What are metaphors, and how do you use them?

Brett Johnson
May 22, 2020 ·
7 min read
Style
Writing

Metaphors, when used correctly, are a powerful literary tool, as Shakespeare knew only too well. The above quote, taken from the Bard’s play As You Like It, expertly describes life as if it were a play, with all of us acting our parts. It’s a vivid description, and metaphor was something that Shakespeare knew how to utilize to magnificent effect in order to beautifully convey a message.

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts…

Jaques, As You Like It

What is a metaphor?

A metaphor, as described by Merriam-Webster, is “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them (as in drowning in money)”.

Importantly, when one uses a metaphor, one states that something ‘is’ something, such as in the Shakespeare quote above: ‘All the world’s a stage…”

Here are some more examples of famous metaphors:

“But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!”

Romeo, Romeo & Juliet

“You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog

Cryin’ all the time.”

Elvis Presley, Hound Dog

“’Cause baby you’re a firework

Come on show ‘em what you’re worth

Make ‘em go ‘Oh, oh, oh!’

As you shoot across the sky.”

Katy Perry, Firework

This eclectic mix of metaphors all show examples of communicating an idea but substituting one thing for another.

Similes

Similes are a particular variety of metaphor that make a comparison between two things, rather than substituting one thing for another, as you would do with a classic metaphor.

Similes are easily identifiable as they commonly use the words ‘as’ or ‘like’ to make their point. Here are some classic examples of similes, some of which are simply common spoken idioms, and some of which are taken from popular culture.

“I’m as hungry as a horse.”

“Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get!”

Forrest Gump, Forrest Gump

“She is as cold as ice.”

“The very mystery of him excited her curiosity like a door that had neither lock nor key.”

Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind

Extended metaphors

Extended metaphors, as the name would suggest, simply take the idea of a metaphor and run with it for considerably longer than a solitary sentence. 

One definition says the term “extended metaphor” refers to a comparison between two unlike things that continues throughout a series of sentences in a paragraph, or lines in a poem.

In an earlier example of a meteor, Katy Perry sang “Baby you’re a firework”, but the lyrics to that entire song act as an extended metaphor, referring to our own individual ability to shine in life, much like a firework:

“Do you know that there’s still a chance for you?

‘Cause there’s a spark in you

You just gotta ignite the light

And let it shine

Just own the night

Like the Fourth of July

‘Cause baby, you’re a firework

C’mon, show ’em what you’re worth

Make ’em go “Aah, aah, aah”

As you shoot across the sky

Baby, you’re a firework

C’mon, let your colors burst

Make ’em go, “Aah, aah, aah”

You’re gonna leave them all in awe, awe, awe.”

Katy Perry, Firework

Using metaphors

Much like any literary device, metaphors are best used sparingly, as an overuse of metaphor can quickly become tiresome for a reader or listener.

It is also important that in making a metaphor, you choose something that works as a substitution for what you are truly referring to; if the metaphor is tenuous, then people will be unable to relate to that idea. Your words will be lost.

Don’t mix metaphors, because this is a quick way to make yourself seem a little ridiculous. Make sure that the metaphor that you use is established (and translates if necessary), and then use it alone so you do not throw another metaphor into the mix too quickly, and risk mixing.

Another important concept is to make sure that the verb you use with the metaphor matches the subject which you have substituted or compared. For example:

“Her eyes were ice cold, and froze every part of me when I looked at her”.

If ice is the metaphor we are using, then the verb ‘freeze’ would make perfect sense. However:

“Her eyes were ice cold, and burnt deep into my soul.”

‘Ice’ and ‘burnt’ makes little sense.

Consider readability

Metaphors are great when they suit the audience, and they can make a legitimate point. Getting a readability score for your writing, based on the well-respected Flesch system, helps in understanding if the metaphors you have selected amply deliver the message you are trying to deliver. The Linguix writing assistant provides a readability score which can help you understand if the words you have selected are truly compatible with the readership you are reaching out to. 

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