What Is A Metaphor? Definition, Examples, And Types

by Terry Heick

Before founding TeachThought, I was an English Language Arts and Literature teacher.

(I’m also a poet and my first collection will soon be available for pre-ordering–you can see terryheick.com for updates, but I digress.)

The concept of metaphors is simple enough–in fact, so simple that they are often invisible in language (eek–that’s already a metaphor). But defining them and helping students understand and use them was more complex.

What Is A Metaphor?

Definition: A metaphor is a literary device (or figure of speech) that makes a comparison between two ‘things’ without the comparison being literal.

Shakespeare’s, ‘As You Like It’ is one of the most famous examples of a metaphor:

'All the world's a stage, 
and all the men and women merely players' 
–William Shakespeare, As You Like It

Obviously, the world isn’t literally a stage and all of the men and women aren’t ‘players’–thus the phrasing being an example of a metaphor.

In another example, ‘It’s raining cats and dogs’ is both a metaphor and an idiom (more on that below).

See also 12 Of The Best Digital Tools And Rhyming Tools For Student Writing

Types of Metaphors

Many literary devices take advantage of the function of a metaphor. Similes, hyperbole, antithesis, idioms, and metonymy are all types of metaphors as they use the practice of comparisons between two ‘things.’ If you’re waiting for your food in a restaurant and claim the food is ‘taking forever,’ the use of hyperbole here compares the actual time the food is ‘taking’ (also a metaphor–personifying the food, claiming it is ‘taking time,’ when, of course, it’s the restaurant staff ‘taking’ time to prepare the food) to a longer period of time, in this case forever.

What’s The Purpose Of A Metaphor?

The purpose of a metaphor is to convince the reader to transfer (some/all) of the qualities of X to Y.

Often after analyzing poems (and their metaphors) in the classroom, students would ask me why poets use literary devices like metaphors. When we would extract the theme from a poem or an implicit message in a line or phrase, they would want to know why the poets didn’t just ‘come out and say it.’

In response, I’d paraphrase a poem, removing all literary devices (including metaphors) and what was left would be formless, dry, fragmented uninteresting ‘messages,’ which always made an impression on them. This was especially powerful if you took one of their favorite songs and did the same, never mind the language they themselves used to communicate.

See also A Simple Definition For Poetry

Types of Metaphors

The most common types of metaphors are standard metaphors, extended metaphors, visual metaphors, and in student writing, unfortunately, mixed metaphors.

Examples of Metaphors

Standard Metaphor: a direct comparison between two ‘things–objects, concepts, people, etc.

Example of a standard metaphor: His job was to find the bottleneck in the process.

Extended Metaphor: like a standard metaphor, an extended metaphor also makes a direct comparison but does so in an ‘extended’ way, carrying the comparison across many lines, sentences, passages, stanzas, etc.

Example of extended metaphor: Emily Dickson’s ‘A narrow Fell in the Grass’ is an example of an extended metaphor as she uses the metaphor of a snake throughout the poem as a symbol–of what is open to interpretation but could include nature, evil, deceit, and other more subtle themes.

Visual Metaphor: the representation of a noun through a visual image that demonstrates the relationship or association that creates the metaphor

Example of a visual metaphor: a flag is one of the most common examples of a visual metaphor, as are religious symbols, graffiti, etc.

Implied Metaphor: an implied metaphor is a type of metaphor that compares two things that are not alike without actually mentioning one of those things, and thus represents a more subtle comparison

Example of implied metaphor: Having studied for hours the night before, the student aced the exam.

Mixed: a mixed metaphor is an ineffective use of the literary device where the comparison(s) is/are incompatible, confusing, illogical, and most problematically, distracting.

Example of mixed metaphor: He’s not an early bird which, in many cases, puts him up against the wall.

Dead: a figure of speech that has lost its ‘actual’ meaning for any number of reasons–diction and associated meaning being culturally constructed, for example. In most cases, the meaning is still understood but only through usage rather than interpretation or deduction.

Examples of dead metaphors: ‘three sheets to the wind’ or ‘the whole nine yards.’

See also Don’t Teach Students How To Read, Teach Them Why

What is the meaning of a figure of speech?

A figure of speech is a word of phrase used in a non-literal way to convey specific, creative, and insightful meaning. Figures of speech–(i.e., figurative language)–are used in everyday language constantly, not to mention creative writing such as poetry, music, creative non-fiction writing, and more.

What Are The Types Of Figures Of Speech?

While there are dozens, the most common examples of figures of speech (i.e., figurative language) include personification, anthropomorphism, irony, assonance, metaphors, similes, hyperbole, idioms, understatement, apostrophe, and euphemisms.

The Definition Of An Idiom

An idiom–almost always a metaphor–is a phrase or figure of speech whose meaning cannot be deduced using literal meanings of the words and phrasing used to express the idiom. Idioms are often specific to specific cultural norms or geographic reasons.

An Example Of Metaphors From Poems

In Robert Frost, ‘Birches,’ Frost uses the following metaphor to compare

Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.

In this excerpt, Frost is comparing ice to broken glass. Later in the poem, uses personification–endowing human-like characteristics or qualities to non-human things. In that way, personification can be thought of as a kind of metaphor as Frost is comparing the trees to people (which he follows up with a simile where he makes a direct comparison between the trees not just as people but girls “on hands and knees.”

You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.

In fact, the girls ‘throwing their hair” is also a metaphor because hair can’t be ‘thrown’–thus Frost is comparing the movement of the girls’ hair to something being thrown.

The title of Emily Dickinson’s 1702, ‘Fame is a fickle flood’ itself is a metaphor. At times, metaphors are less obvious, as is the case with Wal Whitman’s, ‘I Sing The Body Electric’ where Whitman compares a fireman’s uniform to a ‘costume’:

The march of firemen in their own costumes, the play of masculine muscle through clean-setting trowsers and waist-straps...

Here, the metaphor is less dramatic because there isn’t as much ‘distance’ (a metaphor) between a costume and a uniform as there is between fame and a flood. In fact, one could argue that this is a mix of two literary devices: understatement and metaphor–or even an understated metaphor because only the slimmest daylight (another metaphor) exists between uniforms and costumes.

In William Shakespeare’s, ‘When Daisies Pied and Violets Blue,’ the bard uses an assortment of consecutive metaphors (in bold) to use imagery that helps develop the poem’s theme, ending with the concept of an ear (rather than a person) being ‘married.’

When daisies pied and violets blue
      And lady-smocks all silver-white
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue
      Do paint the meadows with delight,
The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men; for thus sings he: 
Cuckoo, cuckoo!” O, word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear!

More Examples Of Metaphors In Everyday Language

Put yourself in their shoes.

Explanation of metaphor: Here, the shoes equate to a person’s perspective or circumstance. By metaphorically ‘being in their shoes,’ you are being asked to empathize with them.

Life is a highway.

Explanation of metaphor: Life is being compared to a highway as it is a kind of journey that we move along. The comparison here is the distance covered by the road representing the time and experiences had by the traveler (or anyone alive).

She’s an early bird.

Explanation of metaphor: Birds are known for waking early, so someone who wakes up early is being compared to them.

The flower danced in the easy breeze.

Explanation of metaphor: Two metaphors here, actually. Flowers can’t dance and breezes aren’t ‘easy’ so the movement of a flower is being compared to the act of dancing (also an example of personification) while the breeze being ‘easy’ is comparing the slow movement of the air to something that is ‘easy’–uncomplicated and elegant.

Her curiosity was fuel for her success in the classroom.

Explanation of metaphor: A student’s curiosity is being compared to fuel: as fuel makes machines go, curiosity can be thought of as catalyzing learning–making the learning ‘go.’

The Difference Between A Simile And Metaphor

What’s the difference between a simile and a metaphor?

The difference between a simile and metaphor is that a simile makes the comparison between two things using the signal words ‘like’ or ‘as,’ making the comparison more overt.

What’s an example of a simile?

She’s as fast as a cheetah.

He’s sturdy like an oak tree.