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Literal And Non-literal Language, And Its Recognition

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Language processing is a mostly-debated topic in all its aspects. Figurative or non-literal language processing is an interesting phenomenon in language that needs more investigation from cognitive, psychological and neurological perspectives. This study aims to investigate non-literal meaning comprehension on language. Other cognitive abilities, including the IQ level, the memory capacity, the ability of abstract thinking, and the ability to create mental images influence the comprehension of non-literal meaning. In terms of all such cognitive abilities, there are some individual differences related to the age and gender variables.

Everyday communication includes not only literal language, but also the use of non-literal language, such as idioms, proverbs, metaphors, indirect requests, and conversational implicatures. Non-literal language is linguistic evolution at its best because it describes concrete and abstract ideas by moving beyond literal constructs and using non-literal meanings to reach an effect. We laugh as in puns and jokes, learn and share life experiences or wisdom as in idioms and proverbs, emphasize certain messages as in irony and hyperbole, and compare our worlds as in similes and metaphors.As figures of speech non-literal expressions enhance our communicative effort. How the speakers comprehend figurative expressions?

In order to understand non-literal language, pragmatic inferences should be made: the listener has to go beyond the literal meaning of the utterance and draw on the situational context of the utterance as well as the world knowledge of the listener and speaker to reach the implied non-literal meaning. Pragmatic inferences are also thought to be cognitively more demanding because the listener must both access their theory of mind in order to realize the communicative intentions of the speaker and inhibit the literal meaning that is activated during the processing of the non-literal language together with the implied meaning. Non-literal utterances cover a great part of our daily communications. So, it is remarkable that listeners,despite of the high cognitive demands, are able tounderstand them effortlessly and quickly. This is mostly, true for healthy young adults who are in the peak of their cognitive abilities. Futhermore, it is unclear that how the aging process affects the comprehension of non-literal language.

Research on non-literal language has focused predominantly on the comprehension, not the production of the various figures. This extensive study of comprehension has concluded on many important results. Hoffman and Kemper (1987) results that, when sufficient context is provided it takes no more time to understand figurative expressions than to understand literal ones. Because of this result, some researchers have rejected the literal – non-literal distinction as being of little psychological value. Gibbs (1982, 1984, 1989) recommended that researchers stop debating what is and is not literal, and instead adopt an approach based on speech act thteory. According to speech act theory, discourse participants comprehend utterances when they recognize the underlying goals and intentions of the other participants. Understanding when and why an utterance is produced is crucial in understanding its meaning.

Literature review

One of the most puzzling and important facts about communication is that people don’t always mean what they say; speakers often use imprecise, exaggerated or otherwise literally false descriptions to communicate experiences and attitudes. It is generally accepted that non-literal or figurative language has an important function in discourse and is widespread in language. The Webster‘s New World College Dictionary (1996: 571) claims that figurative speech is an expression that replaces a variation of viewpoints by which things or notions referred to as being different in some ways (in identify, degree, shape) from what it actually is or appears to be, but so related to the expression successfully implies the intended meaning of effect either or greatly different from what has been said altogether.

Rozakis (1995: 28) explains that “Figurative language is saying one thing in terms of another”.It means that figurative language is an expression used indirectly by person or the author by using a comparison. It cannot be interpreted literally because the comparison in figurative language expression has the meaning.

Kennedy (1979:187) says that figurative language is language that uses figures of speech. And afigure of speech may occur whenever a speaker or writer departs from the usual denotations of words for the sake of freshness or emphasis.

Based on Kennedy (1983: 481), figurative language consists of comparative, contradictive, and correlative. Comparative language consists of Personification, Metaphor, and Simile. Contradictive figurative language consists of Hyperbole, Litotes, Paradox, and Irony. Correlative figurative language consists of Metonymy, Synecdoche, Symbol, Allusion, and Ellipsis.

Non-literal language

The difficulty in studying language comprehension is that language is not always straightforward. For instance, a speaker may not always say exactly what he or she means. In general terms, when speakers mean something different than what they are actually saying it is referred to as non-literal language. We all use non-literal language in a variety of ways everyday and without it our communication would be rather dull. Non-literal language is words and language that are used to extend their meaning beyond the everyday and create more than just surface meaning. Sometimes it is not easy to grasp what non-literal language is or what its function is. The easiest way to understand non-literal language is to compare it to something you already know about literal language. Literal language is the opposite or antonyms of non-literal language and is defined as the actual, dictionary meaning of a word. So, literal language is the most basic meaning of words without any special interpretation. You can communicate well with basic language but if you would like to express intense emotion or you would like to tell a really exciting or interesting story, you would use more sophisticated language in order to persuade the person whom you are telling the story to listen closely. Thus you would use non-literal language to make an idea that you are communicating more interesting and special.

A literal sentence is a sentence that explicitly tells you something. A non-literal sentence shows the reader rather than telling them – the reader has to infer or guess meaning.

  • Literal – She was sad.
  • Non-literal – As she wiped a glistening tear away from her cheek she solemnly turned and walked purposefully towards the door

In order to identify and interpret non-literal language, you would have to understand its two main characteristics. Firstly, non-literal language uses connotations that people associate with certain words to notify ideas more effectively. Naturally, these connotations would depend on a reader or listener’s own experience. For example, if you are a dog lover or have a dog as a pet, the word dog will bring to mind happy images. The connotations that you would associate with a word dog would probably be love and comfort and you would smile to yourself if you heard the word. However, if you had the unfortunate experience of being attacked by a dog, your connotations to the word would probably be fear and horror. The second characteristics of non-literal language is that it uses comparisons to suggest certain ideas. For example, if we say “Arthur broke the cup” we know that the cup is literally in pieces, in the same way, if we say “Arthur broke his arm” we know that the bone of arm is actually broken and it is very painful. But if we say “Arthur broke Mandy’s heart” we know that she is very upset but her heart is not really in pieces. In this example, Mandy’s heart is compared to an actual broken object and the connotations of damage and pain that is associated with the word broken effectively notifies the way Mandy feels. Or in another example, “John’s sitting on the fence”. In the literal meaning of this sentence, John is actually sitting on the fence. But you ask John if he is in favor of or against something and he is undecided. He says he is in favor in some situations but against in other situations. He can’t choose sides. In this case, you use “John is sitting on the fence”. This is the non-literal meaning of this sentence, here there is no actual fence.

Non-literal or figurative language is language that goes beyond the dictionary meaning of words or phrases – not using words in their usual or most basic sense. Writers use a lot of non-literal language because it allows them to express themselves well and use small distinctions in meaning or nuance. It helps readers better understand something or gain a more detailed picture in their minds. Figurative language can be found in poetry where the writing appeals to the senses. It can make you look at the world differently, it can heighten your senses. Non-literal language does not always mean what is being said or read but serves to make it more interesting.

There are several different forms of non-literal language:

  • A simile-a comparison between two ideas or concepts using “as” or “like”. With similes you express that one idea or concept shares similarities with another. “I slept like a baby”. You did not literally sleep the way babies do, but babies sleep very peacefully and figuratively, that is how you want to say you slept.
  • A metaphor-a comparison that implies that the concepts being compared share some quality or trait. They are like similes without using “as” or “like”. “We received a tidal wave (many) of complaints”.
  • A hyperbole-exaggeration to express strong feelings. I have a million things to do today. I died laughing.
  • Personification- giving an inanimate object or an animal a quality or trait that persons have. The trees were dancing in the breeze. Trees don’t “dance”, humans do, but here “dancing” means moving back and forth.
  • Irony-sarcasm. If someone tastes your food and says, “Ugh! Delicious” they are being sarcastic.
  • Metonymy-the substitution of the name of an attribute or djunct for that of the thing meant. The pen is mightier than the sword. The pen is a symbol of written words, while the sword is a symbol of military power. So this sentence means “Written words are more effective than military power or swords”.
  • Idioms-words or phrases that don’t mean exactly what they say, they have a hidden meaning that is not often easy to work out from the words.
  • Puns-jokes exploiting the different possible meanings of a word, or the fact that there are words which sound alike but have different meanings. “Reading while sunbathing makes you well red/read” and so on.

The characteristic of all these forms is that what the speaker said, the literal meaning, is different from the interpretation that the speaker wants you to formulate, the speaker meaning. Because what is said is different from the intended meaning, non-literallanguage requires the listener to draw pragmatic inferences, by combining informationabout the speaker, the context in which the expression is produced, and the literal contentof the utterance to answer the questions:What is on the speaker’s mind? Why did the speaker produce that utterance in this context?


Relatively few researchers have addressed the specific discourse goals that underlie the use of figuration. Gerrig and Gibbs (1998) based on the idea that non-literal language can be used to establish intimacy between some discourse participants while excluding others. Glucksberg (1989) suggested that metaphors can be more precise and informative than literal statements. He proposed that metaphors are easier to understand than other figures of speech.

Metaphors have been studied for a long time from different perspectives. Traditionally, metaphor has been considered as a linguistic phenomenon but have to do primarily with stylistic matters. It is treated as part of non-literal language. Some scholars have suggested that metaphor is simply a matter of bringing out similarities between things and states. After the publishing the book entitled Metaphors We Live By in 1980 by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, scholars are thrilled by the idea of considering the phenomena of metaphor as a conceptual system of human beings.

Metaphors are figures of speech, mainly used in poetry. It states that one thing is something else. For example, “Her voice is music to my ears”. In this metaphor, you are comparing the girl’s voice to music. They both sound very pleasing. Robert Frost had said: “Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another”. Words have their own literal meaning. However they can also be used so that something other than the literal meaning is implied. For instance, The girl is a rose. Literally this sentence is senseless. Because the girl is not a plant. However, the suggestions of rose involves “beauty, pure, soft”. So the word rose can be meaningfully accepted figuratively rather than literally to “the girl”.

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M. Traxler claims that, a metaphor indicates a relationship between two elements. The first element is the topic and the second element is the vehicle. The topic is what the discourse is about. It is the main focus of the conversation. The vehicle is some concept that we are using to comment on the topic.

People often interpret metaphors by mentally converting them to similes. Similes are like metaphors, both of them have a topic and vehicle, but unlikely similes have an extra word such as “like, as”. These extra words make it obvious that two thing are being compared. We can use similes to indicate two things which have shared characteristics. The meaning of metaphor is revealed by changing it to simile. But the meaning stays the same before and after the conversion.

Recent research into everyday conversation shows that people use four metaphors per minute. This statistic is a bit surprise, because people are not aware of the vast majority of metaphors that they use. Metaphors create rich images. They can express a single idea or a lifetime of experience. Today metaphors are accepted as a highly accurate description of the speaker’s perception, though many linguists used to dismiss them as ‘merely figurative’.


Idiomatic expressions are part of every language. Native speakers tend to use idiomatic expressions spontaneously without thinking of the figurative meaning. It is natural that non-native speakers find idioms difficult to understand because they don’t know what the image of the idiomatic expression is based on.

In linguistics, idioms are defined as fixed expressions that are typically used in a non-literal sense and they have self-dependent meaning. Students are mostly taught that there is no link between an idiom and its meaning. So idioms have to be learned by heart. However, recent researches have shown otherwise. They have shown that there is a link between idiomatic expressions and their meanings. This link based on physical experiences, which are based on specific domains and culturally are specific. Realizing origin of the idiom and what it is based on help to realize the idiom’s metaphorical meaning.

An idiom is an expression that takes on a figurative meaning when certain words are combined, which is different from the literal definition of the individual words. In idioms the meaning of the utterance is much greater than the sum of the parts. For example,

-Hey buddy, break a leg for your exam. Here “break a leg” means “good luck”

-Don’t worry, passing this exam is a piece of cake. “A piece of cake” means “that is easy”.

-I am going to hit the books because I have an examination coming up soon. The words “hit the books” means “study hard”.

According to Chomsky (1980), the classical view of idiom comprehension views idioms as being long words that are analyzed and interpreted as wholes. These accounts view idioms as being essentially “dead metaphors”, which were once analyzed like metaphoric expressions, but over the time have associated with fixed, stored meanings. Gibbs, Nayak and Cutting (1989) explains that, This view suggests that the figurative meanings of idiomatic phrases are directly stipulated in the mental lexicon much like the meaning of an individual word is listed in a dictionary. According this view, listeners do not access the meanings of individual words within the idiomatic expression as the idiom is being comprehended.

Idioms may be decomposable and non-decomposable. In some idioms, such as spill the beans, individual words can be tied to specific parts of the idiomatic meaning, thus this types of idioms are decomposable. Non-decomposable idioms can not be analyzed into subparts. Decomposable idioms are more syntactically flexible than non-decomposable idioms.

Activity ideas for developing the understanding and use of non-literal language at home

Creating a non-literal language book – a simple notebook with 4 columns for phrase, definition, picture and example may be a good idea. Writing any new phrases when you come across into the book, and discussing these phrases again and again with examples may be useful for understanding of non-literal language.

Acting/role play – choosing some interesting non-literal language features and working together to create a short conversation for each one.

Rewrite a story/article using non-literal language – finding a suitable short article or story and trying to rewrite the story or just the short section of it, including as many non-literal language features as possible. To make this task more difficult, try to make up your own story using lots of non-literal language.


In this paper we have examined the literal and non-literal language, the processes of recognizing and understanding metaphor and idioms. Metaphors have been studied for a long time from different perspectives. Philosophers tend to consider language as literal, thinking metaphors for only to be used by poets. Linguists view metaphor as important, emphasizing the construal of meanings. The metaphor study is also meaning study, firstly focusing on literal meaning and secondly on the idiomatic meaning. Idiomatic expressions should not be neglected. They are used daily and repeatedly by native speakers of English language. Idiomatic expressions are a part of every language and are based on that language history and culture. Learning idioms increases the vocabulary and lexicon of the English language learner. Furthermore, idiomatic expressions knowledge leads to a better understanding of the culture and customs of that particular language.

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Literal And Non-literal Language, And Its Recognition. (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved January 31, 2023, from
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