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Literal and figurative language is a distinction within some fields of
language A language is a structured system of communication Communication (from Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language belonging to the Italic languages, Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. Latin was originally spoken in the ...

language
analysis, in particular
stylistics Stylistics, a branch of applied linguistics Applied linguistics is an interdisciplinary field which identifies, investigates, and offers solutions to language-related real-life problems. Some of the academic fields related to applied linguistics ...
,
rhetoric Rhetoric () is the Art (skill), art of persuasion, which along with grammar and logic (or dialectic – see Martianus Capella), is one of the Trivium, three ancient arts of discourse. Rhetoric aims to study the techniques writers or sp ...
, and
semantics Semantics (from grc, σημαντικός ''sēmantikós'', "significant") is the study of reference Reference is a relationship between objects in which one object designates, or acts as a means by which to connect to or link to, another ...
. *Literal language uses words exactly according to their conventionally accepted
meaning Meaning most commonly refers to: * Meaning (linguistics), meaning which is communicated through the use of language * Meaning (philosophy), definition, elements, and types of meaning discussed in philosophy * Meaning (non-linguistic), a general ter ...
s or
denotation The denotation of a word is its central sense A sense is a biological system used by an organism for sensation, the process of gathering information about the world and responding to Stimulus (physiology), stimuli. (For example, in the human bod ...
. *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. Figurative use of language is the use of words or phrases that ''implies a non-literal meaning which does make sense or that could lsobe true''.
Aristotle Aristotle (; grc-gre, Ἀριστοτέλης ''Aristotélēs'', ; 384–322 BC) was a Greek philosopher A philosopher is someone who practices philosophy Philosophy (from , ) is the study of general and fundamental questio ...

Aristotle
and later the Roman
Quintilian Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (; 35 – 100 AD) was a Roman Roman or Romans usually refers to: *Rome, the capital city of Italy *Ancient Rome, Roman civilization from 8th century BC to 5th century AD *Roman people, the people of ancient Rome ...

Quintilian
were among the early analysts of
rhetoric Rhetoric () is the Art (skill), art of persuasion, which along with grammar and logic (or dialectic – see Martianus Capella), is one of the Trivium, three ancient arts of discourse. Rhetoric aims to study the techniques writers or sp ...
who expounded on the differences between literal and figurative language. In 1769,
Frances Brooke Frances Brooke (née Moore; 12 January 1724 – 23 January 1789) was an English novelist, essayist, playwright and translator. She was the author of the first English novel to be written in Canada. Biography Frances Moore was born in Claypole, ...

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''." This citation was also used in the OED's 2011 revision. 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.


Figurative language in literary analysis

Figurative language can take multiple forms, such as
simile A simile () is a figure of speech A figure of speech or rhetorical figure is a word or phrase that entails an intentional deviation from ordinary language use in order to produce a rhetoric Rhetoric () is the Art (skill), art of pe ...
or
metaphor A metaphor is a figure of speech A figure of speech or rhetorical figure is a word or phrase that entails an intentional deviation from ordinary language use in order to produce a rhetoric Rhetoric () is the Art (skill), art of ...
. ''Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia Of Literature'' says that figurative language can be classified in five categories: resemblance or relationship, emphasis or
understatement Understatement is a form of speech or disclosure which contains an expression of lesser strength than what would be expected. It is the opposite of an embellishment. The rhetorical form of understatement is litotes in which understatement is used ...
, figures of sound, verbal games, and errors. A
simile A simile () is a figure of speech A figure of speech or rhetorical figure is a word or phrase that entails an intentional deviation from ordinary language use in order to produce a rhetoric Rhetoric () is the Art (skill), art of pe ...
is a comparison of two things, indicated by some connective, usually "like", "as", "than", or a verb such as "resembles" 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.''" (emph added)—Clement Clark Moore A
metaphor A metaphor is a figure of speech A figure of speech or rhetorical figure is a word or phrase that entails an intentional deviation from ordinary language use in order to produce a rhetoric Rhetoric () is the Art (skill), art of ...
is a 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. The literary critic and rhetorician,
I. A. Richards Ivor Armstrong Richards Companion of Honour, CH (26 February 1893 – 7 September 1979), known as I. A. Richards, was an English educator, literary critic, and rhetorician. His work contributed to the foundations of the New Criticism, a Formal ...
, divides a metaphor into two parts: the vehicle and the tenor. : Example: "Fog comes on little cat feet"—
Carl Sandburg Carl August Sandburg (January 6, 1878 – July 22, 1967) was an American poet, biographer, journalist, and editor. He won three Pulitzer Prizes: two for his poetry and one for his biography of Abraham Lincoln Abraham Lincoln (; Febr ...

Carl Sandburg
In this example, “little cat feet” is the vehicle that clarifies the tenor, “fog.” A comparison between the vehicle and tenor (also called the '' teritium comparitionis'') is implicit: fog creeps in silently like a cat. An
extended metaphorAn extended metaphor, also known as a conceit or sustained metaphor, is an author’s exploitation of a single metaphor A metaphor is a figure of speech that, for rhetorical effect, directly refers to one thing by mentioning another. It may prov ...
is a metaphor that is continued over multiple sentences. : Example: "The sky steps out of her daywear/Slips into her shot-silk evening dress./An entourage of bats whirr and swing at her hem, ...She's tried on every item in her wardrobe."
Dilys Rose Dilys Rose is a Scottish fiction writer and poet A poet is a person who creates poetry. Poets may describe themselves as such or be described as such by others. A poet may simply be a writer of poetry, or may perform their art to an audienc ...
Onomatopoeia Onomatopoeia (also onomatopeia in American English American English (AmE, AE, AmEng, USEng, en-US), sometimes called United States English or U.S. English, is the set of varieties of the English language native to the United States. Cu ...

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 Personification occurs when a thing or abstraction is represented as a person, in literature or art, as an anthropomorphic Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human Humans (''Homo sapiens'') are the most populous and widespread spec ...
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 Emily Elizabeth Dickinson (December 10, 1830 – May 15, 1886) was an American poet. Little-known during her life, she has since been regarded as one of the most important figures in American poetry. Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massach ...
. Dickinson portrays death as a carriage driver. An
oxymoron An oxymoron (usual plural oxymorons, more rarely oxymora) is a figure of speech A figure of speech or rhetorical figure is a word or phrase that entails an intentional deviation from ordinary language use in order to produce a rhetoric ...
is a figure of speech in which a pair of opposite or contradictory terms is used together for emphasis. : Examples: Organized chaos, Same difference, Bittersweet. A
paradox A paradox is a logically self-contradictory statement or a statement that runs contrary to one's expectation. It is a statement that, despite apparently valid reasoning from true premises, leads to a seemingly self-contradictory or a logically u ...

paradox
is a statement or proposition which is self-contradictory, unreasonable, or illogical. : Example: This statement is a lie.
Hyperbole Hyperbole (, ; adjective form hyperbolic, ) is the use of exaggeration Exaggeration is the representation of something as more extreme or dramatic than it really is. Exaggeration may occur intentionally or unintentionally. Exaggeration can ...
is a figure of speech which uses an extravagant or exaggerated statement to express strong feelings.Origin: < Greek ὑπερβολήexcess (compare hyperbola n.), exaggeration; the latter sense is first found in Isocrates and Aristotle. Compare French hyperbole(earlier yperbole). : Example: They had been walking so long that John thought he might drink the entire lake when they came upon it.
Allusion Allusion is a figure of speech A figure of speech or rhetorical figure is a word or phrase that entails an intentional deviation from ordinary language use in order to produce a rhetoric Rhetoric () is the Art (skill), art of persu ...
is a reference to a famous character or event. : Example: A single step can take you through the looking glass if you're not careful. An
idiom An idiom is a phrase In syntax and grammar, a phrase is a group of words which act together as a grammatical unit. For instance, the English language, English expression "the very happy squirrel" is a noun phrase which contains the adjective phra ...
is an expression that has a figurative meaning unrelated to the literal meaning of the phrase. :Example: You should keep your eye out for him. A
pun The pun, also known as paronomasia, is a form of word play Word play or wordplay (also: play-on-words) is a literary technique A narrative technique (known for literary fictional narratives as a literary technique, literary device, or fi ...
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.


Standard pragmatic model of comprehension

Prior to the 1980s, the "standard pragmatic" model of comprehension was widely believed. In that model, it was thought the recipient would first attempt to comprehend the meaning as if literal, but when an appropriate literal inference could not be made, the recipient would shift to look for a figurative interpretation that would allow comprehension. Since then, research has cast doubt on the model. In tests, figurative language was found to be comprehended at the same speed as literal language; and so the premise that the recipient was first attempting to process a literal meaning and discarding it before attempting to process a figurative meaning appears to be false.


Reddy and contemporary views

Beginning with the work of Michael Reddy in his 1979 work " The Conduit Metaphor", many linguists now reject that there is a valid way to distinguish between a "literal" and "figurative" mode of language.


See also

*
Metaphor A metaphor is a figure of speech A figure of speech or rhetorical figure is a word or phrase that entails an intentional deviation from ordinary language use in order to produce a rhetoric Rhetoric () is the Art (skill), art of ...
*
Metonymy Metonymy () is a figure of speech in which a thing or concept is referred to by the name of something closely associated with that thing or concept. Etymology The words ''metonymy'' and ''metonym'' come from the Greek language, Greek , , "a cha ...
*
Connotation (semiotics) :''This word has distinct meanings in logic, philosophy, and common usage. See connotation.'' In semiotics Semiotics (also called semiotic studies) is the study of sign processes (semiosis), which are any activity, conduct, or process that invol ...
*
Denotation The denotation of a word is its central sense A sense is a biological system A biological system is a complex biological network, network which connects several biologically relevant entities. Biological organization spans several scales and ar ...
*
Denotation (semiotics) In semiotics Semiotics (also called semiotic studies) is the study of sign processes (semiosis), which are any activity, conduct, or process that involves Sign (semiotics), signs, where a sign is defined as anything that communicates a Meaning (se ...
*
Signified and signifier Signified and signifier (French French (french: français(e), link=no) may refer to: * Something of, from, or related to France France (), officially the French Republic (french: link=no, République française), is a country primarily loca ...
*
Biblical literalism Biblical literalism or biblicism is a term used differently by different authors concerning biblical interpretation Biblical hermeneutics is the study of the principles of interpretation concerning the books of the Bible. It is part of the broa ...
*
Figures of speech A figure of speech or rhetorical figure is a word or phrase that entails an intentional deviation from ordinary language use in order to produce a rhetoric Rhetoric () is the Art (skill), art of persuasion, which along with grammar and ...
*
Frances Brooke Frances Brooke (née Moore; 12 January 1724 – 23 January 1789) was an English novelist, essayist, playwright and translator. She was the author of the first English novel to be written in Canada. Biography Frances Moore was born in Claypole, ...

Frances Brooke
*
Imagery Imagery is visual The visual system comprises the sensory organ A sense is a biological system A biological system is a complex network which connects several biologically relevant entities. Biological organization spans several scales a ...

Imagery
*
Linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of language A language is a structured system of communication Communication (from Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language belonging to the Italic languages, Italic branch of the Indo ...

Linguistics
*
Philosophy of language In analytic philosophy Analytic philosophy is a branch and tradition of philosophy Philosophy (from , ) is the study of general and fundamental questions, such as those about reason, Metaphysics, existence, Epistemology, knowledge, ...
*
Rhetoric Rhetoric () is the Art (skill), art of persuasion, which along with grammar and logic (or dialectic – see Martianus Capella), is one of the Trivium, three ancient arts of discourse. Rhetoric aims to study the techniques writers or sp ...
*
Semantics Semantics (from grc, σημαντικός ''sēmantikós'', "significant") is the study of reference Reference is a relationship between objects in which one object designates, or acts as a means by which to connect to or link to, another ...
*
Semiotics Semiotics (also called semiotic studies) is the study of sign processes (semiosis Semiosis (, ), or sign process, is any form of activity Activity may refer to: * Action (philosophy), in general * Human activity: human behavior, in sociology ...

Semiotics


References

{{Reflist, 2


External links


The Word We Love To Hate. Literally.
from Slate Magazine

from Silva Rhetoricae Semantics Conceptual distinctions