When people speak and write, they may use one of two types of languages – literal or figurative. Words in literal expressions denote what they mean according to common or dictionary usage. In other words, they say exactly what they mean. Words in figurative expressions connote—they add layers of meaning.
For example, the sentence “The ground is thirsty” is partly figurative: “Ground” has a literal meaning, but the ground is not alive and therefore neither needs to drink nor feels thirst. Readers immediately reject a literal interpretation and confidently interpret the words to mean “The ground is dry,” an analogy to the condition that would trigger thirst in an animal. However, the statement “When I first saw her, my soul began to quiver” is harder to interpret. It could describe infatuation, panic, or something else entirely. The context a person requires to interpret this statement is familiarity with the speaker’s feelings. Other people can give a few words a provisional set of meanings, but cannot understand the figurative utterance until acquiring more information about it.
Figurative language departs from literal meaning to achieve a special effect or meaning. Figures of speech can be handy in songwriting as they provide emphasis, freshness of expression, or clarity. However, clarity may also suffer from their use, as any figure of speech introduces an ambiguity between literal and figurative interpretation. The writer must make sure that the audience has enough literal information in the song to understand the figures of speech (sometimes called rhetoric or locution). In my experience, I’ve seen many young writers use figures of speech that the audience can not interpret, due to lack of contextual information.
There are four primary types of figurative language: metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and irony. Below is an example of each type, where the same fact is expressed first literally and then in each of the four figures of speech:
- Literal: It’s raining hard.
- Metaphor : It’s raining cats and dogs.
- Metonymy: It’s umbrella weather again.
- Synecdoche: The drops are really coming down.
- Irony: Lovely weather we’re having.
We’ll discuss each of these types individually, in future posts.