There are many different types of metaphors including:
- Personification Metaphor
- Hyperbolic Metaphor
- Visual Metaphor
- Dead Metaphor
- Absolute Metaphor
- Conventional Metaphors
- Ontological Metaphor
- Orientational Metaphor
- Container Metaphor
- Complex Metaphor
- Literary Metaphor
- Recent Metaphor
- Extended Metaphor
- Implied Metaphor
- Mixed Metaphor
- Primary Metaphor
- Root Metaphor
Keep in mind that one metaphor may fit into multiple different overlapping categories. So, you can’t grab a metaphor and scroll down this list to try to find one category it fits into. Chances are, you’ll find that it fits into 5 or 6 different categories.
Types of Metaphors
1. Personification Metaphor
Personification is a type of metaphor that involves describing non-human things as having human characteristics. The tenor will be non-human while the vehicle will refer to human traits.
At the center of personification is the structure: [non-human] is [human].
The main thing that confuses people in personification is when you give something non-human a trait the could be attributed to a person or animal.
For example, when you say “the night is crawling along”, you’re saying that the night feels like it’s taking forever to end.
You could say that this is personification because people crawl while non-sentient things do not. BUT, animals crawl, too. So, is this or is this not personification?
Usually, I err on the side of saying yes: it can be personification, so I put actions like crawling in the personification bucket.
|Personification Metaphor||Tenor (Thing being Described)||Vehicle (Analogy linking the Tenor to a Human Trait)|
|The night knows my thoughts.||Night-time.||The ability to think and know.|
|The leaves dance in the wind.||Leaves.||The ability to dance.|
|The trees‘ vines grew around one another in a loving embrace.||Tangled vines.||Ability to love.|
|The blazing sun tormented me as I walked across the desert.||Hot sun.||The ability to torment|
|The spring morning greeted me as I stepped outside.||A beautiful spring morning.||The ability to greet someone.|
|The shining new train proudly rolled into the station.||A big beautiful train.||The ability to experience pride.|
2. Hyperbolic Metaphor
A hyperbolic metaphor is an exaggerated statement not taken literally (simply: hyperbole) that also employs metaphoric analogy.
Usually, the thing being described is disproportionately smaller than the thing being analogized. For example, a person you dislike could be called a monster. Clearly, they are not literally a monster. But you are using the extreme evilness of a monster to depict a caricature of the person you dislike.
Not all hyperbole is metaphor. For example, saying that an ant in enormous doesn’t draw analogy, making it simple hyperbole. To add an analogy into the mix, you could say: “that’s not an ant, it’s a giant!”
|Metaphor||Tenor (Thing being Described)||Vehicle (Hyperbolic Analogy)|
|The girl is an angel.||A lovely girl.||An angel|
|The football game was a massacre.||A game where one team lost or won by a large margin.||A massacre.|
|This papercut is killing me.||The pain of a papercut.||Death.|
|The car is a rocketship.||A car.||A rocketship.|
3. Visual Metaphor
A visual metaphor is an image that forms an analogy.
For people who learn best through a visual medium, sometimes looking at an image can help them to achieve understanding they wouldn’t have achieved through reading.
The good thing is that you can turn many written metaphors into an image without too much hassle.
You can either use a single image that can be used as an analogy or two images where one is the ‘tenor’ and one is the ‘vehicle’.
For the first example, you could simply have an image of something like a rollercoaster with a caption saying “Life is a Rollercoaster: Full of Ups and Downs.”
For the second example, you could have two images side-by-side. One might be a picture of someone stealing something from a supermarket. The other could be an image of someone skating on an iced-over lake.
Hopefully, you could get the metaphor here: “You’re skating on thin ice”.
As a teacher, I often use images to teach figurative language.
Image: Life is a Rollercoaster
Image Collage: The Thief is Skating on Thin Ice
4. Dead Metaphors
Dead metaphors are also referred to as historical metaphors or frozen metaphors.
They are metaphors that have lost their original meaning. They don’t actually make any sense anymore. The analogy is lost.
Reasons a metaphor ‘dies’ or ‘freezes’ include:
- Our language may have evolved so the metaphor no longer makes sense.
- Words within the metaphor may no longer be used in our everyday lexicon.
- We have forgotten their original meaning.
Many cliches are dead metaphors. We might use them all the time but have no idea what they really mean.
They’re also, in actuality, idioms. An idiom is a non-literal phrase that is known without the need to decode them and identify the implied analogy.
For example, in ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’, it’s hard to really see how cats and dogs have anything to do with rain.
And the definition of a dead metaphor is that you can no longer identify an analogy within the metaphor. So, a dead metaphor is (for all intents and purposes) an idiom.
|Metaphor||Tenor (Thing being Described)||Vehicle (Language Used – Doesn’t make a clear connection to the thing being described)|
|It’s raining cats and dogs.||Rain.||Cats and dogs.|
|It’s a piece of cake.||Something is easy.||Cake.|
|I’m pulling your leg.||A joke.||Legs.|
|At the drop of a hat.||Something happening immediately.||Dropping a hat.|
|Take it with a grain of salt.||Don’t take it literally.||Salt.|
5. Absolute Metaphor
An absolute metaphor occurs when the tenor and vehicle are completely unrelated.
In other words, the analogy is almost indecipherable and probably requires more context or explanation for it to make sense.
You might find that many dead metaphors are also absolute, because a part of the definition of a dead metaphor is that the connecting between the tenor and vehicle are lost in history.
However, absolute metaphors don’t have to rely on historical precedent for you to use them. You can make one up!
Usually, we use them to confound people or make them pause and think. Naturally, they’re going to think: “what the heck did that mean?”
We can also call these paralogical or antimetaphors.
|Metaphor||Tenor (Thing being Described)||Vehicle (A confusing analogy)|
|The coffee tastes like stardust.||Coffee||Stardust (who knows what this tastes like!?)|
|It costs as much as a fish in China.||Price||Fish in China (how much do they cost? Is it expensive or cheap?)|
|He’s gone nuts.||Being Crazy||Nuts (Why are nuts crazy?)|
6. Conventional Metaphors
A conventional metaphor is a figure of speech that has become an integral part of our language system. It is part of our language convention.
It’s almost impossible not to use them because we need them to community. And you use them so often that you don’t even know it.
We can split conventional metaphors into three different types:
But what unites all three is they’re metaphors that are so central to how we communicate that they’re simply part of our language.
|Conventional Metaphor (Non-Literal Use)||Literal Interpretation|
|Can you open the door?||May you open the door?|
|I’m on a high.||I am feeling good.|
|I’m running out of patience.||I have become impatient.|
|There was a good balance of flavor in the meal.||The flavors tasted good together.|
Do you see here how these phrases just appear to be how we communicate? It’s hard to not use them because they’re central to our language system.
They are part of our language conventions.
But if you pause for a moment and look at the English language as if you’ve never seen it before, you really do go: “oh, actually … that’s not literal!”
7. Ontological Metaphors
An ontological metaphor is one of the types of metaphors that we often provide the umbrella term ‘conventional metaphor’.
Ontological metaphors compare non-physical things (events, emotions, activities, ideas) to physical things.
We will say that a non-physical thing (let’s say, happiness) has physical traits (say, fragility). Here, I’ve just constructed the ontological metaphor “my happiness is fragile”.
Of course, only physical things can literally be fragile. A vase, for example, is literally fragile. It will break if you drop it.
But the analogy here is that your happiness can also metaphorically ‘break’ (literally: your mood will change to sadness) easily.
|Metaphor||Tenor (Non-physical thing being Described)||Vehicle (Language Used referring to Physical Properties)|
|My happiness is fragile.||Happiness||Fragility|
|Burning with anger.||Anger||Burning|
|The peace was broken by the soldiers.||Peace||Breaking|
|We built our relationship over time.||A relationship||Building / Construction|
8. Orientational Metaphors
An orientational metaphor is another type of conventional metaphor.
Orientational metaphors use space and direction (forward, backward, toward, above, on top of, below, close, far) to describe something.
You may find that orientational metaphors often overlap with another type of metaphor: the container metaphor, which I discuss next. In fact, you could say that a container metaphor is a type of orientational metaphor.
However, container metaphors refer specifically to being ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ of something that’s not literally a container, or something ‘holding’ something else.
|Metaphor||Tenor (Thing being Described)||Vehicle (Language Used referring to Space or Direction)|
|We are very close.||Fondness for one another (implied)||Being physically close.|
|We’re approaching a resolution.||A resolution||Approaching something|
|I’m under the weather.||Sickness (implied)||Being under something|
|I’m over the moon.||Happiness (implied)||Being over something|
9. Container Metaphors
A container metaphor is a type of orientational metaphor that refers to:
- Figuratively being inside or outside something.
- Figuratively holding something.
Adjectives and prepositions commonly used in container metaphors include ‘inside’, ‘outside’, ‘empty’, ‘full’, ‘in the hands of’, ‘drained’, ‘overflowing’, etc.
|Metaphor||Tenor (Thing being Described)||Vehicle (Language Used referring to a Container)|
|I’m in my own head.||Being introspective||Being inside.|
|He’s full of nonsense.||Someone is lying||Being full.|
|I’ve run out of energy.||Energy||Being empty.|
|I’m out of the tent.||People not sharing information with you.||Being outside of a closed space.|
|It’s out of my hands.||Lacking control over a situation.||Empty handed.|
|I’m overflowing with joy.||Being happy.||An overflowing container.|
10. Complex Metaphor
Complex metaphors are also known as compound metaphors.
A complex metaphor occurs when you stack two or more metaphors on top of one another. Often, it will include a metaphor inside another metaphor.
It’s like a complex sentence where one thing is said then there’s a comma and you add something else. But a complex metaphor makes one metaphoric statement, then adds a comma, and makes a metaphor out of the first metaphor!
I think ‘complex’ was the perfect term for this metaphor.
It’s probably best just to show you a few examples.
|Complex Metaphor||First Metaphor||Second Metaphor||Literal Meaning|
|The pay freeze is a real drain.||Pay freeze.||Being drained.||The fact I’m not getting a pay rise is annoying me.|
|My broken heart is tearing me up.||Broken heart||Tearing you up||My grief over a break-up is making me sad.|
|I’m over the moon that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.||Over the moon.||Light at the end of the tunnel.||I’m happy that I can see the end of this situation.|
11. Literary Metaphor
A literary metaphor is also known as a creative, novel, poetic, or unconventional metaphor.
The key feature of a literary metaphor is that it does not rely on cliché or established tropes. It is, more or less, unique.
Poets and novelists generally attempt to generate literary or creative metaphors in their writing to generate new and impressive figures of speech.
The benefit of doing this is that it often has greatest effect on the reader.
When a reader is presented with a novel way of constructing language, or a new analogy for an old idea, it may jump out at them on the page.
It may also shed new light on an old idea.
|Metaphor||Tenor (Thing being Described)||Vehicle (Language Used to create Analogy)|
|“Life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.” (Dreams, by Langston Hughes)||A life that cannot fulfil its potential.||A bird that cannot fly.|
|“The holes in your life are permanent … you mold yourself through the gaps.” (The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins)||Pain does not go away. You learn to live with it.||Holes that need to be filled.|
|“I’m on a roller coaster that only goes up” (The Fault in our Stars, by John Greene)||Looking on the bright side of life.||A new take on an old metaphor about rollercoasters going up and done.|
12. Recent Metaphor
A recent metaphor (also known as a ‘new’ metaphor) is one that has been recently coined, usually to keep pace with developments in society, technology and culture.
They often involve the development of new terms based on metaphorical interpretation.
With the rise of the internet, there was a significant boom in new metaphors, such as the ‘world wide web’ (a metaphor drawing analogy between the technological connectivity of computers and the shape of a spider web).
However, not all new metaphors are related to technological change. Many relate to cultural change, also.
For example, emergent terms such as ‘woke’ (meaning to be aware of politically correct behavior) is a pun referring to the concept of being ‘awake’ to cultural change. Thus, it is on one level a metaphor – we are calling someone awake when we really mean they’re aware.
|Metaphor||Tenor (Thing being Described)||Vehicle (Language Used to create Analogy)|
|World Wide Web||The connection between computers around the world.||A spider web.|
|Cloud Computing||Online information storage.||A cloud.|
|Firewall||Software blocking malicious attacks on your computer.||A physical wall that can withstand fire.|
|Folder (Computer Storage)||Storage compartment in a hard disk drive.||A physical folder.|
13. Extended Metaphor
An extended metaphor is one that you continue to explain and utilize in a story beyond one sentence.
They could last an entire paragraph, or even as a motif that runs throughout a whole book. But they go beyond a simple phrase, allowing you to explain and elaborate your ideas.
The difference between an extended metaphor and a pataphor (below) is that an extended metaphor remains clearly figurative and doesn’t create its own context or ‘fake world’.
Extended metaphors exist in many proverbs and fables, such as The Hare and the Tortoise, where the two characters are metaphors for patience and greed.
|Extended Metaphor||Tenor (Thing being Described)||Vehicle (Language Used to create Analogy)|
|This classroom is a medieval kingdom. The teacher is the queen. The class clown is the court jester. The class rebel is the outlaw. Etc.||Classroom politics.||Medieval social structure.|
|The person who comes last is eliminated in this race, and the rest go to the next round. So, you don’t have to outrun the bear. Just make sure you aren’t the slowest person because they will be eaten by the bear.||Process of elimination in a race where you don’t have to win, so long as you don’t come last.||Outrunning your competitors so a bear eats them, not you.|
A pataphor is a metaphor that is taken to an absurd extreme. It creates its own context and even its own imaginary world.
It could be interpreted as an extended extended metaphor.
The most common use of pataphors is in fantasy novels or movies, where the writers don’t simply a metaphor or analogy that runs through an entire.
Rather, they create an entire fantasy world that has analogies woven throughout. Often, metaphors are stacked on top of one another so you have metaphors about metaphors about metaphors.
|Pataphor||Tenor (Thing being Described)||Vehicle (Language Used to create Analogy)|
|The movie Avatar.||Indigenous land invasion, injustice, exploitation and greed.||An imaginary world where humans exploit native species.|
|The Narnia series.||The battle of good vs. evil both within ourselves and across society, seen as an analogy for Christianity.||An imaginary world where the lion is a metaphor for bravery, God, and Jesus.|
15. Implied (Submerged or Implicit) Metaphor
An implied metaphor is also called an incomplete, submerged, or implicit metaphor.
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.
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).
Here are some more examples.
|Implied Metaphor||Tenor (Thing being Described)||Vehicle (Subject that is referred to for the comparison to work, but not mentioned)|
|He’s got his tail between his legs.||Shame||Dog.|
|He’s barking up the wrong tree.||Doing something wrong that will yield no results||Dog.|
|That’s in my wheelhouse.||It’s something I know how to do.||Baseball.|
|He was spurred on by the encouragement.||Feeling motivated.||Horse racing.|
|We’re shooting into an open net.||It’s easy.||Soccer / Hockey.|
16. Mixed Metaphor
Mixed metaphors occur when you have two metaphors side-by-side that are unrelated.
Usually, you need these two metaphors in the same utterance or sentence to make them ‘mixed’.
A mixed metaphor can serve a purpose but also be seen as poorly executed and therefore reveal lack of competence with the English language.
On the one hand, they work well to create humor. When you hear a mixed metaphor, you might be a bit taken aback. They sound strange and often cause you to pause to process the incongruence of what you just heard. It may even make you laugh.
But on the other hand, the fact that they sound strange may cause your prose to lack flow. You might not want your reader to need to pause and try to interpret what was written. It may also bother them.
And if you take a mixed metaphor to an absurd extreme, they don’t make any sense. Marion Fogarty from Grammar Girl gives the example of “Wake up and smell the coffee on the wall”.
Another she provides is “green behind the ears”, mixing wet behind the ears and green. Both mean to be young or inexperienced, but they’ve been mixed. These two metaphors are mixed but do still make sense (they both mean the same thing), making this a permissible mixed metaphor.
This mixes ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ (come back to reality) and ‘see the writing on the wall’ (acknowledge the inevitability of something). But, it makes no sense!
So, mixed metaphors need to be used wisely.
|Mixed Metaphor||First Metaphor||Second Metaphor|
|He hit a home run so 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).|
17. Primary Metaphor
Primary metaphors combine abstract and concrete things to create an analogy.
They are some of the most basic metaphors in our language and are often used as the basis for complex metaphors.
The only important thing required in a primary metaphor is that one part is abstract (subjective – a feeling, thought, concept) and one part is concrete (it’s an objective thing you can see and touch).
|Metaphor||Tenor (Abstract thing being described)||Vehicle (Concrete thing used as Analogy)|
|Happiness is a muscle. You need to exercise it.||Happiness||Muscle|
|I’m scared to death.||Fear||Death|
|I’m erupting with anger.||Anger||Volcano (Implied)|
|The glass ceiling.||Discrimination against women in the workplace.||A ceiling|
|He blew a fuse.||Anger||A fuse|
18. Root Metaphor
A root metaphor a central metaphor upon which you can build an entire worldview or metanarrative.
As such, it has very close similarities to extended metaphors and pataphors.
It’s the central concept upon which all other assumptions and ideas are built. In fact, some people who read religious texts metaphorically might argue that some religions are based on a root metaphor.
A figurative reading of the New Testament, for example, might see the resurrection of Jesus as a non-literal analogy about forgiveness and redemption upon which they build the rest of their worldview.
We will often also use root metaphors for brainstorming ways of thinking about things. A teacher might provide their students with a root metaphor (say, ‘the world is a computer game’) and the students would have to try to build upon or extend the concept to test whether it would make sense for a variety of life experiences.
|Metaphor||Tenor (Thing being Described)||Vehicle (Language Used to create Analogy)|
|Life is a computer game.||Life||Computer game.|
|The world is a stage.||The world||Theater.|
|Humanity is a virus.||Humans||A virus.|
You might be surprised that metaphors are more than what you were taught in elementary school. There is a wide range of different types, and some of them are almost essential for communicating in our language.
If you love to learn about metaphors, I’d encourage you to take a look around this website. I’ve got hundreds of articles giving examples of metaphors on just about any topic under the sun (even sun metaphors!). Just go to the homepage and use the search bar to search for the topic of your choice.
Sources and Reference list
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.
I’m a Scorpio, I love the outdoors, and I’ve written articles in some major online publications like Medium and The Weekly. My favorite metaphor? Anything that’s got to do with baseball. I’m fascinated by the fact our language has baseball weaved all through it. Read more about me here.