What Is a Metaphor? | Definition & Examples

What Is a Metaphor?

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.

Examples: Metaphors
You’re a monster!

The exam was a piece of cake.

This town is a desert.

The king ruled with an iron fist.

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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”).
Examples: Metaphor structure
You are an open book.

Sophia was a loose cannon.

Time is a hunter.

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Types of metaphor

There are several different types of metaphor.

Direct 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.

Examples: Direct metaphors
Charlie was a saint!

Ami and Vera are two peas in a pod.

A book is a passport to another world.

Implied metaphor

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.

Examples: Implied metaphors
Her smile lit up the room. [i.e., her smile was as bright as the sun]

The captain barked orders at the soldiers. [i.e., the captain was like an angry dog]

The politician cut down his opponent with his speech. [i.e., the politician’s words were like daggers]

Extended metaphor

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.

Example: Extended metaphor in William Shakespeare’s As You Like It
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.

Mixed metaphor

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.

Examples: Mixed metaphors
Put your ducks in a row and don’t count them before they hatch.

She’s a rising star, and with the right guidance, she’ll spread her wings.

Life is a rollercoaster you need to take it one step at a time.

Dead metaphor

A dead metaphor is a figure of speech that has become so familiar due to repeated use that people no longer recognise it as a metaphor. Instead, it’s understood as having a straightforward meaning.

Examples: Dead metaphors
There is a small village at the foot of the mountain.

The guest of honour sat at the head of the table.

On the last leg of the journey, the travellers encountered several obstacles.

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”).
Examples: Similes
The storm raged like an angry beast.

The old man’s beard was as white as snow.

The athlete’s will was stronger than iron.

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.

Examples: Shared abstraction analogies
Friendship is like a garden; it requires care and nourishment.

Time is like a river; you cannot stop it from flowing.

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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.

Example: Allegory
In the kingdom of Harmony, two trees, Pride and Humility, competed to touch the sky. Pride, boastful and tall, looked down on others. Humility, despite being shorter, embraced all. A storm ravaged the land, toppling Pride, while Humility stood firm, its branches sheltering those in need.

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.

  1. You sing like an angel.
  2. The boxer is as strong as an ox.
  3. Hannah is a warrior.
  4. Your eyes are deeper than the ocean.
  5. Most of the time, you’re an angel. But you’re like a demon when you’re tired.
  1. You sing like an angel.
    • This sentence contains a simile because it makes a direct comparison using the word “like”.
  1. The boxer is as strong as an ox.
    • This sentence contains a simile because it makes a direct comparison using the word “as”.
  1. Hannah is a warrior.
    • This sentence contains a metaphor because it makes an implicit comparison by saying that something is something else.
  1. Your eyes are deeper than the ocean.
    • This sentence contains a simile because it makes a direct comparison using the word “than”.
  1. Most of the time, you’re an angel. But you’re like a demon when you’re tired.
    • This sentence contains both a metaphor (“you are an angel”) and a simile (“like a demon”).

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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Eoghan Ryan

Eoghan has a lot of experience with theses and dissertations at bachelor's, MA, and PhD level. He has taught university English courses, helping students to improve their research and writing.

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