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Literally and Figuratively

The first and foremost step in developing one’s language is to understand the difference and usage of literal and figurative meaning of words that are used to convey one’s thoughts. Vocabulary development is incomplete without properly understanding the importance and usage of different words and their different meanings.

Let us have a look at the following excerpt from the poem “Daffodils” by William Wordsworth.

I WANDER'D lonely as a cloud
       That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
       A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Literal Meaning Examples
  • The above excerpt from the poem “Daffodils” by William Wordsworth is an excellent example of usage of literal and figurative language. 
  • Line 5 “Beside the lake, beneath the trees” means exactly what the poet says. It conveys the actual meaning, with no exaggeration or hidden meaning, as to where the Daffodils can be found. 
  • Line 1 “I WANDER'D lonely as a cloud” does not mean that the poet is a cloud and is moving alone in the sky. Rather, the poet is talking figuratively. He assumes himself to be a cloud floating in the sky.  The words convey not just the facts but an idea which encourages us to use our imaginations.

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Literal and Figurative Examples

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By reading the poem and the explanations provided above, we can come to a conclusion that words sometimes do not mean exactly what they say.  Therefore, two types of method can be applied to analyze written and spoken language. They are:

a) Literal method

b) Figurative method

Literal language refers to words that express the dictionary meaning of a word and mean exactly what is said, whereas figurative language refers to words that exaggerate and imply ideas indirectly.

Let us look at few more examples to understand the difference between literal and figurative meaning of the words:

Example 1
 
I wanted to break the ice in the bucket and have fun with my cousins.

  • Literal meaning of the words reflects the dictionary meaning of the given words. They mean what they say. There is no hidden meaning. 
  • Here, in the above example, the words break the ice means to literally smash it into pieces.

Example 2 

At the inaugural ceremony, Jane organized a couple of games to break the ice.

  • Figurative meaning, on the other hand, does not mean exactly what it says. It implies something else other than what the words mean literally. 
  • Here in the example above, the phrase break the ice does not mean that Jane is planning for an activity where people have to smash the ice; it means that she is trying to make people feel more relaxed with each other.  
The first example is an instance of Literal language, while the second example is an instance of Figurative language. 

What is Literal Meaning?

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Literal Meaning

Methods of Finding Literal Meaning


According to traditional analysis, the literal meaning of the words can be attained by pursuing any of the following methods:

Usage of dictionary: Any word’s literal meaning can be attained from looking into the dictionary which is a book of collection of words and their meaning along with other information related to the word such as part of speech, synonyms, origins, and pronunciation.

Look at the dictionary entry below. 

Proper Pronunciation:  [ˈprɒpə]
Part of speech: adjective
Meaning: appropriate or suited for some purpose
Origin: Middle English propre, from Old French, from Latin proprius

Context clues: When you read on your own, you can often figure out the literal meaning of a new word by looking at its context, the other words and sentences that surround it. For instance, look at the following example.

The area suffered an earthquake followed by a flood. After such cataclysms, it took some time to return to normal.
  • You can see from the first sentence that cataclysms refer to both an earthquake and a flood. It is a general word for violent change in the forces of nature. The context provides examples of the unknown word.

Word origins: English contains many words based on roots from ancient languages like Greek and Latin. Having some knowledge of word derivations in either of these languages can help you determine the literal meaning of words.

Examples:

 Root   Meaning   Example 
 hydr (Greek)   water  dehydrate, hydrant 
 vid (Latin)  see  video, evidence

The word ‘eject’ comes from the Latin prefix e-, meaning “out,” and the root ject, meaning “to throw.” Many English words contain the ‘ject’ root.

For example, if you reject an offer, you throw it back.

Figurative Language

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It is essential to know if certain sentences or words are conveying the simple straight meaning or if they are referring to anything more than the words are expressing. In case the words mean more than what they stand for, such words or sentences are said to be referring to Figurative language. They depart from the direct meanings of words to emphasize ideas and emotions.

Look at this example.

The teacher told Miller to cut out the monkey business and get to work.
  • As the graphic illustrates, it does not mean that Miller is buying or selling monkeys.
  • It is an idiom, a common expression or phrase, which has a figurative or imaginative meaning. The sentence above really means that Miller has to stop behaving silly and mischievous.
Did you notice that the figurative language is more colorful and vivid than the literal language? Let’s see what figurative language is. 

What is Figurative Language?

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Figurative Language Examples
Let us now have a look at some examples of use of figurative language in day to day life.

Example 1:

They showered the baby with gifts.
  • The sentence above does not mean that the baby is literally washed with gifts. It is implied that they gave a lot of gifts to the baby.

Example 2:

The cops got the information straight from the horse’s mouth.
  • In the above sentence, the phrase “from the horse’s mouth” means that they got the information from a reliable source. The use of figurative language helps in emphasizing the point that they got it from someone who is involved in it and knows a lot about it.
From the examples above, you can infer that using figurative meaning appeals to your imaginations-your ability to understand the creative power of words. When you search for the figurative meaning of a word/an expression, be aware of what the words suggest. 
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