Source: Refreshment stand on US highway 99 in Oregon, Dorothea Lange, Wikimedia Commons
Let’s pretend for a minute that you have an adventure on the way home from school. You are chased by a rather large dog who seems really hungry and grouchy. You run in the house, slam the door, and begin to tell your mom about your scary walk (or run) home from school.
You begin by telling her that it was a big dog. She asks how big, and you reply “I don’t know; it was just big.” She asks again “How big?” You get really frustrated because that’s not really the point, and she’s preventing you from getting to the really good part of the story. What your mom is asking for is some help visualizing the dog that was chasing you. She wasn’t there, so she wants you to add some more description to help her get a picture in her mind. When writers add details to help readers form mental pictures, they are using a stylistic device called imagery. Good writers and good story tellers do this by adding figurative language to their descriptions to help readers or listeners form images in their minds. Let’s go back to the story now.
Your mom asks you how big the dog was, and you tell her that it was exactly 36 inches tall and weighed 70 pounds.
Do you really do this? Of course not because for one thing, you don’t know the dog’s height and weight for sure, and besides, do those figures really give her a sense of how big and mean the dog was? So here’s what you do. You use a figure of speech. You could use a simile and say that the dog was like Mr. Green’s mastiff at the end of the block. She then gets a picture in her head of the giant dog at the end of the block, and that helps her understand the significance of your adventure.
You could also use a metaphor and say that the dog was Cerberus; here you’re saying that the dog was the three-headed dog who guarded Hades. This might seem to your mother to be hyperbole—an exaggeration. However, any of these descriptions help your mom picture the dog chasing you down the street and therefore make her a lot more interested in your story and worried about your safety.
Does this discussion about figurative language sound familiar? If it does, that’s because you are probably used to identifying and understanding similes and metaphors in your reading. You know that when you borrow language from one part of life and use it in another, you are using figures of speech. When writers use figurative language, they are trying to help the reader understand better by comparing whatever it is they are talking about to something with which the reader is familiar.
For a quick review, see if you can guess the word that fills in the blank and matches the picture. Click on the button to check your answer. The word and how it’s used figuratively will appear.
Baby Photograph, Fenja1, Palnatoke, Wikimedia Commons
Chocolate Hills, Bohol, Philippines, Wikimedia Commons
Gayot Atlas Statistique, Eugene Gayot, Wikimedia Commons
Walking pig, Joseph Martin Kronheim, Project Gutenberg
Blackstrap Molasses, Badagnani,Wikimedia Commons
The sentences above show the difference between literal and figurative language. We use what we know about the comparison word or phrase and all of its meanings to help us understand the speaker or writer. Do all babies sleep soundly every single night? No, but we understand what it means to sleep as soundly as a baby without a care in the world, and that comparison is so much more interesting than saying that you slept eight hours without waking up. The comparison adds another layer of meaning that further explains how well you slept. How old are the hills anyway? They are probably older than the joke your teacher told you, but it sounds better to suggest that he told a joke that was thousands of years old. That comparison adds the suggestion that he is really old-fashioned and out of touch.
Could you really eat an entire horse? Of course not, but it’s so much more effective to say that rather than “I’m so hungry I know I can eat an appetizer, main course, and a dessert.” We don’t really know whether pigs eat a lot, but we’ve always heard they do, and by saying that you became one by eating a lot, you give that thought meaning beyond just saying that you ate a big meal. What is molasses, and why is it slow? It’s a thick, strong-tasting syrup that takes a long time to drip from a spoon or pour from a bottle. Can you see how figures of speech spice up our conversations and our writing and make them more specific?
For fun, try keeping a journal for an entire day noting each time you hear or use figures of speech like the ones above.
In the rest of the lesson, we will learn about some new figures of speech—personification, hyperbole, and refrains—and see how writers use them to add meaning to their writing.