Figurative expressions are also known as figures of speech denoting the use of words and expressions in a symbolic sense rather than in the literal usage.
There are many figurative expressions in English but some of those commonly set questions on by the WAEC, NECO and some examining bodies will be discussed here.
A simile is a figure in which two things of identical or similar qualities are directly compared by the comparative words such as ‘like’, ‘as’, ‘as if’, ‘as though’, etc. For example:
- The elephant is as huge as the mountain.
- Bola is dirty like a pig.
- The man behaves as if he were mad.
In the examples above, the elephant and the mountain are compared in terms of hugeness by as…as in sentence (i). In sentence (ii) Bola and pig are compared in terms of dirtiness by like. In sentence (iii) the man’s behaviour is compared with madness by as if.
A metaphor is simply an indirect comparison. The reason is that there is no comparative word such as as, like, as if, etc. but two things are compared indirectly.
If, for example, I say Ade is a lion, it means Ade is brave like a lion. So, Ade is indirectly compared with a lion in terms of bravery, because lions are brave naturally. For example:
- Olu is a charcoal. (It means black like a charcoal.)
- Bola is a pig. (It means dirty as a pig.)
- The man is a goat. (It means stubborn or rude.)
- Words are knives. (It means words are sharper like knives.)
In the examples above, we can see that two things are compared without the use of like, as, as…as, as if, etc. For example, Olu and charcoal, Bola and pig, the man and a goat, and words and knives are compared.
A personification is the transfer of animate objects to inanimate attributes. It is a technique used when inanimate objects are endowed with human qualities. For example:
- Time is running fast.
- Love is blind.
- Death has fallen in love with her.
- A pen is dancing furiously on a paper.
The questions you have to ask yourself based on the examples above are: can time run or is love really blind, or can death fall in love with her or can a pen dance?
Literally, they cannot because time, love, death and a pen are inanimate or non-human objects; they are just given human qualities.
A hyperbole simply means exaggeration or over-statement of facts. The writer may try to overstate the events or the expressions only for the purpose of emphasis. For example:
- All Ibadan people attended my wedding ceremony. (many people)
- I have been there a thousand times (several times).
- The man drank all the ten barrels of water. (drink too much.
- Your teeth are sharper than razor. (his or her teeth are very sharp)
In the examples above, the writer exaggerates or overstates his expressions for the purpose of emphasis. All that he said is not possible but for the importance of them.
A rhetorical question is a figure of speech in which a question is made to suggest its own answer without demanding a direct reply from the reader or the listener. For example:
- Is God a man or a woman?
- Who knows when he or she will die?
- Where are we going in Nigeria today?
It is clear in the examples above that the questions posed cannot be specifically answered by the listener or the reader.
A euphemism is a figurative expression in which unpleasant, blunt and direct words are presented in pleasant, mild and indirect ways to conceal its real nature. For example:
- The old man has kicked the bucket or slept in the Lord (died).
- The woman is mentally unstable (mad).
- The lady has been put in the family way (pregnant).
In the examples above, we can also see how the speaker/writer presents unpleasant statements in pleasant ways.
An irony is a figure of speech which means the opposite of what the speaker means. It is also a literary device in which literal meaning of a word is opposite to what the speaker intends or says. That is, what the speaker says is different from what he means. For example:
- Adu is so brilliant that he passed one subject out of nine subjects.
- Ajagbe was a good goalkeeper that he conceded ten goals in the first half of the match.
If you examine the examples above, you will discover that the speaker means the opposite of what he says. In sentence (i), the speaker really means that Adu is so dull but he says Adu is so brilliant because a person who is brilliant will pass more than one subject out of nine subjects.
Also, in sentence (ii), the speaker really means that Ajagbe was a bad goalkeeper but he says Ajagbe was a good goalkeeper because a goalkeeper who is good will not concede up to ten goals in the first half of the match.
An oxymoron is a literary device in which two opposing words or phrases are placed side by side or are juxtaposed. For example:
- Open secret
- Bitter sweet
- Bitter truth
- Dangerous safety
- Painful laughter
- The electoral boss announced open-secret ballot.
- The bitter-leaf soup has a bitter-sweet taste.
You will discover in the examples above that two contradictory words are placed side by side to contrast with the opposite words or ideas in the same statement.
A paradox is a statement which at the surface level seems to be absurd or untrue but when it is considered deeply, we discover that it contains a basic sense and truth. For example:
- The male child is the father of the man.
- The hen is the father of cock.
- Attack is the best form of defence.
You can see that the statements above seem to be senseless or absurd but the fact remains that the male child is the one who becomes the father; without the male child, there is no father.
Also, the hen becomes the cock; without the hen, there may be no cock. Next, without attack, we may not know how to defend or we may not know that there is need for defence. So, attack brings about defence.
Litotes is a figurative expression that means an understatement of facts which deny the opposite of what is meant. It means the two negative words that express the positive ones for the purpose of emphasis. For example:
- I am not unaware of the matter.
- The bicycle is hardly irreparable.
- That statement is not bad.
In the above examples, two negative words are used to express the positive ones. In sentence (i), not unaware means aware. In sentence (ii), hardly irreparable means repairable. Lastly, in sentence (iii), not bad means good.
A metonymy is the use of something that is closely associated with a particular person or thing to represent that person or thing. For example:
- The crown is calling you. (king)
- Pen is mightier than sword. (scholar)
- We must respect grey hair. (old people)
In the examples above, the crown is associated with the king, pen is associated with scholar and grey hair is associated with the old people. Therefore, in the sentences above, crown stands for king, pen stands for scholar while grey hair stands for the old people.
Did you from the lessons of figurative expressions above? If so, identify the figure of speech each expression below belongs to and state their meanings.
- The bright sun continued to smile.
- The heavens were let loose.
- They let loose the dogs of vandalism and death.
- The next bombshell fell.
- The early arrival of morning.
- The inevitable quiet end.
- I’d never leave my wife in a million years.
- His son too was buried in the magazine he was reading.
- And had they not been able to take care of their families?
- However, it is not a demon craving human flesh.
- As solid as a rock.
- The planet Earth, the only home of man, is bathed in a steady rain of the sun’s rays.
- Failure would ever dog one’s footsteps.
- His pen is dancing furiously on the paper.
- I had borne the cross gallantly.
- The death knell sounded on my last theory.