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“I don’t think we should wait until the other shoe drops. History has already shown what is likely to happen. The ball has been down this court before and I can see already the light at the end of the tunnel.”

The above paragraph from the Detroit News is a bit hard to read. The problem: a mixed metaphor. A tunnel? A ball in a court? A shoe dropping? What’s going on? The ideas are so jumbled, it’s hard to tell what the author is trying to say.

And it’s a shame. Metaphors, analogies, and similes can be brilliant ways to distill big ideas into simple language. 

But before you can do that, it helps to know exactly what they are—and how to employ them in your own writing. 

What Is a Metaphor?

wheelbarrow
Source: Unsplash
The image of a red wheelbarrow is one of the most famous metaphors in all of poetry, courtesy of William Carlos Williams.

What does “metaphor” mean? It’s easier to answer the question with the simile definition: a simile is a comparison between two things, using “like” or “as.” Remove the “like” or “as,” and you’ve got yourself a metaphor.

Consider the differences between these two phrases:

  • Simile: “I’m sweating like a pig.” 
  • Metaphor: “I’m sweating bullets.”

Both get their ideas across. But the metaphor, without the like or as, slaps you like cold water. (That was just a simile, not a metaphor, by the way.)

Poets use metaphors all the time. Consider William Carlos Williams’ red wheelbarrow. Do we really get the sense this is a poem about farm equipment?

Just as a flag is a symbol for a country, a metaphor is a turn of phrase that symbolizes a bigger idea. What is an example of a metaphor? You can find a few below.

Famous Examples of Metaphor Phrases

  • Getting over a breakup: “My heart is broken.”
  • Eerie silence in the middle of turmoil: “The eye of the storm.”
  • Laughing so hard you’ve run out of air: “I’m dead.” 
  • Eyes revealing emotion: “Eyes are the windows to the soul.”

What Is an Analogy?

analogy vs. metaphor
Maria Matveeva’s course on stylistic devices talks in-depth about metaphors and similes.

“Analogies prove nothing, that is true, but they can make one feel more at home.”

-Sigmund Freud

Analogies are broader comparisons between two ideas. Rather than compare these ideas for contrast, analogies sneak in a description by leaning on an idea you already know. The goal is to explain an abstract idea by using a familiar idea as a shortcut.

People often construct analogies by using similes, which you’ll read about in a minute. But an analogy doesn’t have to include “like” or “as.” 

Then what distinguishes an analogy from a metaphor? Let’s look at a clear example of an analogy vs. metaphor: 

“Longbottom, if brains were gold, you’d be poorer than Weasley, and that’s saying something.”

-J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter

There’s no “like” or “as” here, so it’s not a simile. But since the comparison has an explanation tacked on, it’s not quite a metaphor, either. It’s an analogy: comparing a brain to gold to demonstrate who’s smarter.

Examples of Analogies

  • Comparing ideas: “You might as well rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic.”
  • Simile and analogy: “Life is like a box of chocolates.”
  • Antonym analogies: “Night is to day as dark is to light.”

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What Is a Simile?

scrabble pieces
Source: Unsplash
Though it includes both words, the above is an example of a simile.

Similes are the easiest to define because they have that simple rule: a comparison using “like” or “as.”

Here’s a great example: Actress Amy Poehler once described the process of writing a book by saying, “It has been like hacking away at a freezer with a screwdriver.”

One crisp sentence and we immediately know what she means. Hacking away at ice with a screwdriver combines all the frustration, slow-goings, and feelings of futility into one vivid image. 

Yes, it’s possible to tell the reader this. You can say “the book has been frustrating, slow, and has often felt futile.” But is that as interesting—or as impactful—as the screwdriver simile?

Examples of Similes

  • “Amy would look at me like I was making up words.” -Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl
  • “She’s as tough as nails.”
  • “The dancer moved like a gazelle.”
  • “I feel like a million bucks.”

The Differences Between: Analogy vs. Metaphor vs. Simile

All three words sound like different versions of a simpler word: comparisons. 

Analogy vs. metaphor: In this case, a metaphor should combine more symbolic language. You can express an analogy with direct language that lets the reader know you’re making a comparison. 

Want some analogy vs. metaphor examples? Think of the metaphor as the poetic version of an analogy. Robert Frost’s two roads diverging in a yellow wood aren’t exactly an analogy, because there’s no expression of comparison. But the two roads are a linguistic symbol of something else: life’s proverbial fork-in-the-road. 

Analogy vs. metaphor vs. allegory: If the above makes sense, let’s immediately throw a wrench into the idea. Enter the allegory.

Think of an allegory as a metaphor that’s been blown up to the size of an entire story. An allegory can include a series of metaphors. George Orwell’s Animal Farm is full of symbolism; every animal character represents a larger idea. 

Analogy vs. metaphor vs. simile: Think of “analogy” as the umbrella term for comparisons. Simile expresses the comparison directly with “like” or “as”; metaphors don’t. 

Either way, it’s worth keeping these linguistic devices in your toolbox. Whenever you need to express a big idea, you can pull them out and get to work. (That one was a metaphor.)

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