Figurative language is a way of using language that takes it beyond what words literally mean in order to better convey an idea, sensation or other experience.
When we write or speak, we go beyond a simple report of the facts. "I was so embarrassed I nearly died," you might say, or "My dog's nose is like velvet." When you use language in this way, even though you are not speaking literally, you actually convey truth more effectively than if you were literal, providing your listener or reader with a more vivid sense of what is happening.
Of the two above examples of figurative language, the second is a simile, meaning that you compare two things using "like" or "as." In this case, the feel of the dog's soft nose is compared to the feel of velvet.
The first example is hyperbole. Of course, you didn't nearly die, and the person you are speaking to is aware of this. This is another important aspect of hyperbole: It is not intended to mislead the reader or listener. They and the speaker both understand that the statement is not meant to be literal.
Hyperbole can be most easily understood as an exaggeration, but it serves a number of different purposes. You can use it for humor, irony, or to emphasize a point.
If you're writing fiction, you might have a character who is often hyperbolic, and this could tell you various things about the character depending on the exact nature of the hyperbole. For example, the person might use hyperbole in a very deadpan, ironic way, showing a kind of cool indifference. On the other hand, the character might be very dramatic and high-strung, constantly using hyperbole and overstating the importance of a situation.
Phrases that are hyperboles can serve multiple purposes as well. For example, you can be humorous while also emphasizing a point. The hyperbole examples below each fall into the main category but could also overlap with at least one of the other categories.
It's often said that humor is the most difficult type of writing to do because it's individualized. You have probably had the experience before of finding something hilarious that didn't make your friends crack a smile.
That said, the intent, at least, of hyperbole is often humor, even if it doesn't always land. Hyperbole examples are common in the work of stand-up comedians and in comedic writing.
One common example of using hyperbole for humor is in poking gentle fun at the tendency of older people to tell younger people how easy they have it compared to their own childhood. A common claim used to be
Sometimes, "uphill" was added for emphasis. Over time, this morphed into:
You could take this about as far as you wanted:
Irony has a few different forms, but when hyperboles are involved, it often means saying the opposite of what you actually mean. If you looked out on a rainy day and said, "Well, I guess I better go water the garden," that would be a form of irony.
One of the most famous examples of hyperbole in literature for ironic purposes is in the 18th-century essay "A Modest Proposal" by Jonathan Swift. In this essay, Swift is attacking the way the British treat the Irish and the hunger that they are suffering by proposing eating children as a solution to Irish poverty. This is obviously a shocking suggestion, and people have reacted to it with horror for hundreds of years now, but Swift is actually employing hyperbole in order to get his point across about what he believes to be cruel and inhumane policies toward Irish people.
Hyperbole is often used to emphasize a point. Most likely, at least once in your life, a parent or a teacher has said a sentence to you that started like this:
Of course, they haven't really told you the thing a million times, even if both of you feel as though they have! What they mean is that they have told you this thing many times before.
Here are a couple more examples of hyperbole used for emphasis:
Most likely, you have been using hyperboles for nearly as long as you have been able to talk. You have probably been using other types of figurative language as well, even if this is the first time you've ever heard the term. In addition to the simile, mentioned above, other types of figurative language include metaphor, symbolism, and onomatopoeia, which is a word that describes a sound, such as the meow of a cat. While you might associate figurative language with literature or poetry, hyperbole and other forms of it are as natural to us as human speech itself.