Language and learning – Abstractions, Figurative Language and Analogies

The main goal of this blog is that you as a reader will learn something from it. is about sharing knowledge and making complex things understandable. One strategy to accomplish this is to make use of different concepts in the language itself. In this blogpost I will explain abstractions, figurative language (e.g. similes and metaphors), and analogies. In my blogposts I often use a combination of abstractions, figurative language, and analogies to explain different things. I think it is a good idea to establish a deeper understanding of these concepts. They are all powerful tools in our toolbox called “language”. And the more you learn about a tool and practice it, the better you will master it.

Quick Guide

Concept of language Meaning Example Notes
Denotation The literal meaning of something. An owl, it’s a bird from the order Strigiforms.
Connotation The figurative meaning of something. An owl could mean wisdom, woods, night, or fashion. The feelings and thoughts associated with something.
Abstraction To enhance the key characteristics of something and reduce other details. Maps are abstractions of the real world. “An abstraction is one thing that represents several real things equally well” E.W. Dijkstra – computer scientist.
Metaphor The literal meaning makes no sense, but it triggers an understandable figurative meaning. “I’m drowning in paperwork” You will guess the meaning the first time you read it. (This is not the case with idioms.)
Simile When “like” or “as” are used to describe something by comparing it with something else “Strong as a bear”
Personification To give inanimate objects human characteristics. “The snow swaddled the earth like a mother would her infant child”
Hyperbole Another word for exaggeration. “I have a ton of homework”
Symbolism When a word has its own meaning but is used to represent something entirely different. An owl can be a symbol for wisdom. Note the difference between symbols and connotations. Symbols are representations. Connotations are associations.
Idiom A manner of speaking that is natural to native speakers of a language. “Raining cats and dogs” – It is raining very hard Creations and understanding of idioms are commonly developed by the native speakers of the language.
Analogy Take something already familiar and use it as a tool to introduce a more complex concept. To compare electrical current with the flow of water would be an analogy.


Let’s start with a short fictive story.

Imagine that you are a software developer – a programmer specialized in game graphics. You have just been hired to a team whose goal is to make the next game-changing MMORPG (massive multiplayer online role-playing game). Your first day, when you arrive at work, you notice that there are no computers in the office. You are led in to a conference hall with all your colleagues, also recently hired. You are about to listen to the CEO and the company’s owner, and main financier making a barnstorming speech:

“Our last attempt to establish a MMORPG was a huge flop. It really broke my heart that we didn’t succeed. But what could we do? Our financial situation 5 years ago really put us between a rock and a hard place. And the actions the previous management took to prevent the disaster was like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. However, now we have the financial muscles to overcome all obstacles. And we have assembled the best team this company has ever seen. Some of you are intelligent as Einstein himself. And most important, this time we won’t overlook ANYTHING! We will go back to the basics and start all over. We will from the very foundation create the best and most engaging MMORPG ever!”

The speech goes on and you and your colleagues are feeling more and more excited about your upcoming task. When the CEO is about to finish his speech, he reveals a table with three buckets behind him and says:

“Here you have everything to start from the basics. A bucket of sand for making silicon chips and integrated circuits. And a bucket with copper ores to make circuits and cables. And finally, a bucket of oil to make plastic parts or even fibre optics”.

“The rest is up to you”, says the CEO.

Are you up for the task?

Analysing the story

Let’s break down the story and try to understand the language used in it.

The headings will be the following:

  • Denotation vs. connotation
  • Abstractions
  • Figurative language
  • Idioms
  • Analogies

And I will finish off with a summary.

Denotation vs. Connotation

When the CEO says “We will go back to the basics and start all over” I don’t think anyone in that room is thinking about the denotative meaning of those words. Denotation is the literal meaning of a word. In the context of computer science “go back to the basics”, would in an extreme denotative meaning be to start all over and try to find a new way to build computers. But we humans have during ages developed a common way of interpreting words. We put cultural and symbolic meanings into them, it’s called connotation. The connotative meaning of “We will go back to the basics and start all over” would rather be something like “We have to do it right this time. Put more effort in the research phase”.

Denotations and connotations works in a wider range, not only words. You can look at actions and objects as well. Let’s take a red rose as an example. The denotation of a red rose is that it is a flower, nothing more than that. But it has very strong cultural meaning and associations – connotations. A red rose can mean “I Love you” or “I care for you”. To give a red rose to someone can be the action of showing one’s love, not only handling something organic to someone.

Is this important in computer science? Yes! in the field HCI (Human Computer Interaction) people pay a lot of attention to associations. E.g. UX-designers (UX, user experience) need to analysis denotative and connotative meanings to build good user interfaces and websites. I think, without this kind of people we would still be working in black and white terminal windows.

Terminal interface vs. graphical user interface

Which kind of user interface would you prefer? Both can do the same things.


You can’t learn everything at once. And if you try you will fail. We can use abstraction to prevent an overflow of information. Abstractions is about to enhance the key characteristics of something and reduce other details. The key characteristics depends on what you want to show.

Let’s get back to the story again. I promise you, if you ever are hired as a software developer you will never have to care about how cables are made or how fiber optics work or how silicon chips are produced. All those things are abstracted away. You can successfully work your whole life in the field of IT and be a specialist in a small area. You don’t have to learn everything that IT stands for. And that goes for all professions. Our world is so complex that it takes too long time to learn everything for one person. The answer to solve this is to divide the complexity in different responsible areas. These areas grow into professions. When you choose your profession, your job is to master that certain field of work. You are also responsible to build and understand interfaces towards nearby professions. The details in the nearby responsible area are in your point of view abstracted away.

Info! In the future with more advanced technology the complexity in IT will grow. New professions will emerge in the market. Many of today’s professions didn’t even exist a few years ago. It will be harder and harder for one person to grasp the complexity in the IT industry.

Here is one example of what I mean with professions and abstractions:

A taxi driver can be a good taxi driver without knowing how the car actually works. All the mechanics under the hood is abstracted away from the driver. The driver only needs to know how all the things in front of the driver seat works, steering wheel, breaks etc. In cars with automatic transmission, even the action to change gear is abstracted away. However, the mechanic needs to know how the car works under the hood. From his profession and point of view it can’t be abstracted away. He works with other abstractions. The mechanic doesn’t need to know how e.g. tires are produced. I am sure that the taxi driver will be a better driver if he understands part of the mechanic’s responsible area and vice versa. But remember it is not a good strategy to try to understand everything at once! Don’t be afraid to rely on abstractions. It takes time to learn different areas, especially in IT.

Info! “An abstraction is one thing that represents several real things equally well” E.W. Dijkstra – computer scientist. (E.g. The panel in the car tells the driver everything he or she needs to know about the engine.)

My favourite example of abstractions are maps. The problem with maps is that we try to resemble a 3D object in 2D. A map over a city is not a problem, it shows the surroundings quite faithful. But looking at a world map you can see how wrong things are. Please compare a world map with a globe. Look at places like Greenland, New Zeeland, Russia, Canada, or Antarctica. They all look disproportionately compared with the same areas on a globe. A 2D world map is an abstraction of the real world. It won’t show the world accurate, but it is still a great tool for e.g. studying geography.

Maria and Mishka are comparing a globe with a world map

Figurative Language

Figurative language or figurative speech are powerful tools to engage the reader. It turns the text into images which could make it easier to read and understand. Words that build up a figurative language are the connotative meaning. The literal meaning of the words is the opposite, denotative meaning. The big five categories of figurative speech are the following:


Metaphor is a statement that literally doesn’t make sense. The connection between two words that build up a metaphor has to be understood by the reader. “She has a heart of stone” is a metaphor. It is impossible that a person has a heart of stone. But the reader can understand the meaning that the person described lacks emotions or act without showing them.

More examples:

  • You’re a couch potato
  • Time is money
  • You are my sunshine
  • I’m drowning in paperwork
  • Rollercoaster of emotions


When “like” or “as” are used to describe something by comparing it with something else, you have a simile. A simile is very much like a metaphor. The only notable difference is the keywords “like” or “as”. Consider the following: “She’s as fierce as a tiger”, it’s a simile. But “She’s a tiger when she’s angry”, it’s a metaphor.

More examples:

  • Fighting like cats and dogs.
  • Busy as a bee.
  • Brave as a lion.
  • Watching that play was like watching grass grow.
  • Strong as a bear


Personification is about to give inanimate objects human characteristics. This can really create engaging and creative imagines for the reader. Here are some examples:

  • The sun greeted me this morning.
  • Opportunity was knocking at the door.
  • The waffle jumped up out of the toaster.
  • The snow swaddled the earth like a mother would her infant child.
  • My computer throws a fit every time I try to use it.


Hyperbole is language that describes something as better or worse than it really is. Hyperbole is another word for exaggeration. Some examples:

  • I’ve told you a million times!
  • I had a ton of homework.
  • If I can’t buy that new game, I will die!
  • This car goes faster than the speed of light.
  • My book bag weighs a ton.


Symbolism happens when a word has its own meaning but is used to represent something entirely different.

Note! Symbolism vs. connotation. Remember about the denotative and connotative classification? Connotation and symbolism are not entirely the same thing. Here’s one example: The symbolic meaning of an owl is wisdom. That is quite accepted in many cultures. The accepted representation of something is the symbolic meaning. However, the connotations of an owl are of a broader meaning than symbolism. Connotations are the feelings associated with something. The keyword here is associations. The connotative meaning of an owl is all the feelings and knowledge associated with an owl. When I think about an owl I think about a dark night (because owls are nocturnal animals). I also think about the goddess Athena in Greece mythology (because she had an owl as a companion, Athena was the goddess of wisdom and it is the origin of the symbolism between owls and wisdom). I asked my wife what comes to her mind when she thinks about an owl and she said: Fashion (Right now, it’s very trendy to use owls as motifs in design of clothes, accessories, decorations etc.). So, wisdom is the symbolism of an owl. Night, Athena and fashion are connotations of an owl.

Examples of symbolism:

  • Black – The colour is used to represent death or evil.
  • Red – The colour can symbolize blood, passion, or danger.
  • Using an owl to represent wisdom.
  • A red rose could symbolize love.
  • Use an apple to symbolize education.

Figurative language in the background text

In the text in the background there are several examples of figurative language: “It really broke my heart…” – metaphor (A heart can’t break into pieces). “…Financial muscles…” – personification (finance can’t have muscles, humans can). “Intelligent as Einstein” – a Simile (the word “as” is the key here.)

Note! The categorization of phrases and expressions are huge. There are several categories that I didn’t cover in this post (maybe a subject for another post). And some of them covers or belongs to figurative language: adage, aphorism, cliché, epigram, epithet, folklore, gnome, mantra, maxim, motto, phrasal verb, proverb, pun, quip, quotation, saying, saw, slogan, winged word, witticism, axiom, dogma, paradox.


I want to pay some extra attention to this category. Idioms and metaphors are similar but there is one important difference: The reader will always understand the underlaying meaning of the combination of words that builds up a metaphor, but that is not the case for idioms. Let’s look at the phrase “Between a rock and a hard place” from the background text. In my opinion this is an example of a figurative speech – a metaphor. The meaning of the phrase is to be put in a difficult situation. I can clearly see the picture in front of me of something under a rock that is about to be smash against a hard surface – certainly a bad position to be in. But the phrase is considered an idiom, not a metaphor. The difference here is that idioms doesn’t really make sense when you first read them. With figurative language like metaphors the reader can guess the meaning right away. But idioms must develop a common meaning among the native speakers of the language to be understandable. Another example of an idiom is the phrase “raining cats and dogs”. If you are not a native English speaker and you come across this phrase for the first time, you might wonder what the cats and dogs are doing in the rain? (Raining cats and dogs means heavy rainfall, you may google to find out the source of this idiom. There is often an interesting history behind the origin of idioms).

I will do my best to avoid idioms because they are hard to translate and easy for people that are not familiar with English to misinterpreted them.


Analogies are great when you want to learn and teach new things. An analogy is a way to logical shows how two different things are similar. You show how one thing works with help of another thing.

Let’s go for an example. When you study basic electronics, you will come across a very popular analogy. It is about to compare electrical current with the flow of water. In this analogy water pressure resembles voltage. A battery can be compared with a tank of water or a water pump. The amount of water in a pipe stands for the electrical current. And the size and diameter of the pipes are compared with resistance.

Analogies are really my favourites. You take something already familiar and use it as a tool to introduce a more complex concept. But, analogies have their limitations. Analogies tend to only work when you introduce something new and complex. After a while of learning you will hit a glass ceiling with the analogy. For instance, in the water/electricity analogy a clear restriction of the analogy is when you try to answer the question “what will happen when the flow breaks?” Well, if a water pipe separates there will be water everywhere until there is no more water in the tank or can be pumped out. This is not the case with electricity. When an electric circuit ruptures it won’t be any electricity pouring out of the cables.

The example of an analogy in the background text is: “That’s as useful as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic” It means that it looks like you’re doing something helpful but really it will make no difference in the end.


Raspberry field is about learning and fun. The goal is that this blog will be a fresh and calm place to spend time on and read interesting stuff. But it is not allowed to be boring. To accomplish the goal, it is necessarily to establish a practice of language that can find the balance of learning in an interesting and enjoyable way. This blogpost has provided the cornerstones of that language.

The post covered the differences of denotation and connotation, the literal and figurative meaning of something. We looked at abstractions, how to separate and represent different responsible areas with enhancement of key characteristics and reduced details. We moved on to a large section on the categorization of figurative language with examples of: metaphors, similes, personifications, hyperboles, symbolism, and idioms. And the post finished off with analogies – how to describe one thing in a logical way by using something else as an example.


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