What Is a Metaphor?

Writing updated on  August 2, 2023 8 min read

Metaphor is a language structure that compares two things, often without stating outright that it’s comparing them.

Metaphors are useful because they let us communicate in novel ways and with greater effectiveness. Just think of how dull language would be if we could speak only literally.

Metaphor is fundamental to language because comparison is fundamental to the human thinking that language represents. For example, from the parent language of English, called Proto-Indo-European, root words meaning “swollen” or “boiling” evolved into some of our modern English words for anger. These are metaphors comparing anger to something that’s swelling or to boiling water, common mental images when we think about someone who’s mad.

The earliest metaphors in English, and likely in many other languages, linked universal concepts such as time, the earth, space, and morality, and we still use metaphors like these today. But over the centuries, we’ve added many new metaphors as we’ve gained knowledge and as cultures have evolved, including with the advent of new technologies.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at what a metaphor is, including the different types of metaphors, then explore how to use them in speaking and writing.

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Metaphor definition and examples

So what’s a metaphor? Let’s take a look.

Metaphor: a figurative language structure that emphasizes how two things are alike by substituting one for the other

Figurative language is phrasing that is not meant to be understood literally but creates an image, or figure, in the reader’s mind. Another common type of figurative language is a simile, and both simile and metaphor are ways of expressing the idea of an analogy.

Metaphor vs. simile and analogy

Simile is a type of metaphor that clearly states it is making a comparison, usually by using like or as. Consider these examples:

Simile: Lani awoke and greeted me, her voice as raspy as a frog’s.

Metaphor: Lani awoke and croaked “Good morning” in my direction.

As you can see, the simile tells us what the comparison is (Lani’s voice to a frog’s croak). But the metaphor doesn’t. It talks about Lani as if she is a frog and assumes we’ll understand the comparison.

Analogy, at its most basic, is the thought behind a simile or metaphor, the idea that two things are alike. When used as a literary device, it includes a simile or metaphor to express the comparison but adds an explanation.

Analogy: Jon left a snail trail of coffee drips from his desk to the conference room.

Metaphor: Jon left a snail trail.

The metaphor compares Jon to a snail, and the analogy explains that he’s like a snail because he leaves a distinct trail behind him.

Metaphor examples in everyday life

Metaphors are everywhere. Here are just a few examples:

  • I’m a hot mess. (compares a person to a steaming pile of something unpleasant)
  • America is a melting pot. (compares the way cultures combine in America to the way foods blend together when they melt)
  • When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. (compares bad times in life to the sourness of lemons, compares making the best of a bad situation to making a sweet drink with lemon juice)
  • Time is a thief. (compares the passage of time to a robber who steals valuables)
  • The US installed a puppet government. (compares the political system put in place after a war to a puppet, a lifeless object controlled by someone else)
  • We came to a fork in the road. (compares a road that divides into multiple roads to the shape of a fork)
  • Juan and Camila’s marriage is on the rocks. (compares the marriage to a shipwreck on a rocky coast)

And these are some metaphor examples from literature and media:

  • “Advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket.” —George Orwell (compares advertisers to farmers calling pigs to feed)
  • “We was raised by wolves, grizzly bears, and panthers / It's wild, yo, I'm surprised we ain't grown no antlers” —El Michels Affair & Black Thought, “Grateful” (compares role models to predatory animals to show that they set an example of using other people for their own benefit)
  • “She's got some fences, alright, but you just gotta hop over 'em.” —Ted Lasso (compares a person’s emotional barriers to fences)

Why do we use metaphors? You’ve probably heard the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words, and it’s often true. But a good metaphor can create a thousand pictures in just a few words. It combines the power of words with the power of images to make the greatest impact.

Types of metaphor

Metaphors are such an ingrained, endemic aspect of language that we often use them without even realizing it. The following are some of the most common types of metaphor.

Conceptual metaphor

Conceptual metaphors are based on a connection between concepts. An example is the seemingly universal association between light and knowledge, from which humanity has created a nearly endless list of metaphors. One of those metaphors is the name of a historical period: The Enlightenment.

Dead metaphor

Dead metaphors are “dead” because they’ve been used so much, the comparison they originally made no longer applies. Now they are used more literally to refer to something, and most people no longer remember their original meaning. The table shows a few examples.


Original meaning

Current meaning

clock face

compares a clock’s display to a person’s face

the part of the clock that displays the numbers

to fly off the handle

compared a loose ax head falling off to a person losing their temper

to lose your temper

to kick the bucket

compared people dying to prisoners kicking away the overturned bucket they stood on to hang themselves

to die

nest egg

compared an egg intentionally left in a hen’s nest to encourage further laying to an amount of money saved for financial security

an amount of money saved for financial security

white elephant

compared a rare white elephant, a gift from a king that is too difficult to care for or sell, to a gift contributed to an anonymous gift exchange that the receiver may not want or a piece of property that offers no real value to the owner

a gift contributed to an anonymous gift exchange that the receiver may not want or a piece of property that offers no real value to the owner

Implicit metaphor

In an implicit metaphor, or implied metaphor, one of the items being compared is not stated. It’s implied, so it’s up to the reader to figure it out. Here are a few examples:

  • I held on tight through the ups and downs, the twists and turns of her story and even found myself breathless at the end. (compares listening to her story to riding a roller coaster)
  • Manny could feel the cold, sharp pain slide deep into his chest as he read the curt note from his girlfriend. (compares emotional pain to a blade stabbing him in the heart)
  • I'm sowing the seeds, yes
    Yes, I'm sowing the seeds I've taken
    Sowing the seeds I take for granted, ah
    This thorn in my side
    Yes, this thorn in my side is from the tree
    This thorn in my side is from the tree I've planted
    —Metallica, “Bleeding Me” (compares planting seeds and tending to the tree that grows from them to dealing with the consequences of your actions)

Mixed metaphor

When two metaphors are used together, they’re called mixed metaphors. Writers often use them to be funny, such as in this example, which combines two metaphors with the same meaning into one:

  • Anybody can bake a cake. It’s not rocket surgery.

“Rocket surgery” is a combination of “rocket science” and “brain surgery,” two phrases that are often used as metaphors on their own to describe tasks that are extremely difficult or complex. So to say that something is not rocket surgery is a funny way to say it’s simple.

Mixing metaphors can be great for adding humor, but it can also be a feature of poor writing when it combines two disparate ideas. Writers may make this mistake when they rely too heavily on clichés instead of coming up with unique ideas. The example below can illustrate this:

  • Mustafa was the black sheep of the family, and every time he saw his parents, he wanted to blow a gasket.

“Black sheep” compares him to a sheep that differs from the rest of the flock and is less desirable, while “blow a gasket” compares him to an engine that’s about to malfunction due to excess internal pressure. Since these have nothing to do with each other, there is no reason to use them in the same sentence. Mixing metaphors like this doesn’t make sense and may even be confusing for readers.

Extended metaphor

An extended metaphor is longer than most, extending all the way through a paragraph or even a whole work.

The metaphor in "Whatif" by Shel Silverstein is an example that spans a poem, comparing worries and fears to bugs that crawl into bed with a person at night. An even longer example is in the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis: a lion is a metaphor for Jesus Christ that stretches across several books in the series.

Visual metaphor

A visual metaphor is one that relies on an image, either an image you see or one you imagine. An example is the Easy Button from Staples, an office supply store. The button, a common feature of the store’s ads, is large and red with the word easy on it in big letters. When Staples compares shopping at the store to “pressing the Easy Button,” you get a mental image of ultimate effortlessness—pushing a button to instantly complete a task.

We often see visual metaphors in film or TV, such as when the sun rises and sets repeatedly or the hands of a clock spin rapidly to show the passage of time.

How to use metaphors in writing and speaking

Using metaphors in persuasive writing and public speaking can make the difference in whether your audience understands your point as well as whether they remember it. Adding a great metaphor to a piece of writing or a speech is like seasoning a dish—it enhances the quality and makes those who are consuming it much more enthusiastic about it.

Follow the steps below to create a vibrant metaphor of your own.

How to create a metaphor

1. Identify and understand the topic—to compare one thing to another, you need an excellent grasp of what both are like and the connection between them.

2. Consider your goal and audience—think carefully about what you want your audience to take away from your metaphor and how you can make that happen. You might avoid using an implied metaphor if your readers won’t understand it, or you might think of a comparison that inspires a strong reaction in the people you’re speaking to.

For instance, as you read the comparison of metaphors to seasoning above, you probably imagined flavorless food and felt motivated to avoid making readers feel that way about your message. Or maybe you remembered the taste of a really spectacular dish you had at a restaurant and how much you loved it. These emotions and mental associations drive home the point that a metaphor can truly enhance your communication.

3. Word it carefully—the first draft is rarely the best one, so tweak your idea until you come up with a version that achieves your goal.

Metaphors and other writing tools

If you’ve got a message to share and you’re not constrained by the limits of formal academic writing, a metaphor is just the tool you need. With the knowledge you’ve gained, you can begin adding metaphors to your speaking and writing today.

But we’ve also got an assortment of other tools to give your writing some extra oomph. Get rid of errors with the Proofreader, get better flow and fluency with the Grammar Checker, and look for new ways to state your ideas with the Paraphraser. With QuillBot, your writing will make a lasting impression.

How can you identify a metaphor?

A metaphor is often present when taking a statement literally would make no sense or would be ridiculous. For example, if you hear someone say they came to a fork in the road, it would be silly to think they literally saw an eating utensil lying on the pavement.

What is metaphor in a poem?

In a poem, metaphor creates a mental image or emotion in the reader by talking about a subject as if it’s something else to emphasize similarity. It’s a way of using language to compare two things.


Hannah Skaggs

Along with Meredith Harris, Mitchell Allen

Hannah, a writer and editor since 2017, specializes in clear and concise academic and business writing. She has mentored countless scholars and companies in writing authoritative and engaging content.

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