Literally In Love With Figurative Expressions

Child #2 has been studying poetry in his English class. His homework last week included an exercise to help the students understand the difference between literal and figurative expressions. The assignment gave an excerpt from a poem and asked the students to decipher the meaning. The students were then supposed to take that literal meaning and come up with their own figurative expression for it.

Image courtesy of Ohmega1982
Image courtesy of Ohmega1982

The literal translation of the line was “My stomach hurt.” Child #2 didn’t need help with that part, but he did need help with the next step. I pointed out that “My stomach hurt” doesn’t necessarily tell you anything. There are different kinds of stomach aches (ranging from mild discomfort to something straight out of Alien). I told him to think about how it feels when his stomach hurts. Does it feel bloated, like it’s swelling up? Or does it feel like it’s cramping and curling in on itself? When he answered with cramping, we brainstormed on an image that would convey the feeling.

The next question on his assignment asked why a figurative example is better than literal one. It’s a great question, and I think the secret lies in its efficiency. Figurative speech immediately puts an image in our heads, but it then steps aside and lets our imaginations do the rest. Our minds fill in the details based on our real world experiences.

To describe how her stomach felt, the author of the poem used the image of a watermelon that was dropped and burst open. I know you can already see it because you’ve seen what happens when a watermelon hits the ground. You can hear it—the low thunk followed by a higher-pitched splat. You can see the contrast of green rind, red flesh, and black seeds spattered across the ground. You experience it in your head without the author using paragraphs of detail to get the information across.

By relating a concept to something we’ve experienced in the real world, that concept becomes more concrete. Figurative speech is powerful because it does more than communicate an idea. It creates an experience for the reader. It pulls me in and makes me part of the story, and that’s why I’m literally in love with figurative expressions.

What do you think? Is figurative better than literal?

©2013 Kim Vandel

5 thoughts on “Literally In Love With Figurative Expressions

  1. Sounds like a good school your son goes too. Literal is ok when every is familiar with an experience.

    If someone says they have a small headache most peoople could relate, but if they have a migraine and you’ve never had one, explaining the pulsing, nausua, sensitivity to bright light, won’t really tell them what the experience is like. Figurative expressions such as fingers pressing at the back of your skull, shards of flahing light, or popcorn popping inside your head might help the person understand more.

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