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Metaphor: Definition and Examples

What Is a Metaphor?

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A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two unrelated things by stating that one thing is another (e.g., "her voice is honey in my ears").

Using metaphors is a powerful literary tool that enables writers to create vivid and imaginative comparisons between two seemingly unrelated things. By using metaphors, writers can convey complex ideas and emotions in a concise and memorable manner.

Metaphors can help readers understand difficult concepts by comparing them to something more familiar.

Definition of Metaphor

A metaphor is a figure of speech that makes a comparison between two things, without using the words "like" or "as." The comparison is usually made between two things that are seemingly different but share a common characteristic. Metaphors are used in literature, poetry, and everyday language to add depth and richness to communication.

Table of Contents

  • Examples of Metaphors with Explanations
  • Examples of Metaphors Using Non-Literal Words
  • Real-life Examples of Metaphors
  • Metaphors vs Similes
  • Video Lesson
  • Why Metaphors Are Important
  • Test Time!

Examples of Metaphors with Explanations

  • Life is a journey.
  • (This is a common metaphor that we often hear. It means that life is like a journey, with ups and downs, challenges, and obstacles. Just as a journey requires planning, preparation, and perseverance, so does life. This metaphor highlights the importance of being proactive, making wise choices, and staying the course, even when the going gets tough.)
  • Love is a rose.
  • (This metaphor suggests that love is beautiful, but also has thorns that can hurt. Roses are known for their fragrant scent and delicate petals, but they also have sharp thorns that can prick you. This metaphor illustrates the complexity of love, which can be both wonderful and painful.)
  • Time is money.
  • (This metaphor suggests that time is a valuable commodity that should be used wisely. Just as we spend money on things that are important to us, we should also spend our time on things that are meaningful and productive. This metaphor emphasizes the importance of prioritizing our time and making the most of every moment.)
  • Her smile is sunshine.
  • (This metaphor suggests that someone's smile is bright and cheerful, just like the sun on a sunny day. This metaphor evokes a sense of warmth and happiness, and suggests that the person's smile is infectious and uplifting.)
  • He is a snake.
  • (This metaphor suggests that someone is cunning and deceptive, just like a snake. Snakes are often associated with treachery and danger, and this metaphor implies that the person cannot be trusted. This metaphor illustrates the negative connotations associated with snakes, and suggests that the person is someone to be wary of.)
metaphor definition

More Examples of Metaphors

Notice how something is said to be something else – not like something else.
  • Paul's face was a blue moon pocked with craters.
  • (Paul's face literally is not a moon.)
  • Her eyes were darting searchlights, scanning the room for her rival.
  • (Her eyes literally are not searchlights.)
  • She is a fox.
  • Dave is a bad apple.

Examples of Metaphors Using Non-Literal Words

Metaphors are not always easy to spot as they do not always appear in the form [one thing] equals [something that it isn't]. Metaphors are also commonly created with "non-literal" words (especially adjectives and verbs) that appear mid-sentence.
  • She gave him an icy stare.
  • (The stare is not literally icy.)
  • David sliced her down with his words.
  • (David did not literally slice her down.)
  • These waves "know" when you're off balance.
  • (It's acceptable to put quotation marks around a word being used metaphorically, but it's not a common practice. It stems from the use of quotation marks to express the idea of "so-called".)
Read more about figurative language. Read more about non-literal meaning.

Real-life Examples of Metaphors

Here are some well-known metaphors:
  • Conscience is a man's compass. (Artist Vincent van Gogh)
  • All religions, arts, and sciences are branches of the same tree. (Theoretical physicist Albert Einstein)
Here are some funny metaphors:
  • John and Mary had never met. They were two hummingbirds who had also never met. (Anon)
  • True friends stab you in the front. (Playwright Oscar Wilde)
  • Love is an exploding cigar we willingly smoke.

Metaphors vs Similes

Metaphors contrast with similes. A simile is a figure of speech that likens one thing to another (usually by using the word "like" or "as"). Here are some examples of metaphors alongside similar-looking similes.
MetaphorSimile
She is a star.
(something is something else)
She is like a star.
(something is like something else)
His eyes were skewers.
(something is something else)
His eyes were like skewers.
(something is like something else)
Her skewer eyes pierced her rivals.
(non-literal use of words)
Her eyes fixed on her rivals like skewers pierce meat.
(something is like something else)
Read more about similes.

Video Lesson

Here is a short video summarizing this page on metaphors. video lesson

Are you a visual learner? Do you prefer video to text? Here is a list of all our grammar videos.

Why Metaphors Are Important

Using metaphors can bring great benefits, but it also carries a risk.

(Benefit 1) Metaphors can be engaging.

Metaphors are useful for spicing up your writing.
  • We can jumpstart innovation among the workforce.
  • (The metaphor jumpstart is far "spicier" than something like improve.)
  • Please write a protein-rich one-pager for the CEO's back-to-work pack.
  • (The metaphor protein-rich is more engaging than something like executive-level. Personally, I think it's a bit cheesy. More on that below.)
Used sparingly in business writing (e.g., just once in the occasional document), metaphors can:
  • Be memorable.
  • Make an impact.
  • Be used for emphasis.
  • Make you look confident.
Here is an example of how a metaphor might look in a business document:
  • Option 1 is throwing the pilot from a stricken aircraft to make it lighter.
While a metaphor can be a great way to clarify or promote an idea in a business document, the overuse of metaphors looks flippant. A metaphor that is a cliche (i.e., a tired metaphor) also looks bad.

(Benefit 2) Metaphors can aid understanding.

Metaphors are also useful for explaining a new or complex idea by relating it to something familiar.
  • During interphase, the protein binds to DNA with its elbow and then digs in with its fingers during mitosis. (Professor Leonie Ringrose)
  • Our physical being is the hardware of a computer. Culture is the operating system. (Business consultant Christian Hoeferle)

(Benefit 3) Metaphors can be memorable and impactful.

There is often a strong sensory element to a metaphor (e.g., creating a vivid image in your readers' minds), and this can help to make your writing more memorable and impactful.
  • We must throw a party on our home page.
  • (This is more visual and memorable than "our home page needs to be more interesting.".)
  • Red Bull gives you wings.
  • (This is more visual and memorable than "caffeine acts as a central-nervous-system stimulant.")

(Risk 1) Metaphors can portray you as flippant, dull, or cheesy.

The overuse of metaphors can portray you as flippant (especially in business writing). A tired metaphor can portray you as dull, and a "business bingo" metaphor can portray you as cheesy.
  • No more putting lipstick on a pig. I need more thinking outside of the box, more blue-sky thinking. I need an idea with legs, an idea on steroids.
  • (While such terms might be dull and cheesy, they can be an efficient way to communicate, particularly for quick understanding. The best advice is to keep such terms for informal chats or emails. Don't put them in your official business correspondence, and don't use them in creative writing – they're no longer creative.)
Use only fresh, appropriate metaphors and use them sparingly (especially in business writing) to reap the benefits.

Key Point

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This page was written by Craig Shrives.

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