One of the definitions of figure is “a diagram or picture.” At the most basic level, figurative language is language that names or describes an image with words.
For example, if we say “words paint a picture,” then we are speaking figuratively, since words do not actually use brushes and paint, but they can create an image in our minds. This kind of image—made with words—is an important aspect of using language. Often these figures of speech are used as a quick shorthand for complicated ideas or colorful substitutes for literal descriptions. They are ways to make writing more playful, memorable, and immediate. They help us connect with the reader and, as long as we are aware of possible clichés that might distract a reader from the point we are making, add style to our writing.
There are many ways to use figurative language. Let’s start with phrases so common that we barely notice them as imagery. Some of these small groupings of words can stand for ideas that could be conveyed literally with fewer words: up in the air (“undecided”); in a flash (“quickly”); hold your horses (“slow down”).
Then there are other idioms that form a kind of shorthand for more complicated ideas that would take at least a sentence to explain. These word-pictures essentially use extremely short stories to compress these meanings into a very few words: raise the bar; take it in stride; elephant in the room.
Metaphors and similes are another category of figurative language use. A metaphor substitutes a word or phrase with one that makes an analogy or explanation with an image: a mountain of paperwork.
A simile compares a word or phrase with one that makes an analogy or explanation that uses like or as: fast as lightning.
Even individual words can convey figurative meanings. Again, some of these have become so familiar that the original concrete or literal meaning of these words might not occur to us when we use them: emotional baggage; going viral.
Figurative use of language also takes the form of extreme exaggeration, or hyperbole. This very often expresses an impossibility or near impossibility: The show went on forever.
Finally, if we give our words qualities or abilities that people have but that the things we are describing can’t logically possess, the result is a different kind of figurative language called personification: The words jumped off the page.
That leaves us only to warn about overuse or abuse of these images—a little figurative language can go a long way.
Follow Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large for Merriam-Webster, on Twitter @PeterSokolowski.