Year 6 Language and Literature

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Learning about Language

Literal and Figurative Language

When you speak or write, you use language in different ways. Sometimes you use literal language; you say exactly what you mean. But sometimes you use figurative language, which is a more colourful way of expressing yourself when you don’t say exactly what you mean. After a really hard game of football or tennis, you might say:


literal: I’m exhausted.


figurative: I’m dead.

The game might have worn you out, and you might be lying flat on your back out of breath, but you’re still alive! In saying ‘I’m dead’, you are using figurative language to express how tired you feel.

Look at the verb floated in the following sentences. Which use is literal and which is figurative?

The graceful ballerina floated: across the stage.

The leaf floated: on the water.

Have you ever heard someone say: ‘That’s a figure of speech’? A figure of speech is an expression that is not meant to be taken literally. You may know this old joke:

‘Why did the man throw the clock out the window? Because he wanted to see time fly.’

That’s funny because the man in the joke takes a figure of speech literally. What does it really mean to say that ‘time flies’? Scientists always use the literal meanings of words because they need to be clear and precise. Poets and storytellers often use figurative language to stir our emotions and to help us see things in new ways.

Read more about literal and figurative language in the Language and Literature chapter of What Your Year 6 Child Needs to Know.