Figurative language

Language can be used to stretch our imagination, to make the impossible sound possible, and to bring abstract ideas to life. What kind of language use are we talking about? Figurative language is a broad term to describe language that is not intended to be taken literally but instead paints a picture in the mind of the reader.

As we will learn in this lesson, there are several types of figurative language. We will study the use of figurative language in the famous speech by Martin Luther King, 'I Have a Dream' and his less famous letter written from a Birmingham jail. Although these texts are works of non-fiction, they are nevertheless literary.

Studying this text will help us meet one of the learning outcomes for Part 4, where we want to 'understand and make appropriate use of literary terms.' Below you find several activities to help you engage with both the speech and a letter. 

Group work

The first step to understanding figurative speech is to learn to differentiate between concrete objects and abstract ideas. As you read the speech, 'I Have a Dream' by Martin Luther King, look for words that depict tangible objects in the mind of the reader. Then look for words that state abstract ideas. The opening lines of the speech have been split up into six parts. In six groups, focus on different paragraphs each, finding examples of concrete objects and abstract ideas. Groups should present their findings to others so that everyone can complete the worksheet below. 

 Figurative language 

Concrete objects Abstract ideas
beacon, flames, daybreak, night
hope, injustice, change
manacles, chains, island, ocean, corners
suffering, isolation
check, promissory note
human rights
promissory note, bad check, bank, vaults
human rights, constitution, justice system
drug, valley, path, quicksands, rock
lack of change, present, future
summer, autumn, whirlwinds
present, future, change

  'I Have a Dream'
Martin Luther King

1. Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity.

2. But one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize an appalling condition.

3. In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

4. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check -- a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

5. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God's children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.

6. It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment and to underestimate the determination of the Negro. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

We cannot walk alone.

And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.

We cannot turn back.

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: "For Whites Only." We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest -- quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

And this will be the day -- this will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning:

My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.

Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim's pride,

From every mountainside, let freedom ring!

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

But not only that:

Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.

From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

                Free at last! Free at last!

                Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

Key terms

Figurative language takes on several forms. Being able to identify these will most certainly be useful when analyzing texts in any part of the course and on all forms of assessment from the individual oral commentary to Paper 1. We will define six forms of figurative language here. After you have studied all five, break up into five group. Each group is responsible for finding one example of their key term. Explain what the effect is of using this literary device on the audience. What is their effect on you as a reader?

Metaphor A comparison or analogy in which an one thing or idea resembles another thing or idea, for example 'My home is my castle."'

Simile - A comparison or analogy between to ideas or things using the words 'like' or 'as', such as 'Life is like a box of chocolates.'

Metonymy - When an object is referred to, not by its name but by something closely associated with it, for example 'The Greens are in office.'

Synecdoche - When an object or idea is referred to by one of its parts, not by its whole, for example 'I am their eyes and ears on the Internet.'

Allusion - When reference is made to another text, event, person or place. An implicit relationship is made between what is presented and what is known, for example 'She was my Waterloo.'


Here are a few lines taken from the 'I Have a Dream' speech. For each line state which form of figurative language is being used. Each form introduced above is used once in the quiz below.  

 Quiz on figurative language

figurative language

  1. I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

    1. metaphor  
    2. simile  
    3. synecdoche  
    4. allusion  

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    Correct answer is 'simile' because a comparison is made between these little black girls and boys who hold hands AS brothers and sisters. Synecdoche may also be right as 'hand holding' is only one part of the whole notion of friendship which is being referred to.

  2. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.

    1. metonymy  
    2. metaphor  
    3. allusion  
    4. synecdoche  

    Show Hide

    By naming both the larger and the smaller parts of Mississippi (i.e. 'every hill' and 'molehill'), King is using synecdoche to suggest how prevalent freedom must be there. 

  3. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

    1. allusion  
    2. synecdoche  
    3. metonymy  
    4. simile  

    Show Hide

    These words have been taken from the Bill of Rights, a constitutional document in the United States of America. Martin Luther King uses this allusion because his target audience will most likely know and believe in these words. There's an argument for answering 'synecdoche': 'Men' is often used to refer to humanity, comprised of both men and women. 

  4. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. 

    1. simile  
    2. metaphor  
    3. metonymy  
    4. allusion  

    Show Hide

    King uses may noun phrases that include both the abstract and the concrete. They follow the pattern 'the x of y' in which x equals the concrete and y is the abstract. 'Discords of our nation' and 'symphony of brotherhood' are two examples. In these noun phrases y is compared to x. 'Brotherhood' IS a symphony. Our 'nation' IS 'discords'. These are metaphors. 

  5. But not only that: Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

    1. metonymy  
    2. metaphor  
    3. synecdoche  
    4. allusion  

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    Stone Mountain is heavily associated with the history of the South. In Stone Mountain are carved the heads of three Confederate leaders of the Civil War. The Klu Klux Klan is also associated with this mountain. In brief, by way of metonymy, it stands for racism. It is quite bold of King to refer to Stone Mountain in his speech.

Further study

A few month before Martin Luther King gave his speech in Washington D.C. he was imprisoned for protesting in Alabama. His non-violent protest was not supported by all, including eight white Alabam clergymen who openly criticized his approach. In their 'Call for Unity' letter in a local newspaper, they criticized King for his methods. They felt human rights issues belonged in the courtrooms and not on the streets. King wrote his response, now known as 'Letter from Birmingham Jail'.

Answer the following quesitons after reading the letter. 

  1. How does King use literary devices in this letter that are similar to those in his 'I Have a Dream' speech?

  2. What is the effect of writing one very long sentence?

  3. Where do you see evidence that this letter is like a draft for his 'I Have a Dream' speech?

Letter from Birmingham Jail
Martin Luther King 

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"--then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. 

Towards assessment

Individual oral commentary - Try to find examples of metonymy, synecdoche, allusion, simile and metaphor in the texts that you are studying for Part 4. How would you describe the effects of these devices on their readers? How does figurative language play a role your texts? 

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