Metaphors (The Ultimate Guide)

By Dr. Chris Drew, PhD in Education

A metaphor is a figure of speech where you state that something is something else, even though it is not, for literary effect.

Metaphors are not meant to be taken literally. Their intent is to highlight the similarities between two things or concepts in a vivid or memorable way.

Metaphorical language is commonly used in poetry, music, and literature. But metaphorical language is also inescapable on our everyday conversation. You might soon notice that you use metaphors more than you realize.

Key Points in this Article:

  • Metaphors are used to highlight the characteristics of one thing by comparing it to another thing.
  • Metaphorical language implies one thing is something else.
  • Metaphors are not meant to be taken literally.

You don’t always have to use the word is to construct a metaphor, but it is the most common way to achieve metaphorical comparison.

About Metaphors

1. Famous Examples of Metaphors

While metaphors are all around us, we often draw upon a few very famous metaphors when teaching about metaphorical language. Here are a few of the most famous examples of metaphors.

1. The World is a Stage
Made famous by Shakespeare, this metaphor draws connections between theater and real life. Similarities include the fact we all have roles to play in society and that we all have storylines in our lives, just like in a play.

2. My Daughter is an Angel
This metaphor implies that your daughter is a beautiful, pure, lovely person. The daughter is compared to an angel: something that is heavenly and pure.

3. The Classroom is a Zoo
This metaphor might be used to explain a classroom that is messy with children running around everywhere. The connection between the classroom and the zoo is that a zoo is full of animals hanging off things, running around, and being generally disorderly!

4. Life is a Marathon
We will often say “life is a marathon, not a sprint.” Of course, life isn’t a literal marathon, but there is a similarity that is drawn out in this metaphor. The similarity is that marathons take a long time and require you to pace yourself to get through.

5. The Man is a Dinosaur
When you call someone a dinosaur, you are using a metaphor to describe the fact that they are very old, like a dinosaur!

2. How Metaphors are Made: The Tenor and Vehicle

The two things being compared in a metaphor are called the tenor (the thing we want to describe) and vehicle (the thing we are using to make the comparison).

Here are some examples:

Life is a Rollercoaster

  • Metaphor: Life is a rollercoaster. It is full of ups and downs.
  • Tenor: Life
  • Vehicle: Rollercoaster
  • Explanation: Life is being compared to a rollercoaster. Instead of saying life is like a rollercoaster, we are saying it is a rollercoaster to achieve literary impact. The similarity between the tenor and the vehicle is that they both have high moments and low moments.

The Snow is a Blanket

  • Metaphor: The snow is a blanket over the landscape.
  • Tenor: Snow
  • Vehicle: Blanket
  • Explanation: The snow is being compared to a blanket. The similarity here is that the snow has entirely covered the landscape like a blanket would if you threw it over the grass. The message being conveyed is that the snowfall was so thick that you can no longer see the ground.

3. Types of Metaphors

There are many different types of metaphors. They come in all shapes and sizes. These were mapped in a famous taxonomy in 1980 by Lakoff and Johnson. The most common are:

a) Visual Metaphors

Visual metaphors are metaphors that are depicted through images rather than words. In my classes, I’ll often get my students to find a visual metaphor for homework for the week. I’ll say to them: “find me a metaphor for learning”. They will often come back to me with images like a picture of a rollercoaster (as a visual metaphor for the ups and downs of learning) or a picture of a turtle (as a visual metaphor for how learning can be a long, slow process).

b) Mixed Metaphors

We create mixed metaphors when we use two different metaphors at the same time.

We can do this in two ways.

In the first way, we’ll create one new metaphor out of two different ones. For example, you can get two metaphors about death, like “He’s sleeping with the fishes” and “started a worm farm”, and create a new metaphor: “He’s sleeping with the worms.”

These sorts of mixed metaphors often sound funny and are mixed-up by accident.

In the second way, you can get two metaphors and put them right next to each other. So you can get two death metaphors like “He’s pushing up daisies” and “He went to the farm upstate” and turn them into a new mixed metaphor: “He’s pushing up daisies in the farm upstate.”

Examples of Mixed Metaphors

Mixed MetaphorFirst MetaphorSecond Metaphor
He hit a home run and was dancing in the endzone.From Baseball: To hit a home run (to do exceptionally well).From Football: To dance in the endzone (to celebrate success).
He appeared wet behind the ears on his bully pulpit.Wet behind the ears (to be inexperienced, relating to new-born farm animals).Bully pulpit (to have a position where you can spread your message to many people).
We will all be in the same boat when we’re pushing up daisies.All in the same boat (everyone in the same situation).Pushing up daisies (to be dead).

c) Implied Metaphors

Implied metaphors do not directly name the thing being compared (the part of the metaphor we call the ‘vehicle’). Instead, a feature or behavior of the thing being compared is used. Thus, you are implying a similarity rather than making it explicit.

A good example is in the saying “she returned home with her tail between her legs”. This means that someone returned home behaving like an ashamed dog.

But a dog was never mentioned. It was simply implied.

For this phrase to work, we need to know that dogs put their tails between their legs when they feel shameful.

The comparison between the girl and the dog is implied (the dog, or even shame, are not explicitly mentioned).

Examples of Implied Metaphors

Implied MetaphorTenor (Thing being Described)Vehicle (Subject that is implied for the comparison to work, but not mentioned)
He’s got his tail between his legs.Shame.A Dog.
He’s barking up the wrong tree.Doing something wrong that will yield no results.A Dog.
That’s in my wheelhouse.It’s something I know how to do.Batting in Baseball.
He was spurred on by the encouragement.Feeling motivated.Horse racing.
We’re shooting into an open net.It’s easy.Soccer / Hockey.

d) Extended Metaphors

An extended metaphor is a metaphor that goes on for more than one sentence. You might use an extended metaphor in a full paragraph or even a full chapter of a book.

For example, the metaphor “The man is a dinosaur” can become an extended metaphor if the author of a book decided to give the man the nickname “dinosaur” for the rest of the book. This is a metaphor that will span much longer than just one sentence!

4. Metaphors vs Similes

We often learn about metaphors and similes at the same time. Both are figures of speech that make comparisons between two things.

But, they are phrased slightly differently. Here’s the difference:

  • A metaphor says one thing is another thing. The phrase sounds literal but it is not meant to be. We are implying that one thing is like another thing, but we’re not using that phrase “like”.
  • A simile says on thing is like another thing. So, similes are phrased literally while metaphors are phrased figuratively.

Often, we can make the creative decision to either use a metaphor or simile to say the same thing. Below are some examples of how you can switch between metaphor and simile:

MetaphorSimile
The man is a dinosaur.The man is like a dinosaur.
The sun is an egg yolk in the sky.The sun is like an egg yolk in the sky.
The mountains are a wall on the horizon.The mountains are like a wall on the horizon.
 

5. Metaphors vs Idioms

While it is very easy to distinguish between metaphors and similes, it’s harder to tell the difference between metaphors and idioms. That’s because many implied metaphors are also idioms. The concepts overlap.

Generally, idioms do not highlight direct comparisons or similarities between two concepts while metaphors do:

  • An idiom is a phrase whose meaning cannot be deduced from the words. It is a phrase that has been in our language for so long that we have lost its original meaning, or whose meaning needs to be explained to the listener. Context is required for the phrase to be understood.
  • A metaphor’s meaning can be fully deduced from the comparison being made between two concepts. Anyone can logically reach a conclusion by looking at the two things being compared and identify the similarities that are implied within the phrase.

When metaphors and idioms overlap, it’s usually because the metaphor only makes sense if you have some cultural knowledge of the two things being compared. English language learners are often very good at telling the difference between an idiom and a metaphor because they will tell you if there’s a cultural or historical context within the phrase that requires explaining, making it idiomatic.

ConceptMetaphorIdiom
Heavy rain.It’s raining buckets outside.It’s raining cats and dogs.
To develop an understanding of something.A lightbulb turned on in his head.He wrapped his head around it.
To react quickly.His reaction was lightning.He did it at the drop of a hat.
 

6. The Educational Benefits of Metaphors

Metaphors can have multiple educational benefits.

a) Learning new Things with Reference to the Familiar

Metaphors allow us to understand new information by relating it to something we already know about. For example, if you are familiar with metro system maps, then you can learn about computer circuits by relating them to maps: a computer circuit is a ‘miniature metro system inside a computer’.

Reiders Duit of the Institute for Science Education explains it thus: “metaphors may open up new perspectives to us and may even help us to see the familiar in totally new ways.”

b) Seeing the Familiar in a New Light

We are often stuck in our own ways of thinking. We might be looking at concepts through just one familiar lens. But, when someone approaches us with a metaphor, it can often change our perspective.

For example, metaphors can even help us to re-think the concept of learning itself. Are our minds ‘sponges’, designed to soak up knowledge, or do we do more than just soak up knowledge? Maybe our minds are instead ‘builders’, creating knowledge through experience.

Here, two different metaphors allow us to think about the one concept in two totally different ways.

c) Creating Conceptual Frameworks

Metaphors are also useful for developing conceptual frameworks. A conceptual framework is an entire system of thinking about something.

Here’s an example.

Is the United States a ‘family’ or a ‘zoo’? From the family metaphor, we see ourselves as interconnected and reliant on one another. This may have implications for whether we embrace universal healthcare and care for our elderly. Or, as a zoo, we see the nation as an unruly collection of different people who are all doing their own thing with no regard for one another.

These two conceptual frameworks can help reveal people’s different worldviews.

Here, metaphors have helped us to explain entire conceptual and ideological frameworks and gives us a frame of reference for a subsequent conversation.

Conclusion

Metaphors are a great tool for expressing yourself in creative, unique, and engaging ways. They are used by writers, poets, teachers, and even in everyday conversation to help us communicate with one another more effectively. By developing an in-depth understanding of metaphors and their power, you can learn to create your own metaphors to become a better and more engaging communicator.

SOURCES CITED

Duit, R. (1991). On the role of analogies and metaphors in learning science. Science education75(6), 649-672.

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lapaire, J. R. (2018). Object and substance metaphors: how ‘things’ help us think. Retrieved from: https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-01761240/document

Martin, J. H. (1991). Conventional metaphor and the lexicon. In Workshop of SIGLEX (Special Interest Group within ACL on the Lexicon) (pp. 61-73). Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg. Access Here.

Thu, N. T. H. (2019). Structural metaphor of love in English songs in the late 20th Century from stylistic and cognitive perspectives. JOALL (Journal of Applied Linguistics and Literature)4(2), 185-202. Access Here.

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