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figurative language

Contributor(s): Ivy Wigmore

Figurative language is writing or speech in which a type of linguistic device has been used to make the language more interesting or impactful.  Similes and metaphors are examples of figurative language, as are personification, hyperbole, idioms, irony, sarcasm, puns and understatements. Figurative language can cause interpretation problems for both humans and artificial intelligence (AI) systems when the phrasing lacks contextual clues. The term figurative language is typically contrasted with literal language. Literal language can be taken at face value and easily understood.

Most types of figurative language pose their own particular challenges to interpretation. Verbal irony, for example, may present as a word or sentence that is intended to be understood as meaning the opposite of the literal meaning. For example, “The reorg starts next week – I can hardly wait!” would be understood by coworkers as ironic because reorganizations are typically painful. However, a natural language processing (NLP) program would require additional contextual information to understand that the sentence does not actually mean the employee is looking forward to the event.

Figurative language also includes imagery and sound-based linguistic devices, such as onomatopoeia, assonance, consonance and other sound-rhyming schemes, but the distinction between figures of speech and figurative language is not universally agreed-upon in those cases. Instead, the choice of whether to call something a figure of speech or figurative language may simply be differentiated by the number of words used. For example, individual words and short phrases or sentences may be referred to as figures of speech, while an entire piece of content may be spoken of as figurative language.

See also: figure of speech, linguistic ambiguity

This was last updated in January 2019

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