You are on page 1of 3


Alice E. M. Underwood

A metaphor is a figure of speech that describes an object or action in a way that isn’t literally true, but helps
explain an idea or make a comparison.
Here are the basics:
 A metaphor states that one thing is another thing
 It equates those two things not because they actually are the same, but for the sake of comparison or
 If you take a metaphor literally, it will probably sound very strange (are there actually any sheep, black or
otherwise, in your family?)
 Metaphors are used in poetry, literature, and anytime someone wants to add some color to their language.
If you’re a black sheep, you get cold feet, or you think love is a highway, then you’re probably thinking
metaphorically. These are metaphors because a word or phrase is applied to something figuratively: unless
you’re actually a sheep or are dipping your toes in ice water, chances are these are metaphors that help
represent abstract concepts through colorful language.

Metaphor Definition and Examples

Those are the uses of metaphor, and this is the official definition:
 A word or phrase for one thing that is used to refer to another thing in order to show or suggest that they
are similar
 An object, activity, or idea that is used as a symbol of something else
Metaphors are a form of figurative language, which refers to words or expressions that mean something
different from their literal definition. In the case of metaphors, the literal interpretation would often be
pretty silly. For example, imagine what these metaphors would look like if you took them at face value:
Love is a battlefield.
Bob is a couch potato.
Baby, you’re a firework.
I am titanium.
Once you get past the image of going on a date armed with a battleaxe or David Guetta made out of
corrosion-resistant metal, the result is a much more powerful description of people or events than you’d get
with phrases like “love is difficult” or “I’m very strong.”
Metaphors show up in literature, poetry, music, and writing, but also in speech. If you hear someone say
“metaphorically speaking,” it probably means that you shouldn’t take what they said as the truth, but as
more of an idea. For example, it’s finals period and after exams, students are saying things like “That test
was murder.” It’s a fair guess they’re still alive if they’re making comments about the test, so this is an
example of speaking metaphorically or figuratively.
Metaphors can make your words come to life (or in the case of the exam, to death). Often, you can use a
metaphor to make your subject more relatable to the reader or to make a complex thought easier to
understand. They can also be a tremendous help when you want to enhance your writing with imagery. As a
common figure of speech, metaphors turn up everywhere from novels and films to presidential speeches
and even popular songs. When they’re especially good, they’re hard to miss.
Take these famous metaphor examples:

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their
William Shakespeare
America has tossed its cap over the wall of space.
John F. Kennedy
Chaos is a friend of mine.
Bob Dylan
A good conscience is a continual Christmas.
Benjamin Franklin
You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog, cryin’ all the time.
Elvis Presley
Metaphor vs. Simile
Here’s a tip: Similes are like metaphors, but metaphors aren’t similes. A metaphor makes a comparison by
stating that one thing is something else, but a simile states that one thing is like something else.
If you’re trying to tell the difference between metaphors and similes, the more obvious comparison in
similes makes them easier to identify as figures of speech.
While someone might actually think that Elvis Presley has a hound dog who happens to be particularly noisy,
imagine if his lyric went “You’re like a hound dog,” or “You’re as whiny as a hound dog.” In these cases, Elvis
would be using a simile, which makes it a bit clearer that he’s not actually singing to a sad puppy. But on the
flip side, the rhythm wouldn’t be quite as catchy.
Check out these examples to get a taste for how they work:
She’s as cute as a button.
It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.
He’s as nutty as a fruitcake.
Ogres are like onions.*
*That one’s from Shrek.

Different Types of Metaphors

Let’s rewind to the definition of a metaphor as a figure of speech. Another example is that catchy tune, “You
are my sunshine.” Although you aren’t literally a ray of light, you probably have a similarly uplifting effect on
the speaker.
But the definition of metaphor is actually broader than that. Often, metaphor is used loosely to mean any
kind of symbolism. In literature, there are are many other types of metaphors, too: implied, sustained, dead,
and others.

Implied Metaphor
Here’s a tip: Implied metaphor departs from the “thing A is thing B” formula and allows you to make a more
sophisticated and subtle type of comparison through—you guessed it—implication.
Take these two sentences:
Jordan got his courtship cues from the peacock. In a room full of ladies, Jordan simply fans his feathers.
In both sentences, we are comparing Jordan to a peacock. In the first sentence, the comparison is overt: the
peacock is mentioned directly. But in the second sentence, we imply that Jordan is the peacock by
comparing his behavior (fanning his feathers) to something peacocks are known for doing. That isn’t meant
to suggest that Jordan actually has feathers, but that he is behaving in a showy and flirty way to catch the
attention of the ladies.

Sustained Metaphor
Here’s a tip: A sustained metaphor is carried through multiple sentences or even paragraphs. Because it is
used and developed over a longer section of text, a sustained metaphor can be a powerful literary device
that provides strong, vivid imagery in the reader’s mind.
This kind of metaphor is often found in songs and poetry. In a famous example from Shakespeare, Romeo
compares Juliet to the sun over several lines.
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.
Kind of puts “You are my sunshine” to shame.

Dead Metaphor
Here’s a tip: A dead metaphor is a cliche that has become so commonplace that the imagery has lost its
power. Examples of dead metaphors include: “raining cats and dogs,” “throw the baby out with the
bathwater,” and “heart of gold.”
With a good, living metaphor, you get that fun moment of thinking about what it would look like if Elvis
were actually singing to a hound dog (for example). But with a dead metaphor, the original image has
already receded into the background. Using too many dead metaphors will cause your reader to lose
interest. Reach a little further for an original image, or think about ways to use a familiar metaphor in an
unconventional way.

Watch Out for Mixed Metaphors

Another reason to avoid dead metaphors is that it’s easy to mix them up.
Here’s a tip: A mixed metaphor is exactly what it sounds like—a combination of two unrelated metaphors.
Let’s get all our ducks on the same page. (A mashup of “get our ducks in a row” and “get on the same
Mixed metaphors can be pretty funny; the great Yogi Berra was famous for his “Yogi-isms,” which often
contained bewilderingly mixed metaphors that still managed to get his point across:
Even Napoleon had his Watergate.
But if you’re not trying to be funny, mixed metaphors can come off as awkward or even undermine the point
you’re trying to make.

Adapted from:

Related Interests