Some Thoughts about Figurative Language

I developed these ideas when I was thinking about writing a second edition of Teaching Reading Comprehension.  Never finished it (at least I had not as of 2018).  My ideas about what kids need to learn about Figurative Language before they leave the K-12 system. The fundamental understanding is that figurative language requires us to make a distinction between what is SAID and what is MEANT.  It’s an extension of Speech Act Theory.  And the really cool thing about figurative language is that it always carries extra baggage with it!  That’s why we love to use it–and hear or read it.


That figurative statements are a special case of indirect language (i.e., saying one thing and meaning another). To get at this understanding, introduce the notion of indirection by asking questions like, “What would a friend really mean if he said,

                        My goodness it’s cold in here!

or

                        That’s really a delicious looking cake!”

Even a four-year-old has a tacit understanding of the “pragmatics” of indirection—that complimenting a cook on the outcomes of his or her craft is likely to get you a piece of the product!  Or that reminding others of the temperature in the room is an invitation for them to take the desired action of closing a window or turning up the thermostat.

Once students understand this notion of saying one thing but meaning another (which emerges from the a perspective on language development know as speech act theory), then present them with some examples of metaphors, similes, and hyperboles (you don’t need to call them by their technical names):

                        John runs like a gazelle.

                        Billboards are warts on the America’s landscape.

                        Archie is so short he can play racquetball on the curb. 

For each example, elicit a literal paraphrase so that students will see what you mean by saying one thing and meaning another.  In fact you may want to make a chart with two columns:

What was said                                     What was meant

This sort of activity can lead quite directly to the second concept students must know about figurative language.

That every figurative statement has a literal counterpart. This concept is pretty straightforward and is best taught by first as a group and later individually deciding upon literal paraphrases for figurative statements.

That every figurative statement carries with it some excess baggage not captured by its literal paraphrase. What is special about figurative language is that it always adds a conno­tative meaning (a feeling, a tone, or an attitude) not present in its literal paraphrase.  In other words, to say that Lectures are like sleeping pills is to say more than Lectures can put you to sleep or that Lectures are soporific.  This excess baggage stems from three features that philosophers attribute to figurative language: vividness, compactness and inexpressibility.  It is from these features that figurative expressions derive their unique power and effect; in other words you can pack more descriptively into a metaphor or simile than you can into a parallel literal statement, and you can say things in ways that literal language would never allow you to get quite right.  This concept is best learned by simply discussing the excess baggage that figurative statements carry above and beyond their literal counterparts.

That the various forms of figurative language share the same linguistic function. Usually we teach kids how to discriminate metaphor from simile from hyperbole.  There is nothing terribly wrong with such instruction, except that it misses the point about figura­tive language: That each from conveys the same meaning.  Students need to realize that

Lectures are sleeping pills.  (metaphor)

Lectures are like sleeping pills.  (simile) and

Lectures are so boring that they might as well be sleeping pills.  (hyperbole)

convey similar–but not identical–meanings.  This is best accomplished by discussing the similarity in meaning that is conveyed by different formal realizations of the same underlying comparison.

Just as surely, students need to learn that not all figurative expressions that possess the same intent carry precisely the same meaning.  So, for example, we could convey the meaning that John is slow with any of the following metaphors:

John is a turtle

John is a snail.

John is a slug.

John is a troglodyte.

John is a …

But to say that each of these metaphors denotes the same characteristic of slowness is not to say that we as readers and listeners come away from these variations with the same connotative sense of just how slow John is.

That not all comparisons are figurative. Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of instruc­tion in figurative language is helping students learn to discriminate between figurative comparisons and literal comparisons; the mere presence of like, as, as X as, or, so X that does not mean that a figurative statement is being expressed.

Indeed the most difficult task facing teachers is to help students learn when to take the author literally versus when to decide that she is saying one thing but meaning another.  This task is especially difficult because the reader’s only recourse in deciding whether a comparison is to be taken literally or figuratively is her store of prior knowledge.  For example, a reader cannot decide that the comparison, Limes are like lemons, is a literal comparison whereas Billboards are like warts is a figurative comparison, unless she already knows that limes really are like lemons and that billboards are only metaphorically like warts.  Our only suggestion for getting around this dilemma is to make sure that students get a lot of opportunity to make such discriminations when they encounter comparisons in real text.  Of course, it doesn’t hurt for teachers to guide them through numerous examples of each.  Some examples:

Billboards are signs.

Billboards are warts.

Lectures are like sermons.

Lectures are like sleeping pills.

Amy is so tall that she has to duck under doorways.

Amy is so tall that the clouds block her vision.

An interesting variation of this approach is to add a because statement to each comparison:

Billboards are signs because like signs billboards display information publicly.

Billboards are warts because billboards mar natural beauty

Lectures are like sermons because you have to sit and listen to both.

Lectures are like sleeping pills because they both put you to sleep.

 

 

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