September 3, 2014


Metaphor is a figure of speech consisting of two essentially different objects, ideas, actions, or feelings with an implication that the objects are similar or identical on some point of comparison.


The English word metaphor is derived from the French word métaphore, which is derived from the Latin word metaphora, meaning “carrying over”, from Greek metaphérein, meaning “to transfer”, from meta-, meaning "over, across" + pherein, meaning "to carry, to bear”. The earliest known usage of metaphor in English dates from the 15th century.


Metaphors are often considered as a compressed form of similes. In metaphors an object of one class is equated with an object of another class based on a single or common point of resemblance. In other words, metaphors chiefly suggest that 'A is B'. This comparison is implicit or implied, rather than being specifically stated. Metaphor has two parts: the tenor and the vehicle. The tenor is the subject or topic to which attributes are ascribed. The vehicle is the object whose attributes are borrowed to transform the subject into something else. We can explain this by considering an example: “Jonathan is a tiger”

Structure of Metaphor © Tanvir Shameem

In the above sentence Jonathan and tiger are from two different classes, that is, the former being a human and the latter being a feline. Here Jonathan the tenor and tiger is the vehicle. In this sentence the implicit point of comparison is “braveness” and “courage”.

Determinants of Metaphors

Lay readers often confuse metaphors with similes. Although there are no definite rules, one can follow the under- mentioned steps to determine whether a metaphor is present in a text or sentence:
  1. See whether two things are compared.
  2. Find whether the two things are dissimilar/unlike.
  3. Figure out whether the objects are implicitly compared.
  4. Notice whether the comparison is made without “like”, “as”, “than” or “as if”.

 Techniques for Determining a Metaphor (adapted from: )

Functions of Metaphors

Metaphors are abundantly used in all types of literature, whether it is poetry or prose. But its use is not merely restricted to literature only; rather it is extensively used in everyday conversations. The function of metaphor is as under:
  • Metaphors create a text more interesting as the readers get much opportunity to use their creativity to grasp the writer’s intent.
  • Metaphors can make the relatively plain characters and events of a literary work more lively and realistic.

Differences between Metaphors and Similes

Metaphor and simile should not be considered equivalent since they are different in certain respects:
  1. A metaphor makes a hidden or implicit comparison by stating two different objects as same or equal. A simile on the other hand, explicitly asserts that one thing is like another.
  2. A Metaphor makes the comparison between the two things figuratively so the reader is not able to understand the meaning by dictionary meaning. Contrariwise, in a simile the comparison between two objects are made literally as the reader can interpret the writer’s intension by dictionary meaning.

Types of Metaphors

Despite a dearth of specific yardstick a number theorists endeavoured to classify metaphors from their personal point of view. Consequently, the classification of metaphors may include but not limited to the following:
  1. Absolute Metaphor: also called paralogical metaphor or antimetaphor, a type of metaphor in which there is absolutely no connection/relation between the subject and the vehicle. Such a metaphor is often used to mislead the audience. For example: We are the eyelids of defeated caves.
  2. Conventional Metaphor: a type of metaphor which is used in everyday language and it is so common that the majority of readers are able to comprehend it.
  3. Extended Metaphor: also called conceit or sustained metaphor, where a single metaphor is used and the comparison is continued throughout several sentences in a poem.
  4. Root Metaphor: a root metaphor is rooted or embedded within a language to such an extent that the native speakers often fail to distinguish it as a metaphor. Nonetheless, root metaphors are important since different metaphors stem from them. Root metaphors basically encapsulate an individual’s perception of a particular situation.
  5. Mixed Metaphor: when two or more contrary metaphors occur in a same sentence to develop a single idea is called a mixed metaphor. A mixed metaphor is not well structured and the comparison is often confusing and comical.
  6. Simple Metaphor: also called tight metaphor, a type of metaphor which suggests a single point of resemblance between the tenor and the vehicle. For example: Alice is an angel.
  7. Compound Metaphor: also called loose metaphor, which suggests several points of similarity. In such metaphor, each part signifies an additional point of meaning in order to surprise the reader again and again. The parts often comprise adverbs and adjectives.
  8. Complex Metaphor: a complex metaphor is one in which a secondary metaphor is layered over a simple metaphor.
  9. Active Metaphor: also known as live metaphor, which is relatively new and has not yet been established as a linguistic component in everyday speech. Such a metaphor is not obvious to all listeners and remains in obscurity unless used in appropriate context.
  10. Dead Metaphor: also known as frozen metaphor, extinct metaphor is one which has lost its power to startle the listener due to overuse. Nowadays these types of metaphors exist in the vocabulary as ordinary words since their original meaning has been lost. Some theorists suggest two other states of dead metaphor:
a. Dormant Metaphor: this is a temporarily inactive metaphor since we use it without being conscious of its metaphorical significance.
b. Dying Metaphor: A dying metaphor is one which is in the process of becoming a cliché owing to extensive usage. In time its original meaning will be extinct.

Drawbacks of Metaphor

Although metaphors play a vital role to make a text interesting, sometimes it may do quite the opposite. Firstly, the reader may find a metaphor uninteresting if the analogy is too vague to comprehend. Lastly, the analogy made by metaphors is never precise; rather it is merely an approximation of the point of similarity.




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 “Metaphor.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2014. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. 4 August 2014

“Metaphor.” Wikipedia. 2014. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 4 August 2014

“Metaphor (Figure Of Speech and Thought).” 2014. 4 August 2014

“Metaphor.” Literary Devices. 2014. Literary Devices. 4 August 2014

“Metaphor.” Urban Dictionary. 2014. Urban Dictionary. 4 August 2014

“Metaphor.” Shmoop University. 2014. Shmoop University. 4 August 2014

“Metaphor.” EnglishClub. 2014. EnglishClub. 4 August 2014

 “The Fifteen Types of Metaphors.” 2014. 4 August 2014

“What Are the Different Types of Metaphors?.” Wise Geek. 2014. Conjecture Corporation. 4 August 2014

Tanvir Shameem Tanvir Shameem is not the biggest fan of teaching, but he is doing his best to write on various topics of language and literature just to guide thousands of students and researchers across the globe. You can always find him experimenting with presentation, style and diction. He will contribute as long as time permits. You can find him on:

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