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Literal and figurative language is a distinction in traditional systems for analyzing language. Literal language refers to words that do not deviate from their defined meaning. Figurative language refers to words, and groups of words, that exaggerate or alter the usual meanings of the component words. Figurative language may involve analogy to similar concepts or other contexts, and may involve exaggerations. These alterations result in figures of speech.

Details and examples

In traditional analysis, words in literal expressions denote what they mean according to common or dictionary usage, while the words in figurative expressions connote—they add layers of meaning. To convert an utterance into meaning, the human mind requires a cognitive framework, made up of memories of all the possible meanings that might be available to apply to the particular words in their context. This set of memories will give prominence to the most common or literal meanings, but also suggest reasons for attributing different meanings, e.g., the reader understands that the author intended it to mean something different.

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.

Figurative language departs from literal meaning to achieve a special effect or meaning. Techniques for doing so are listed in an article on Figures of speech.

See also