Figurative Language

Whenever language is simple, plain, direct, whenever it employs words in their conventional meaning, we say that it is literal. Literal comes from the Latin litera, "letter"; what is literal is according to the letter. Consider, for example, this statement: "A writer's style should be purposive, not merely decorative." It is to be read literally: the words mean nothing more, and nothing less, than what they say.

In figurative language the same idea has been expressed like this: "Style is the feather in the arrow, not the feather in the cap." Figurative means that a word has been stretched to accommodate a larger or even very different sense from that which it usually conveys. A writer can make this stretch because of a likeness between different concepts, a likeness the context reveals. Thus the literal meaning of "feather in the arrow" is the stabilizer that keeps the arrow straight; the figurative meaning is that style keeps prose on target.

A writer must provide clues for readers so they may understand figurative words. In speech, we signal such meanings by gestures, facial expressions, pronunciation, or tone of voice (think of how we say generous to twist its sense to "stingy" when we say of a cheap acquaintance, "He's a generous guy!"). In writing, the context—the rest of the sentence, paragraph, and even total a figurative word, making it fly in an unusual direction.

Effective figures depend on total diction, on all your words. You do not improve writing by sticking in occasional similes or metaphors. They must be woven into prose. When they are, figures of speech add great richness. Look again at the comparison of style to the feathers of an arrow. It enhances meaning on at least four levels. First, it clarifies and concretizes an unfamiliar and abstract idea ("style") in a striking visual image. Second, it enlarges our conception of style, endowing style with the functions of the feather in the arrow (providing stability and guidance) and disassociating it from the qualities of a feather in a cap (vanity, pretentiousness, pointless decoration). Third, the figure implies judgment: that style in the "arrow-feather" sense is good, while style in the "hat-feather" sense is bad. Finally, the figure entertains: we take pleasure in the witty succinctness with which a complicated idea is made clearer and enriched by the image of the two feathers.

Thus figures clarify, they expand and deepen meaning, they express feelings and judgments, and they are pleasurable. We observe these virtues over and over as we look at the more common figures of speech. The most frequent and most useful are similes and metaphors. Similes first.


A simile is a brief comparison, usually introduced by like or as. The preposition like is used when the following construction is a word or phrase:

My words swirled around his head like summer flies.

The conjunction as introduces a clause, that is, a construction containing its own subject and verb:

The decay of society was praised by artists as the decay of a corpse is praised by worms. G. K. Chesterton

A simile consists of two parts: tenor and vehicle. The tenor is the primary subject—"words" in White's figure, the "decay of society" and "artists" in Chesterton's. The vehicle is the thing to which the main subject is compared—"summer flies" and the "decay of a corpse" and "worms."

Usually, though not invariably, the vehicle is, or contains, an image. An image is a word or expression referring to something we can perceive. "Summer flies," for example, is an image, primarily a visual one, though like many images it has a secondary perceptual appeal: we can hear the flies as well as see them.

Vehicle commonly follows tenor, as in the two instances above. But the vehicle may come first, emphasizing the main subject by delay and also arousing our curiosity by the cart before the horse:

Like a crack in a plank of wood which cannot be sealed, the difference between the worker and the intellectual was ineradicable in Socialism. Barbara Tuchman

Most similes are brief, but they may be expanded—usually by breaking the vehicles into parts and applying each to the tenor. A historian, writing about the Italian patriot Garibaldi, explains that his mind was like a vast sea cave, filled with the murmur of dark waters at flow and the stirring of nature's greatest forces, lit here and there by streaks of glorious sunshine bursting in through crevices hewn at random in its rugged sides.

George Macaulay Trevelyan

Similes Clarify

Similes have many uses. One is to clarify an unfamiliar idea or perception by expressing it in familiar terms:

Cold air is heavy; as polar air plows into a region occupied by tropical it gets underneath the warm air and lifts it up even as it pushes it back. A cold front acts physically like a COWCatcher. Wolfgang Langewiesche

Finding familiar equivalents often involves concretion, which is turning an abstraction into an image readers can imaginatively see or hear or touch. It has been said, for example, that the plot of one of Thomas Hardy's novels is as complicated as a medieval mousetrap. Virginia Woolf

Even though few of us have seen a medieval mousetrap, the phrase cleverly suggests a labyrinthine Rube Goldberg contrivance.

Occasionally the process may be reversed so that a simile abstracts, that is, moves from the concrete to the abstract:

The taste of that crane soup clung to me all day like the memory of an old sorrow dulled by time. John c. Neihardt

Then the apse [of a medieval cathedral] is pure and beautiful Gothic of the fourteenth century, with very tall and fluted windows like single prayers. Hilaire Belloc

Similes can also be emphatic, especially when they close a sentence or passage, like those by Neihardt and Belloc.

Similes Expand the Subject

Most similes—even those whose primary function is to exmore than provide a perceptible equivalent of an abstract idea. Any vehicle comes with meanings of its own, and these enter into and enlarge the significance of the tenor. Belloc's phrase "single prayers" does not help us to see the windows of the cathedral. But it does enlarge our conception of those windows, endowing them with the connotations we associate with prayer: the upward lift of the spirit, the urge to transcend mortal limits.

Here are two other examples of similes rich in implication. The is about the reminiscences of old soldiers:

The easy phrases covered the cruelties of war, like sand blowing in over the graves of their comrades. Thomas Pakenham

The image suggests the capacity of the mind to obscure the horror of war, even in those, perhaps especially in those, who endured it.

In this second example the novelist Isak Dinesen is discussing life on a farm in South Africa:

Sometimes visitors from Europe drifted into the farm like wrecked timbers into still waters, turned and rotated, till in the end they were washed out again, or dissolved and sank.

The image implies a great deal about such drifters: their lack of will and purpose, the futility with which they float through life, their incapacity to anchor themselves to anything solid, their inevitable and unmarked disappearance.

Clearly, one advantage of of other as well—is economy of meaning. Compressing a range of ideas and feelings into few words, similes deepen prose.

Similes Express Feelings and Judgments

Many similes are emotionally charged. Pakenham's image of sand blowing over the graves of fallen soldiers, for example, is heavily freighted with sadness. And in the following figure the naturalist Rachel Carson does more than describe the summer sea; she reveals its beauty:

Or again the summer sea may glitter with a thousand moving pinpricks of light, like an immense swarm of fireflies moving through a dark wood.

Emotional connotations often involve judgments. The poet Rupert Brooke, writing about a conversation with a salesman, imagines how the man's mind works:

The observer could see thoughts slowly floating into it, like carp in a pond.

This simile operates on several levels: it translates an abstraction (the process of thinking) into an arresting visual image. It suggests the slowness and ponderousness of this particular mind. And it implies a judgment, even if humorously: this is not a mind the writer admires.

One other example, more extended, of a judgmental simile. The historian Barbara Tuchman is talking about the attitudes of English Socialists just before World War I:

What was needed was a strong [Socialist] party with no nonsense and a businesslike understanding of national needs which would take hold of the future like a governess, slap it into clean clothes, wash its face, blow its nose, make it sit up straight at table and eat a proper diet.

Tuchman's image of the bossy nanny nicely conveys the unyielding self-righteousness of some Socialists of the their smug self-assurance, their certainty that they alone knew what was best for humanity, and their conviction that it was their duty to impose the truth upon people too childish to know what was good for them. Fairly or not, Tuchman is passing judgment. Her mocking image uncovers the disdain for common people which she senses beneath the Socialists' reforming zeal.

The judgments implied by such similes are more than sober, objective opinions. The images by which they are delivered give them great persuasive force. Thus Tuchman plays upon the resentment we carry from childhood against those Brobdingnagian know-it-alls who forced us to live by their rules.

Similes Give Pleasure

All good writing gives pleasure. But figurative language is a special delight. simile, reducing imposing Social ists who would reform the world to bossy nannies pontificating in a nursery, is amusing (whether it is fair is something else). Here is another example:

There are fanatics who love and venerate spelling as a tomcat loves and venerates catnip. There are grammatomaniacs; schoolmarms who would rather parse than eat; specialists in the objective case that doesn't exist in English; strange beings, otherwise sane and even intelligent and comely, who suffer under a split infinitive as you and i would suffer under gastroenteritis. H. L. Mencken

Similes Intensify Our Awareness

Finally, beyond their capacity to familiarize the strange, to expand ideas, to express feelings and evaluations, and to give us pleasure, similes have an even greater power. They bring us more intimately in touch with reality by joining diverse experiences. Think about this description of an old woman's hands:

Their touch had no substance, like a dry wind on a July afternoon. Sharon Curtin

Curtin's simile does all the usual a less fa miliar to a more familiar one, implies something about the loneliness of old age, even passes a judgment on life. But it does more: it unifies perceptions that most of us would not have put together.

Similes may also cut across the boundaries that separate the senses:

There was a glamour in the air, a something in the special flavour of that moment that was like the consciousness of Salvation, or the smell of ripe peaches on a sunny wall. Logan Pearsaii Smith

In that image two disparate sense perceptions blend into a experience, and the fused aroma and vision of the peaches and the sunlit wall connect with the writer's consciousness of religious mystery.

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