What Is a Metaphor? Definition and Examples
Metaphors are powerful tools that allow us to unleash our creativity, expose our inner worlds, and stand out in our writing and speech.
We use metaphors dozens of times every day, yet what exactly are they, how are they built, and what distinguishes them from other figures of speech?
Simply put, a metaphor is a figure of speech that states that one thing is another thing. It’s used to make a comparison between two objects or concepts that aren't alike but have something in common.
In this article, we’ll dive into all aspects of a metaphor and show powerful examples across film, music, and literature.
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What is a metaphor?
In ancient Greek, the word metapherō means “to carry across.” In some ways, this is exactly what a metaphor does: it carries a shared quality or characteristic across two things or concepts of different natures. This is why a metaphor usually has two parts: the tenor and the vehicle. The tenor is the subject we’re trying to describe, while the vehicle is the object whose attributes we’re borrowing. In Shakespeare’s most famous “All the world’s a stage” monologue from As You Like It, "the world" is metaphorically assimilated to a stage, in which people are merely actors. Therefore, "the world" is the tenor, and "a stage" is the vehicle.
Without using comparative words, such as like or as, metaphors allow us to create new connections, and thus, convey additional meaning. A common figure of speech, they can help the audience understand an idea more clearly. Metaphors can also show us that something is a symbol of something else.
Finally, metaphors are often used to add color or emphasis to the point you’re trying to get across. For instance, if you say someone has a “heart of gold,” you’re using a metaphor to describe their good nature. While the person’s heart isn't literally made of gold, this type of figurative language communicates the point in an intuitive, sensible and poetic way.
Metaphors are used across disciplines and genres: You can find them in the most casual conversations, complex pieces of literature, motivational quotes and diverse films. They allow any text to stand out and pull its audience into a new reality.
Metaphor examples in literature
You can find great examples of metaphors in literature and poetry. Written down, metaphors make you identify with certain emotions or experiences, carrying weight that simple descriptions rarely do.
“My thoughts are stars I cannot fathom into constellations.” —The Fault In Our Stars, John Green
“Memories are bullets. Some whiz by and only spook you. Others tear you open and leave you in pieces.” ―Kill the Dead, Richard Kadrey
“Wishes are thorns, he told himself sharply. They do us no good, just stick into our skin and hurt us.” ―A Face Like Glass, Frances Hardinge
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” —As You Like It, William Shakespeare
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by / And that has made all the difference.” —“The Road Not Taken,” Robert Frost
Metaphor examples in music
So many songs hold hidden meanings behind their seemingly simple lyrics. Metaphors are everywhere in popular music, here are a few powerful examples.
“Third floor on the West Side, me and you. Handsome, you’re a mansion with a view”—”Delicate,” Taylor Swift.
“Even when it’s rainy all you ever do is shine. You on fire, you a star just like Mariah”—”Mine,” Bazzi.
“Life is Monopoly, go cop me some land and some property”—“Stir fry,” Migos.
“You were the light for me to find my truth. I just wanna say, thank you”—“These Days,” Rudimental.
“My lover’s got humor. She’s the giggle at a funeral”—“Take me to Church,” Hozier.
Common metaphor examples
Even if you’re unfamiliar with many examples of metaphors, you must have heard these at some point in your life. These commonly used, and often cliché metaphors reveal just how prevalent this figurative device is in our everyday lives.
Life is a highway.
Her eyes were diamonds.
He is a shining star.
The snow is a white blanket.
She is an early bird.
Metaphor examples for kids
Explaining the idea of a metaphor to kids may be challenging, but using examples always helps. Kids’ metaphors tend to be lively and exciting, full of animals and imaginative ideas, making metaphors into a great pedagogical tool.
Her tears were a river flowing down her cheeks.
The classroom was a zoo.
He is a night owl.
Mario is a chicken.
Her eyes were fireflies.
Different types of metaphors
Metaphors are not as straightforward as they might seem. There are many different types of metaphors, each distinguished by unique characteristics. Here are some examples of the most commonly used families:
01. Absolute metaphors
These metaphors compare two things that have no obvious connection to make a point. For example, "She is doing a tightrope walk with her grades this semester."
02. Implied metaphors
These metaphors compare two things that are not alike, without actually mentioning one of those elements. For example, “A woman barked a warning at her child.” Here, the implied metaphor compares a woman to a dog, without actually mentioning the vehicle of the metaphor. Implied metaphors make sense only when the object you’re implying (e.g., a dog) is common or well known enough by the audience.
03. Dead metaphors
Like clichés, these metaphors have lost their strength because they’ve been overused. For example, "You light up my life."
04. Mixed metaphors
A combination of two or more different metaphors that create a sometimes silly effect. For example, "The new job has allowed her to spread her wings and really blossom." In this example, the woman is compared to both a bird and a flower, creating an odd combination that manages to get the point across, yet must be avoided. The reason we easily understand this metaphor is because the elements the woman is being compared to are so ingrained in our mind that we don’t actually pay attention to the literal meaning—or the absurdity of combining them.
Mixed metaphors can be useful if you’re trying to be funny, but if you’re not, they can come off as awkward or even undermine the point you’re trying to make.
05. Extended (or sustained) metaphors
These lengthy metaphors are introduced and then further developed throughout all or part of a piece of literary work. Since these metaphors are used over a longer section of text, they can be a powerful literary device that provides strong, vivid imagery in the reader’s mind. Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” poem is a great example. In these verses, he uses extended metaphors to convey the idea that everyone makes choices that forever shape their lives.
06. Conceptual metaphors
In these metaphors, one concept or abstract thing is understood in terms of another. For example, “Time is money”, where both “time” and “money” are conceptual objects.
How to use metaphors in your writing and speech
Metaphors can be incredibly useful because they add powerful detail to your writing. When you use metaphors, you bring your words to life and help the reader imagine and even feel certain emotions, scenes, or characters. It is important to remember not to mix metaphors and confuse your audience; that can actually take away from your work instead of enhancing it.
Moreover, when you write, it’s essential to keep your audience in mind and choose your metaphors accordingly. If you’re writing for kids, there is no reason to use overly complex, extended metaphors that may not come across as clearly.
Finally, before you begin to include metaphors in your writing, remember why you wanted to use them in the first place. It is often when it's hard to explain something just as it is, and a comparison offers a useful reflection of the feeling you wanted to evoke. No need to overdo it. When it's easier to just explain something for what it is, ask yourself, is a metaphor necessary here?
How to create your own metaphors
Coming up with your own metaphors can be difficult, but in reality, all you need is your imagination. Creating smart, visual and relevant metaphors is often what sets very good writers apart from the rest, showcasing an imaginative mind that is able to convey an image or a feeling through simple yet powerful comparisons.
The first step is choosing the character, object or setting you’re trying to write about. Then, focus on the particular scene you’re describing. If you’re having trouble describing it, think of other objects that share characteristics with it. Now comes the fun part—take your metaphor and expand on it. Adding your own personal touch can go a long way.
Metaphor vs. simile: What’s the difference?
Metaphors are often confused with similes because they serve similar purposes—comparing two distinct things. However, while metaphors poetically say that something is something else, similes say that something is like something else. By using words such as "like", "as", or "than", similes create a comparison that differs from the implicit comparisons metaphors draw. Here are a few common examples of similes:
He is cute as a button
She is brave as a lion
This house is as clean as a whistle.
In a nutshell
A metaphor directly compares two distinct things that aren't alike but have something in common. Unlike a simile, it doesn’t use comparison terms such as “like”, “as” or “than”, but rather states that something is something else.
Now that you know what a metaphor is, when to use it and how, you can infuse your own personal touch into your writing.
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Lipaz Avigal, UX Writer at Wix
Lipaz lives in Tel Aviv and loves to travel, spend time at the beach, and cook delicious and creative vegan dishes.