What Is a Metaphor? | Definition & Examples
A metaphor is a figure of speech that implicitly compares two unrelated things, typically by stating that one thing is another (e.g., “that chef is a magician”).
Metaphors can be used to create vivid imagery, exaggerate a characteristic or action, or express a complex idea.
Metaphors are commonly used in literature, advertising, and everyday speech.
What is a metaphor?
A metaphor is a rhetorical device that makes a non-literal comparison between two unlike things. Metaphors are used to describe an object or action by stating (or implying) that it is something else (e.g., “knowledge is a butterfly”).
Metaphors typically have two parts:
- A tenor is the thing or idea that the metaphor describes (e.g., “knowledge”).
- A vehicle is the thing or idea used to describe the tenor (e.g., “a butterfly”).
Types of metaphor
There are several different types of metaphor.
A direct metaphor compares two unrelated things by explicitly stating that one thing is another. Direct metaphors typically use a form of the verb “be” to connect two things.
An implied metaphor compares two unlike things without explicitly naming one of them. Instead, a comparison is typically made using a non-literal verb. For example, the statement “the man erupted in anger” uses the verb “erupted” to compare a man to a volcano.
An extended metaphor (also called a sustained metaphor) occurs when an initial comparison is developed or sustained over several lines or paragraphs (or stanzas, in the case of a poem).
Extended metaphors are commonly used in literature and advertising, but they’re rarely used in everyday speech.
A mixed metaphor is a figure of speech that combines two or more metaphors, resulting in a confusing or nonsensical statement.
Mixed metaphors are usually accidental and are often perceived as unintentionally humorous. Mixing metaphors can confuse your readers and make your writing seem to lack coherence.
A dead metaphor is a figure of speech that has become so familiar due to repeated use that people no longer recognize it as a metaphor. Instead, it’s understood as having a straightforward meaning.
Metaphor vs. simile
Metaphors and similes are both rhetorical devices used for comparison. However, they have different functions:
- A metaphor makes an implicit comparison between two unlike things, usually by saying that one thing is another thing (e.g., “my body is a temple”).
- A simile makes an explicit comparison between two unlike things, typically using the words “like,” “as,” or “than” (e.g., “you’re as stubborn as a mule”).
Metaphor vs. analogy
There are two main types of analogy:
- Identical relationship analogies indicate the logical relationship between two things (e.g., “‘Up’ is to ‘down’ as ‘on’ is to ‘off’”).
- Shared abstraction analogies compare two unlike things to illustrate a point.
Metaphors are sometimes confused with shared abstraction analogies, but they serve different purposes. While metaphors are primarily used to make a comparison (e.g., “John is a caveman”), shared abstraction analogies are used to make an argument or explain something.
Allegory vs. metaphor
Metaphors are sometimes confused with allegories, but they have different functions:
- A metaphor makes an implied comparison between two unlike things, typically by stating that one thing is another (e.g., “time is money”).
- An allegory illustrates abstract concepts, moral principles, or complex ideas through symbolic representation.
Allegories are typically longer than metaphors and usually take the form of a story.
Worksheet: Metaphor vs. simile
You can test your knowledge of the difference between metaphors and similes with the worksheet below. Choose whether each sentence contains a metaphor or a simile.
Frequently asked questions
- What is an extended metaphor?
An extended metaphor (also called a sustained metaphor) is a metaphor that is developed over several lines or paragraphs.
The following is an example of an extended metaphor in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:
“But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the East, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she.”
- What is an example of a metaphor?
A metaphor is a figure of speech that makes a non-literal comparison between two unlike things (typically by saying that something is something else).
For example, the metaphor “you are a clown” is not literal but rather used to emphasize a specific, implied quality (in this case, “foolishness”).
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