Of course, the pitcher’s fast ball wasn’t really smoking. But when something moves very fast, it heats up and can give off smoke. The pitch was moving so fast that the announcer exaggerated. And, of course, the person you work with isn’t really a workhorse. He or she just works as hard as one. That’s what a figure of speech is—a word or phrase that does not have its usual meaning.
The joke is funny only if you know the figure of speech that’s being used. If you had a rough day and were “all wound up,” how would you be feeling? In a figurative sense, a person who is “wound up” is tense, like a coil. That person wants to “unwind”—to relax and stretch out.
Comparisons like “as mad as a hornet” have been used so often that they have become familiar sayings. Their meanings are well known. But good writers use figures of speech that are new and creative. To understand this kind of figure of speech, you need to decide which two things are being compared. Then you can use what you know and a little imagination to understand how they are being compared.
Tyrone’s snoring sounded like a chainsaw buzzing through a forest.In this sentence the sound of snoring is being compared to the sound of a chainsaw. The word like is a sign that a comparison is being made. Because snoring and a saw are two very different things, you know that it’s a figurative comparison.
Julie’s temper can be as hot as chili peppers.Someone who often gets angry is said to have a “hot temper.” This sentence compares a “hot” temper to hot chili peppers. The word as is a clue that a comparison is being made.
Figures of speech that use like and as to make comparisons are called similes. However you can also make comparisons without these terms:
Ricardo is quick with math problems. You can almost hear the computer hum of his brain.This sentence has no like or as to signal a comparison, yet a comparison is being made—between Ricardo and a computer. Comparisons that are implied like this are called metaphors.
The following poem gives you a good idea of what personification is like:
|The wind stood up, and gave a shout;|
|He whistled on his fingers, and|
Kicked the withered leaves about,
|And thumped the branches with his hand,|
And said he’d kill, and kill, and kill,
|And so he will! And so he will!|
|“The Wind” by James Stephens|
The wind, of course, can’t stand up, shout, whistle on fingers, kick, thump, or say anything. But the wind that the poet is writing about must have been so strong that it reminded him of an angry person, so he wrote about the wind as if it were an angry person.
See pages 57–61, 193–196, and 230–237 in Contemporary's GED Language Arts, Reading for more information on figurative language.