Meaning in Literature: Reading Comprehension Review Study Guide (page 2)

Updated on Aug 24, 2011


Often in poems or other works of literature, authors use figurative language—words and phrases that mean something other than their literal meanings. For example, in "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud," Wordsworth says that the daffodils are tossing their heads. Well, daffodils don't really have heads, at least not in the human sense. But by saying that the flowers are tossing their heads, the reader imagines a humanlike quality in the daffodils. In this way, Wordsworth uses personification, figurative language that gives human qualities to nonhuman things, like flowers.

You've probably come across a lot of figurative language. Many expressions use figurative language to get a point across without being literal. After all, that's what an expression is, a figure of speech. Think about this expression:

Kill two birds with one stone.

Now we all know this expression doesn't mean to actually go out and use one stone to kill two birds at the same time. It really has nothing to do with killing birds at all. It just means to get two things done at once. For example, if you listen to your voicemail messages while you wash the dishes, you'd be killing two birds with one stone. That's what figurative language is all about, saying one thing to actually mean something else. Here are samples of other figurative language: idiom (Get off my back!), euphemism (instead of saying he died, saying he bought the farm), simile (She's as busy as a bee!), and metaphor (She was a textbook of human emotions!).


THINK OF SOME other expressions or figures of speech you know.


PERSONIFICATION IS GIVING human qualities to an animal or object. Animated cartoons are built on personification!


Literature may not be as straightforward as nonfiction, but it can be tackled in similar ways, step by step. In this chapter, we focused on poetry, but the same techniques can be applied to other types of nonfiction, like short stories, novels, and plays.

In literature, the main idea is called the theme. And how do you find it? You follow a simple equation: action + tone = theme. So first, find the action, and then identify the tone. This may be tricky, but just remember to observe the words the author chooses because they contribute to the feeling, or tone, of the piece. Does the author use figurative language? Is anything personified? These are good questions to ask. Once you know the action and tone, think about them. The theme will be a general idea that can be supported by both the action and the tone.

Practice exercises for this study guide can be found at:

Meaning in Literature: Reading Comprehension Review Practice Exercises

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