Metaphor

Metaphors are everywhere – in books, online articles, music, movies and on TV – in fact, you probably use metaphors everyday without realising it!

Metaphor Metaphor

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Table of contents

    Metaphor meaning

    Metaphor is a type of figurative language that refers to one thing as another thing to make us see the similarities between them. Metaphor helps us make effective comparisons. If any of this sounds confusing, don’t worry – it will be much easier to understand once we start looking at some examples.

    Metaphor examples

    Let’s look at a few examples of metaphor; you may already be familiar with one or two of them.

    Life is a rollercoaster.

    Think about the experience of being on a rollercoaster – there are ups and downs, twists and turns, and it can be both terrifying and exhilarating. You could describe life in exactly the same way.

    “I’m a hot air balloon that can go to space”.

    This line is from Pharrell’s song, “Happy”, and it’s a perfect example of metaphor. The song, as the title suggests, is all about being happy and feeling good. By describing himself as “a hot air balloon”, we can picture Pharrell floating off the ground into space, giving us an idea of how light and carefree his mood is.

    “Conscience is a man’s compass”.

    Vincent Van Gogh, the famous artist, wrote this in a letter to his brother. Think of what a compass does – it shows you the way and prevents you from getting lost. Now think of conscience – a person’s moral sense of right and wrong. Here, Van Gogh makes us imagine conscience as the compass within us, guiding us through life.

    Of course, life isn’t really a rollercoaster, Pharrell isn’t really a hot air balloon and there isn’t an actual compass inside any of us! Metaphors are symbolic, which is why they are classed as figurative language, or figures of speech – in other words, they are not to be taken literally, but they create images in our minds to express thoughts, feelings and ideas.

    Going back to our original definition, a metaphor refers to one thing as another thing to help us see the similarities between them. Let’s break down the line from “Happy” to help us understand this – Pharrell expresses his emotion by saying, “I’m a hot air balloon”; he is referring to one thing (himself) as another thing (a hot air balloon). This makes us think of the similarities between them: hot air balloons are light and have a fire burning inside that help them to travel upwards; similarly, Pharrell’s mood is light, energetic, and moving upwards – you could say that there’s a fire inside him and so he feels as if he can float, just like the balloon.

    Metaphor, Pharrell balloon, StudySmarterFig. 1 - "I'm a hot air balloon."

    How is a metaphor formed?

    Metaphors contain two parts; the tenor and the vehicle. Let’s take the same three examples and split them into tenor and vehicle:

    TenorVehicle
    LifeA rollercoaster
    PharrellA hot air balloon
    ConscienceA compass

    Tenor

    The tenor is the thing that you want to describe. It could be a person, an object or a concept. In “life is a rollercoaster”, life is the tenor.

    Vehicle

    The vehicle is the main imagery of the metaphor; it is what the tenor is being compared to. In “life is a rollercoaster”, a rollercoaster is the vehicle.

    Why use metaphor?

    Metaphor is a powerful tool for creating imagery and it can really help your writing come alive. A good metaphor can capture the reader’s imagination in a way that plain English sometimes can’t. Consider this line from the writer Khalil Gibran:

    “Sadness is but a wall between two gardens”.¹

    In this example, “sadness” is the tenor and the “wall between two gardens” is the vehicle. Think of how this use of metaphor makes the writer’s message more powerful. He could have said, “Sadness is something that comes between times of happiness”, but that just wouldn’t have the same impact.

    Metaphor vs simile – what’s the difference?

    Simile is another type of figurative language; it can be very similar to metaphor and so people often confuse the two. A simile also compares two things but, unlike a metaphor, it uses connecting words such as “like” or “as”. Here are a few examples of simile:

    She’s as strong as an ox.

    Life is like a box of chocolates.

    Its fleece was white as snow.

    I’m drawn to you like a moth to the flame.

    Remember, a simile uses connecting words to compare two things, whereas a metaphor doesn’t. A simile will state that something is like another thing; a metaphor will state that something is another thing. Let’s look at how a phrase can be changed slightly to be either a metaphor or a simile:

    Simile: Life is like a box of chocolates.

    Metaphor: Life is a box of chocolates.

    Simile: I feel like a hot air balloon that can go to space.

    Metaphor: I am a hot air balloon that can go to space.

    Everyday metaphor examples

    We use metaphors all the time, whether we realise it or not. Have you ever heard somebody being described as having a “heart of gold”? Or how about people being “two peas in a pod”? Ever heard the term “late bloomer”? “Jumping on the bandwagon”? OK, maybe I’m “flogging a dead horse” now! We understand that none of these phrases are to be taken literally – if somebody had an actual heart of gold then it’s unlikely they’d still be alive – but we still understand what the phrase means. These metaphors can also be classed as idioms, as they have been used so regularly that they are now part of everyday conversation.

    Metaphor, Gold heart x-ray, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Heart of gold.

    Dead metaphors

    Some everyday metaphors (or idioms) are so common or overused that they have lost their original imagery. These are called dead metaphors. Examples of dead metaphors include: "a body of work", “the foot of the bed” and "time is running out". In this last example, the metaphor originally compared time to the sand "running" down in an hourglass. Now, we use this term without thinking of the original imagery or comparison at all; it has become a dead metaphor.

    Mixed metaphors

    You may occasionally hear somebody mix two or more everyday metaphors together; the result, a mixed metaphor, is usually inconsistent or confusing.

    For example, let’s say somebody tells you, “Those in glass houses should get out the kitchen”. Here, they have mixed two idioms: “those in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones” and “if you can’t stand the heat, get out the kitchen”. The message is unclear, as these metaphors mean different things – they don’t belong together!

    Sometimes people combine two phrases that mean the same thing to create a mixed metaphor. For example, they might express how happy they are by saying, “I’m walking on the moon”; they have mixed the idioms, “I’m walking on sunshine” and “I’m over the moon”.

    Usually, when people use mixed metaphor, it’s by accident. But you can use it deliberately if you want to create a silly, comedic effect.

    What is an extended metaphor?

    When a writer decides to draw a metaphor out in more detail, we get an extended metaphor. Extended metaphors are longer than a single line; they can last for a verse, an entire poem, or even a whole book.

    Extended metaphor examples

    We can find examples of extended metaphor across many different art forms, including poetry and fiction.

    Extended metaphor in poetry

    Have a look at this extract from “Caged Bird”, a poem by Maya Angelou:

    A free bird leaps

    on the back of the wind

    and floats downstream

    till the current ends

    and dips his wing

    in the orange sun rays

    and dares to claim the sky.

    But a bird that stalks

    down his narrow cage

    can seldom see through

    his bars of rage

    his wings are clipped and

    his feet are tied

    so he opens his throat to sing.

    Throughout the poem, Angelou tells us about these two birds and how different their experiences are – one is able to fly free, while the other is stuck in a cage. The poem is an extended metaphor for the inequality in society – the fact that some people are privileged and able to live free, whereas others are oppressed and have very few freedoms.

    Extended metaphor in fiction

    George Orwell’s book Animal Farm² tells the story of a group of animals who rebel against the farmer. This is an extended metaphor for the Russian Revolution of 1917. Orwell tells us about this historical event without ever mentioning it – on the surface, the book is just about a bunch of rebellious farm animals led by a talking pig!

    How do you spot an extended metaphor?

    Extended metaphors are not always easy to spot; writers don’t always want them to be obvious. Remember, an extended metaphor uses one thing to represent another. The birds in Maya Angelou’s poem represent different classes of people in society; the farm in George Orwell’s book represents Russia in the early 1900s. Extended metaphors can be quite difficult to get your head round, so if you’re ever confused about the meaning of a poem, book or movie, ask yourself: what could this represent? It can help to do a little research on the writer – find out a bit about their life and where they’re from. This might give you clues about what they are trying to express.

    Metaphor - Key takeaways

    • Metaphor refers to one thing as another thing to help us see the similarities between them.
    • Metaphor is a type of figurative language, meaning that it is not to be taken literally; metaphors are symbolic.
    • A metaphor is formed of a tenor and a vehicle. The tenor is the thing that you want to describe; the vehicle is the thing you are describing it as.
    • A simile is different from a metaphor as it uses connecting words such as “like” or “as”. A simile will state that something is like another thing; a metaphor will state that something is another thing.
    • An extended metaphor is longer than a single line; it contains more detail than a typical metaphor. Extended metaphors represent something other than what the writer is telling us. Their meaning is not always obvious.

    ¹ Khalil Gibran, Sand and Foam (2013)

    ² George Orwell, Animal Farm (1945)

    Frequently Asked Questions about Metaphor

    What is a metaphor?

    Metaphor is a type of figurative language that refers to one thing as another thing to make us see the similarities between them. Metaphor helps us make effective comparisons.

    What is an example of metaphor?

    An example of metaphor is: “life is a rollercoaster”. In this example, “life” is referred to as “a rollercoaster” to make us think of the similarities between them; both are full of ups and downs, twists and turns, and they can be both terrifying and exhilarating.

    What is the difference between simile and metaphor?

    The difference between simile and metaphor is that simile uses connecting words, such as “like” or “as”, whereas metaphor doesn’t. A simple way to remember this is: a simile will state that something is like another thing; a metaphor will state that something is another thing.

    How is a metaphor formed?

    A metaphor is formed of a tenor and a vehicle. The tenor is the thing that you want to describe; the vehicle is the thing you are describing it as.

    What is an extended metaphor?

    An extended metaphor is a metaphor that is drawn out in more detail. Extended metaphors are longer than a single line and can last for however long the writer chooses.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Metaphors should be taken literally.

    Is this a metaphor or a simile?You are the sunshine of my life.

    Is this a metaphor or a simile?She was as fast as a cheetah.

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