How to Interpret Figurative Language for the GED RLA

By Achim K. Krull, Murray Shukyn

Writers use language either literally or figuratively. The GED Reasoning Through Language Arts test will have some questions to test your ability to identify the difference. A NASA scientist can describe an asteroid very literally: composed largely of water, mixed with some rocks and smaller solid fragments. Or, he or she may write figuratively, describing it as a dirty snowball — a somewhat more dramatic image that conveys the meaning accurately enough for the layperson.

Figurative language compares two things in a sentence, with the purpose of creating a clear image; writers use it in various forms:

  • Simile uses the word like or as to compare two unlike objects. For example the phrases like “sleek as a panther” or “bright as the sun” are all a form of simile.

  • Metaphor is a comparison of two unlike objects without using as or like. Jaques’ claim in Shakespeare’s As You Like It that “All the world’s a stage” is a metaphor comparing the world to a stage in a theater.

  • Hyperbole is a wild exaggeration. Think of how often your mom said to you, “I’ve told you a million times not to jump on the bed.” You know she hasn’t really made that statement a million times, but that number creates an effect by showing both impatience and exasperation and providing urgency. The common phrase “You could have knocked me over with a feather” is another example of hyperbole.

  • Personification turns a nonhuman subject into something with human characteristics. You see it every day in the world of children’s literature. Dancing donkeys and talking crickets don’t exist in real life, but they’re useful tools for engaging children in stories. Personification is often used in more mature forms of literature as a powerful descriptive tool.

  • Onomatopoeia is the use of words that sound like what they’re being used to describe. Think of the cereal that goes snap, crackle, and pop. Cereals don’t make sounds themselves, but certainly that is what most people hear when milk poured onto a bowl of cereal. Or think of bees buzzing or cats hissing.

  • Alliteration is the repetition of sounds, such as in the expressions “wild and wooly” and “vim and vigor,” to reinforce the image being described. Here are a couple examples of alliteration used on context: “An angry actress awkwardly accepts an award after an awful appearance.” “Critics condemn crass commercialism.”

  • Idiomatic expressions are phrases that mean something very different from their literal meaning. When you say that someone let the cat out of the bag, you usually don’t mean a real cat and a real bag. Most people know from common usage that this phrase means disclosing a secret unintentionally. Expressions such as “face like thunder” or “raining cats and dogs” are part of everyday usage.

These devices shape the reader’s understanding of, and reaction to, something they’re reading. It can be for humor or persuasion, or to create any desired effect.

Here are a couple of questions that challenge your ability to identify various types of figurative language:

Identify the figurative language used in the following sentence: “She ran like the wind across the meadow.”

  • (A) hyperbole

  • (B) personification

  • (C) simile

  • (D) idiomatic expression

The correct answer is Choice (C) because the sentence compares two unlike things (a girl and the wind) by using the word like.

Identify the figurative language used in the following sentence: “The teapot happily whistled a cheery tune as the water boiled.”

  • (A) hyperbole

  • (B) personification

  • (C) simile

  • (D) idiomatic expression

Personification, Choice (B), is the device used here. Inanimate objects don’t whistle happy tunes; people do. The use of the word as later has no bearing because it’s not used as part of the comparison.