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Getting Smarter through Language

Intermediate Reading Course. Section 3: Interpreting the Message

Figures of Speech in Reading | Page 1/2

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 Course Navigation

Note: This portion of the course has two parts:

Literal and Figurative Meanings

Words and expressions often have a literal and figurative meanings. For example, there are two ways to understand this sentence:

John likes playing games.

Literally, it means that John like playing games such as video games or board games to pass the time.

Figuratively, it means that John behaves dishonestly to get what he wants.


When you use a word or expression literally, you use it to mean what it really means as in Sentence 1 above. You use the usual meaning, or the dictionary definition, of the phrase “play games."

When you use a word or expression figuratively, you use it to mean something else as in Sentence 2 above. The figurative use of the phrase creates a negative image of John manipulating others or getting people to do things they do not want to do.

Examples of words with literal and figurative meanings


Literal meaning: the part of the body containing the brain.
I hurt my head when I was getting in the car.

Figurative meaning 1: The person in charge of a group or organization.
As the head of company, I have many responsibilities.

Figurative meaning 2: your mind.
I can still hear her voice in my head.

step aside

Literal meaning: Move to the side.
Please step aside to make room for the people exiting the train.

Figurative meaning: To leave a position; to resign.
After losing millions due to his bad decisions, the president of the company stepped aside.

have no heart

Literal meaning: to lack the organ that sends blood and fluids around the body.
Although plants have a circulatory system, they have no heart to move fluids.

Figurative meaning: to have no character or feelings.
How can he treat people so poorly? Does he have no heart?


Literal meaning: showing anger.
John’s parents were angry when they found out what he had done.

Figurative meaning: agitated, intense.
The angry seas destroyed several houses along the beach.

Assess Your Learning

Practice 1. Identify words and expressions used literally and figuratively.

Figures of Speech

As you can see in the examples above, a figure of speech is a word or expression used in its figurative sense, usually to create an effect or to produce feelings or a clear, strong image.

We use figures of speech in everyday language. Figures of speech are also used in literature very frequently because they express feelings and images in the reader’s mind.

For example, it is fine to say “John acts dishonestly to confuse people and get them to do what he wants.” However, it is faster, more “colorful,” and more expressive to say, “John likes to play mind games.”

Which one would you say?

  • A good reporter is good at recognizing when an event can be a good story to report.
  • A good reporter has a nose for a good story.

Literally, ”to have a nose” means just that: you have a nose in your face.

“To have a nose for something” is an expression where “to have a nose” is used figuratively. It expresses the same idea in the first sentence faster; at the same time, it evokes the image of someone who can detect something well (as dogs use their noses to find food that is hidden away).

When you use an expression in its figurative sense, you call it a figure of speech. Figures of speech should not be taken literally.

Video Activity

Watch Figures of speech and take good study notes.

Note. The video supports the content on this page. You can study the page and watch the video in any order.

Up Next: Named Figures of Speech

Figures of speech are so common, that they have names. In fact, there are hundreds of figures of speech.

Go to the next page of this lesson to learn about common figures of speech.