What is a metaphor?

A metaphor is a common figure of speech that refers an object, idea, or action to another thing to help make a comparison or suggest that they are similar. For example, “drowning in money.”

What is a metaphor

Metaphors are a literary device that add imagery, color, symbolism, or humor to language to make comparisons, objects, and ideas more memorable. They are commonly used in poetry, literature, songs, and movies to represent abstract concepts.

Readers can identify a metaphor when a writer applies a word or phrase to something figuratively instead of using the literal meaning.

A metaphor’s form has two parts – the tenor and the vehicle. In the metaphor "life is a rollercoaster":

  • Tenor = "life"
  • Vehicle = "rollercoaster"

Metaphor structure

Metaphor examples

Common metaphor examples and samples include the following:

  • heart of gold
  • apple of my eye
  • melting pot
  • walking encyclopedia
  • time is money
  • laughter is the best medicine
  • happy camper
  • fit as a fiddle
  • old flame
  • light of my life

Metaphor examples

Examples of metaphors in literature

Authors use metaphors to develop characters and themes in creative writing. For example:

Metaphor examples in literature
Literature Metaphor Comparison
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck "Well, you keep away from her, cause she’s a rattrap if I ever seen one." Curley's wife to a rattrap
Matilda by Roald Dahl “The parents looked upon Matilda in particular as nothing more than a scab. A scab is something you have to put up with until the time comes when you can pick it off and flick it away.” Matilda to a scab
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee “As a result, the town remained the same size for a hundred years, an island in a patchwork sea of cotton fields and timberland.” The town to an island

Examples of metaphors in poems

Poets use metaphors to increase the depth and meaning of their poems.

For example, the poem "Dreams" by Langston Hughes:

Hold fast to dreams / For if dreams die / Life is a broken-winged bird / That cannot fly.

Langston Hughes compares dreams to birds for this metaphor.

Another example of a poem that uses metaphors is "since feeling is first" by E.E. Cummings:

we are for each other: then / laugh, leaning back in my arms / for life’s not a paragraph / And death i think is no parenthesis

E.E. Cummings is using a metaphor to compare Life to a paragraph; death to parenthesis.

Examples of metaphors in songs

Songwriters and lyricists also make use of metaphors to add depth without increasing length. One example is "Life is a highway" by Rascal Flatts, where life is compared to a highway.

Another example of metaphor is in the song "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen where life is compared to being stuck in a landslide.

One more famous song that uses a metaphor is "Titanium" by David Guetta ft. Sia. Sia sings "I am titanium" obviously comparing herself to titanium.

Examples of metaphors in movies

Metaphors in movies allow audiences to relate to characters and follow thematic ideas. For example:

Metaphors in movies
Movie Metaphor Comparison
Cinderella "A dream is a wish your heart makes." Dreams to a wish
The Princess Bride "Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something." Life to pain
Aladdin "Seek thee out the diamond in the rough." Diamond to a person

Types of metaphors

In literature, the different types of metaphors to show symbolism are standard, implied, visual, extended, mixed, and dead.

Types of metaphors

Standard metaphors

Standard, direct, and explicit are all names for a simple metaphor where the comparison is obvious and direct. All other types are defined based upon the understanding of a standard metaphor.

For example:

  • Laughter is the medicine of the soul.
  • The snow was a white blanket warming the forest ground.
  • Love is a fragile flower waiting for the first day of spring.

Implied metaphors

An implied metaphor, also known as implicit or indirect, compares two dissimilar things without identifying one of them. These metaphors do not identify the tenor. For example:

The children squealed in excitement when school was canceled for a snow day.

  • Tenor: none
  • Vehicle: squealed

Writers provide vivid imagery and develop ambiguous through this type of comparison.

Visual metaphors

A visual metaphor uses graphic elements to suggest a specific connection between objects. Advertisers and artists commonly use these metaphors in art, advertising, and film.

Visual metaphor definition and example

For example, Salvador Dali's "The Persistence of Memory" ("Persistencia de la Memoria") is a visual metaphor. The painting includes a desolate background with multiple melting clocks in the foreground.

Through a visual metaphor, Dali provides the viewer with commentary on the notion of time.

Extended metaphors

An extended metaphor is a comparison that occurs over multiple lines, pages, chapters, or an entire work. Its use allows writers to develop complex comparisons and foster insightful connections.

In "Hope is the Thing with Feathers," Emily Dickinson uses an extended metaphor to compare hope with a perched bird that never stops singing:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune - without words,
And never stops at all,
And the sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chilliest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

Mixed metaphors

A mixed metaphor combines two unrelated metaphors, creating an illogical comparison. Ultimately, there is no connection between the compared items. For example:

He has been burning the midnight oil at both ends.

  • Metaphor 1: Burning the midnight oil
  • Metaphor 2: Burning the candle at both ends

Writers typically use mixed metaphors to produce a comedic effect or highlight the naivety or ignorance of a character.

Dead metaphors

A dead metaphor occurs when the original meaning of the comparison is lost either due to excessive repetition or a semantic shift (words losing or changing their initial meaning over time). Readers understand these metaphors without knowing their original connotations; therefore, they are viewed more literally in a reader’s mind.

An example of a dead metaphor is the phrase "falling in love," which was once a metaphor equating love with the process of falling – risky and sometimes resulting in injury.

Metaphors vs. similes

A simile is a metaphor that uses the words "like" or "as." These identifying words allow writers to make their comparisons much more obvious; however, a metaphor’s direct comparison is often considered more powerful.

Metaphor vs. simile

Consider the following difference between metaphors and similes:

  • Metaphor: After scoring the game-winning goal, the players were fireworks, exploding with excitement.
  • Simile: After scoring the game-winning goal, the players shot up like fireworks, exploding with excitement.

The simile suggests that the players have the qualities of fireworks, while the metaphor emphasizes that the players are fireworks, creating a much stronger connection. 

How to write a metaphor

When writing a metaphor, follow the following steps and metaphor rules:

  1. Establish the main idea of your metaphor (tenor).
  2. Decide on the purpose of the metaphor.
  3. Based on the purpose, identify ideas that share an underlying connection with the main idea; there should be no superficial similarity between the two (vehicle).
  4. Select the type of metaphor that will best emphasize the comparison.
  5. Use the tenor and vehicle and place them within the structure of the type of chosen metaphor.

Learn about other English language literary terms like personification, hyperbole, and idioms.

What you learned:

After working your way through this lesson and video, you have learned:

  • The definition of a metaphor
  • The puprose of metaphors
  • How to identify metaphors
  • The different types of metaphors
  • How to write a metaphor
Instructor: Malcolm M.
Malcolm has a Master's Degree in education and holds four teaching certificates. He has been a public school teacher for 27 years, including 15 years as a mathematics teacher.

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