What Is a Metaphor? | Definition, Examples & Types

A metaphor is way to describe something or someone by saying that it is (or sometimes isn’t) something else, as in the examples below.

Metaphor examples
Dad is a caveman when it comes to social media.

Paul is my rock when I need someone to support me.

This is a figurative (nonliteral) use of language. A metaphorical statement isn’t literally true, but it’s used to state or imply something true about the thing or person described.

Metaphor can be categorized as a literary device, figure of speech, or rhetorical device. It is encountered in everyday speech, in literature, and in all kinds of writing. If you want to explore creative writing, use the QuillBot paraphrasing tool!

What is a metaphor?

Metaphors are rhetorical devices based on a comparison between two unlike things. The usual form of a metaphor involves stating that something or someone is something or someone else. For instance, take the sentence “Justine is an open book.”

There are two parts to a metaphor:

  • The tenor is the literal thing or person that the metaphor describes (in our example, “Justine”).
  • The vehicle is the thing or person used figuratively to describe the tenor (in our example, “an open book”).
Metaphor examples: Tenor and vehicle
Your room is a garbage dump! Clean it up right now.

Her work is a shining light that inspires and guides our efforts.

Bill is the devil on my shoulder; he’s such a bad influence.

Metaphor vs simile

Metaphor is closely related to simile, but the two terms are not interchangeable. Both involve a figurative comparison between two things or people, but they differ in how the comparison is expressed:

  • A metaphor suggests a comparison between two unlike things by stating that one is the other (e.g., “He’s an angel”).
  • A simile explicitly compares the two things, using comparison words such as “as,” “like,” and “than” (e.g., “He’s as pure as an angel”). It resembles the phrasing you’d use for a literal comparison like “She’s as tall as me.”
Simile examples
The bass rumbled like rolling thunder.

Joan’s hair was black as night.

Paula is tougher than leather. Don’t pick a fight with her!

Allegory vs metaphor

An allegory is a story (or image, or play) that uses symbols or fictional figures to stand in for things like ideas, virtues, seasons, or social groups in order to make a point about them. As such, it involves the use of various metaphors but is generally much more extended and complex.

Allegory was a particularly popular form of literature in the medieval era, when it was often used to illustrate religious virtues and vices. Allegories are still encountered today but are often seen as overly moralizing.

Allegory examples
Four sisters sat together at their dinner table: Gluttony, Haste, Abstinence, and Moderation. Gluttony piled her plate high and still wanted more. Haste wolfed down her food in a minute and waited impatiently to be excused. Abstinence ate little and observed her sisters with resentful envy. Moderation ate just as much as she needed and was satisfied.

Analogy vs metaphor

Analogy usually refers to a way of making an argument or explaining something by comparing two unlike things and demonstrating the qualities that they share. This is more specifically called a shared abstraction analogy.

Metaphors and similes are both sometimes confused with shared abstraction analogies. The difference is that the analogy, although it’s based on a metaphor or simile, is developed at greater length and with the goal of making a specific point or explaining a topic.

Analogy examples
Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’ll get!

The mind is a muscle: It needs exercise to keep up to speed, and if you neglect it, your thinking becomes weaker.

Another kind of analogy, an identical relationship analogy, illustrates a strict logical relationship between two things (e.g., “‘Look’ is to ‘see’ as ‘listen’ is to ‘hear’”). It often appears in the context of philosophy or linguistics and has less to do with metaphors.

Types of metaphor

Metaphors are very common in both written and spoken language, and they come in many different varieties.

Direct metaphor

The most typical kind of metaphor is the kind already described above, in which something or someone is said to be something or someone else. This is called a direct metaphor. It may involve any form of the verb “be” (e.g., “is,” “was,” “are,” “will be”). Sometimes, it may involve a different verb.

Direct metaphor example
You’re a magician! I don’t know how you get so much work done so quickly.

John has a heart of gold. He’s so kind and considerate.

Implied metaphor

An implied metaphor doesn’t use the typical phrasing “x is y”; instead, it may use a verb, adjective, or other phrasing that expresses an action or trait in a nonliteral way. For example, “She wove a story with her words” implicitly compares the story to something like a tapestry by using the verb “weave.”

Implied metaphor example
The place was held together with duct tape. [i.e., the place was in a state of disrepair, like a broken object held together with duct tape]

Please walk me through the process step by step. [i.e., explain the process to me incrementally; no literal walking is involved]

Jenna’s cutting remarks really wounded me. [i.e., it felt as if she had physically attacked me, even though only words were involved]

Negative metaphor

A metaphor can also be made negative in form, typically by adding the adverb “not.” In this context, you’re asserting that something or someone isn’t something or someone else—in other words, that it lacks the qualities associated with that thing or person.

Negative metaphor examples
I’m not a machine; I can’t work all night.

He’s a decent songwriter, but he’s no Paul McCartney.

Don’t be a chicken! Go for it!

Dead metaphor

A dead metaphor (sometimes called a frozen metaphor) is a metaphor that’s been used for such a long time that most people no longer think of it as a metaphor.

Metaphors are a very common way of expressing new ideas or technologies by comparing them to some existing concept, and many of them have simply become standard words and phrases that we don’t think of as “metaphorical” nowadays.

Dead metaphor examples
Our company will go belly up if we can’t get our finances in order. [“Belly up” refers to how fish float upside down when they die.]

We shot a lot of footage. [“Shoot” implicitly compares a camera to a gun; “footage” originally referred to a length of film or tape that was measured in feet.]

Extended metaphor

An extended metaphor (or sustained metaphor) is one that is developed over several sentences, lines (in a poem), or even paragraphs. Extended metaphors generally show up in literature or advertising, not in everyday conversation.

Extended metaphor examples
“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.”

—From William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act V, Scene V, lines 24–28

Mixed metaphor

A mixed metaphor is a pejorative term for the combination of two or more metaphors in a single statement. Such a combination usually occurs accidentally and is considered to be bad style. It may also be done deliberately for humorous effect.

Mixed metaphor examples
Life is a box of chocolates: you never know where you’ll end up.

I’m afraid that train has sailed.

A relationship built on a foundation of honesty will blossom into a pretty flower.

Frequently asked questions about metaphors

What does metaphor mean?

Metaphor is a figure of speech (or rhetorical device) in which one thing or person is said to be something or someone else. It is a nonliteral (figurative) statement.

For example, in the sentence “My daughter is a little angel,” the daughter is not literally an angel; rather, the metaphor is used to emphasize her innocence and good behavior.

Metaphor differs from simile, in which the thing or person is not directly said to be something or someone else. Instead, a simile compares the two things/people using comparison words such as “as,” “than,” or “like” (e.g., “she behaves like an angel”).

What is an example of a metaphor?

An example of a metaphor is the sentence “Time is a thief.”

This is a metaphor because it uses a form of the verb “be” to make a figurative statement that something (“time”) is something else (“a thief”). This is done in order to suggest that time steals things away from people, not to make any literal statement.

Metaphor is a rhetorical device that appears in many different contexts, from formal writing to everyday conversation. It should not be confused with simile.

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Jack Caulfield, MA

Jack is a Brit based in Amsterdam, with an MA in literature. He writes about his specialist topics: grammar, linguistics, citations, and plagiarism. In his spare time, he reads a lot of books.