What Is an Analogy? | Definition, Meaning & Examples

An analogy is a comparison between two things that are typically considered unlike for the purpose of explanation or clarification. By emphasizing how two distinct entities or ideas are similar in some ways, analogies help us to comprehend unfamiliar concepts or ideas by drawing parallels with familiar ones.

Analogy example
A good teacher is like a good captain. Just as a captain guides and steers the ship, a teacher guides and steers their students toward knowledge. Both must possess leadership skills and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances to ensure a successful journey.

Analogies are commonly used in literature, everyday language, and problem-solving.

What is an analogy?

An analogy is composed of two elements: the target and the source.

  • The target is the concept that the analogy seeks to clarify or explain. It is typically the less familiar of the two concepts being compared.
  • The source is the more familiar of the two concepts. We use it as a point of reference for understanding the target by drawing parallels and highlighting similarities.

For example, in the analogy “A teacher is like a good captain,” “teacher” is the target, and “good captain” is the source. The source of the analogy provides a familiar framework for understanding the target (a teacher’s role), by highlighting their similarities.

It is important to keep in mind that when we construct an analogy we must be certain that the familiar side of the analogy or source is indeed familiar and known to our reader or audience.

Analogies are valuable tools, but they do have their limitations. They may lead to oversimplification or distortion of information and ideas.

An example of such an oversimplification is the analogy comparing an atom to a miniature solar system. This comparison has been used to explain the structure of an atom, with electrons orbiting the nucleus being compared to planets orbiting the sun. While this analogy can help us visualize the concept of an atom’s structure, it oversimplifies the behavior of electrons.

Analogy definition and purpose

An analogy, in its broadest sense, is an extended comparison of two different things in order to highlight similarities, clarify concepts, or make inferences. It usually includes an explanation of why these two things are similar.

The term “analogy” originates from the Greek word analogia, meaning proportion or ratio. “Ana” means “upon” or “according to,” while “logos” means “ratio” or “word.” Although it is a mathematical term in its literal meaning, for ancient Greek philosophers, “analogy” signified a persuasive explanatory device used in the realm of rhetoric and logic.

Analogical thinking plays a central role in how our brains work and how we understand the world, serving as a bridge between the known and the unknown. Depending on the context, an analogy can serve different purposes:

  • In literature, analogies are used to create vivid imagery, enrich the text, and engage readers.
  • In argumentation, reasoning by analogy is a form of justification. It means employing an analogy to persuade or support a conclusion. Sometimes these arguments emphasize similarities that are superficial or irrelevant to the point being made, leading to invalid conclusions. This is known as a false analogy.
  • In science, analogies are used to explain abstract concepts to novices or non-experts. For example, in biology, teachers often assign a cell analogy project, where students need to explain the structure and function of cells by comparing them to a real-life object or place, such as a factory or a house.
  • In law, analogies help legal professionals apply legal doctrines and precedents to new or similar cases. For example, if a court rules an act as “reckless endangerment” in a motor vehicle case, a legal professional can use it as an analogy to argue the same for a similar act involving a bicycle.

Regardless of the context, the underlying cognitive process is the same: we transfer knowledge from a familiar domain or concept to an abstract or unfamiliar one.

Analogy examples

In the following passage from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (Act 2, Scene 2), Juliet compares Romeo to a rose, arguing that his family name does not define who he truly is.

Just like the name “rose” does not mean anything, and the flower still smells the same regardless of what we call it, Romeo’s name (that of a rival family) does not define him.

Analogy example in literature
‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose,
By any other word would smell as sweet.
So Romeo would—were he not Romeo called—
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title.

In this excerpt, Mark Twain uses an analogy to illustrate the complexity of the evolutionary process.

Analogy example in literature
“Evolution is a blind giant who rolls a snowball down a hill. The ball is made of flakes—circumstances. They contribute to the mass without knowing it. They adhere without intention, and without foreseeing what is to result. When they see the result they marvel at the monster ball and wonder how the contriving of it came to be originally thought out and planned. Whereas there was no such planning, there was only a law: the ball once started, all the circumstances that happened to lie in its path would help to build it, in spite of themselves.”

“The Secret History of Eddypus, the World-Empire” from Tales of Wonder by Mark Twain

Analogy vs metaphor vs simile

Analogies, metaphors, and similes express comparisons and highlight similarities, but they do so in different ways.

  • A metaphor is an implicit comparison. When we say to a friend that “Life is a rollercoaster,” it is up to them to connect the dots and figure out what are the similarities between life and rollercoasters. Additionally, our friend understands that we are using a figure of speech that requires interpretation of figurative language and is not meant to be taken literally.
  • A simile is an explicit comparison that uses the word “like” or “as.” For example, the sentence “Life is like a roller coaster” is a simile. A simile is a figure of speech that highlights a specific similarity between two things to create imagery or emphasize a particular quality.
  • Unlike metaphors or similes, an analogy is a more elaborate comparison that is typically longer than a sentence. This is because analogies typically include more details about the similarities between the two things compared. Also, an analogy is a type of argument, not a figure of speech.

In short, an analogy takes a metaphor or a simile and expands on it to help explain an idea or concept.

Analogy vs metaphor vs simile example
“Life is a box of chocolates” is a metaphor.

“Life is like a box of chocolates” is a simile.

“Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you are going to get” is an analogy because it explains in what way the two things being compared are similar (i.e., they both include an element of unpredictability).

Frequently asked questions about analogies

What is a synonym for analogy?

Some common synonyms for “analogy” are “similarity,” “likeness,” “resemblance,” “comparison,” and “correspondence.” These terms are often used interchangeably with “analogy” to describe the process of drawing parallels or comparisons between different things or concepts.

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What is reasoning by analogy?

Reasoning by analogy (also known as analogical reasoning or argument from analogy) is a type of argument that is based on the idea that if two or more things are similar in some respects, they are probably similar in some further respect. The conclusion drawn from this type of reasoning is less certain than, for instance, deductive reasoning because its truthfulness is entirely dependent on the strength and accuracy of the analogies drawn.

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Kassiani Nikolopoulou, MSc

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex information into easily accessible articles to help others.