What Is a Metaphor (with Examples)

by Craig Shrives

Metaphor

A metaphor states that one thing is something that it literally is not. Metaphors are also commonly created by using a word in its non-literal sense. A metaphor is a figure of speech.

metaphor definition
Formal Definition

A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable. (Oxford Dictionary)

Easy Examples of Metaphors

  • 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 Contrast with 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.

A Video Summary

Here is a short video summarizing this page on metaphors.

Why Should I Care about Metaphors?

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 Höferle)

(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.
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

List of common sayings, proverbs, and idioms What is figurative language? What does literal meaning mean? What is a simile? What is personification? What is hyperbole? What is an idiom? What is a euphemism? What is alliteration? What is assonance? What is consonance? What is a logosglyph? What is onomatopoeia? Glossary of grammatical terms