The flip side of the coin, however, is that we can experience fear even when there’s nothing to be afraid of. In fact, this often happens before a triggering event even occurs. This is called anxiety. Think of fear as a response to something as it is happening. Anxiety, on the other hand, comes with the anticipation of something that may (or may not) happen.

Have you ever heard the term “triggering event”? This is not a term you would be likely to hear or use in your day-to-day life. But most doctors and psychologists would certainly be familiar with it. Notice that the author does not define what a triggering event is, although some other technical language in the article is clearly defined. However, context clues provide the meaning. We know that the triggering event could set off fear, and one meaning of the word trigger is “to cause.” A triggering event is an event that incites, or triggers, a response. Even though the author uses a phrase that would be more common in a medical setting, it is the correct, precise term for this type of occurrence, so it makes sense to use the technical term in this text.

Authors do not always say exactly what they mean. Regardless, they do try to make their meaning clear. Figurative, connotative, and technical language are a few items in an author’s toolbox that help them convey meaning and liven up their writing. Be on the lookout for instances of these types of language—comprehension of a text may depend on understanding nonliteral or technical words and phrases.

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