Two common figures of speech in English are the simile and the metaphor. Sometimes their functions are confused or mistaken. In this discussion we’ll further explore what a metaphor means and how it can enhance our writing when properly used.
What Does Metaphor Mean?
Before we focus on the meaning and function of a metaphor, let’s first establish its difference from a simile. Both similes and metaphors help to further understanding and expand imagination concerning thoughts and ideas. They achieve this by creating figurative rather than literal associations.
A simile directly compares one thing and another, mostly commonly by linking them with the word like or as. For example, a popular line in the movie Forrest Gump was “My momma always said life was like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get.” The comparison between life and a box of chocolates is direct and immediate.
By definition, a metaphor is an expression of nonliteral resemblance in a way that is implied rather than stated, as it is in a simile. In making its comparative relation, the metaphor will have a primary, concrete term or concept and a secondary one to provide figurative depth and clarity. Unlike a simile, a metaphor will not compare things by using the words like or as.
Because of the looser comparison it makes, a metaphor allows more room to evoke feeling and imagery. By creating a more-abstract association between things, it prompts the reader to think further about the logic and truth of the relation, which can heighten emotion or intellectual awareness concerning it.
A metaphor states that one thing is another thing not because they are the same, but because they share traits. Returning to our Forrest Gump example, if a simile directly compares life to a box of chocolates, a metaphor might express life more suggestively in the following way:
Life is the fallen branch moved along by the rush of the river, always pushed and turned and spun, sometimes gently, sometimes furiously, unsure of where it will land but certain to get there.
The same example could be stated as simply as life is the fallen branch moved along by the river. Clearly, the comparison in this model is neither direct nor exact.
Let’s look at a few more examples of metaphorical expressions:
|black sheep||angel in disguise||My desk is an industrial spill of paper.|
|heart of stone||the elephant in the room||Her smile gives us light.|
|music to my ears||They left us high and dry.||You are the peace in my storm.|
Avoid Mixed Metaphor
As a good writer, you will want to avoid mixed metaphors, which combine two or more incompatible images that become nonsensical.
In other words, we don’t want to start by comparing life to a fallen branch and end the comparison with an aluminum can.
Life is the fallen branch moved along by the river, pushed and turned and spun, a soda can on its wandering way to the recycling plant.
We have now created two unrelated metaphors to illustrate the primary concept, thereby sapping the strength and clarity of the comparison.
Similarly, we would refrain from mixed-metaphor mash-ups such as:
A pillar of courage, he will blaze a trail of glory through fields of gold where diamonds might be found among the coal.
By understanding what a metaphor means, how it functions, and what it can achieve when used with taste and restraint, we can make our writing even richer with eloquence.
Similes and Metaphors
Now that you’re more familiar with what a metaphor means, identify if each expression includes a metaphor or not.
1. I think Robby is turning into a couch potato.
2. That bodybuilder might as well be made of steel.
3. That shirt is as American as apple pie and baseball.
4. The company decision-makers need to stop living in a silo.
5. I’m so tired I’m going to sleep like a log tonight.
Pop Quiz Answers
1. I think Robby is turning into a couch potato. metaphor
2. That bodybuilder might as well be made of steel. metaphor
3. That shirt is as American as apple pie and baseball. no metaphor
4. The company decision-makers need to stop living in a silo. metaphor
5. I’m so tired I’m going to sleep like a log tonight. no metaphor
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