Writers use figurative language like metaphors to bring their writing to life. But what exactly is a metaphor (and how is it different from a simile)? Learn more about this literary device, and get metaphor examples and teaching ideas for your students.
What is a metaphor?
A metaphor is a literary device that draws a comparison between two otherwise unrelated things. It’s used to make an idea more relatable to the reader, or to evoke an emotional response. Metaphors often use hyperbole, or exaggerated language, to paint a vivid picture.
- Example: Today’s history exam was a total nightmare.
Metaphors are examples of figurative language, where the words are meaningful but not strictly true. In the above example, the speaker doesn’t mean that they fell asleep during their exam and had a nightmare. Instead, they’re drawing a comparison between the two to help the reader understand how terrible the experience was.
Metaphor vs. Analogy
Metaphors are similar to another literary device, the analogy. However, a metaphor is used to evoke feeling and emotion. A writer uses an analogy to help the reader draw a logical conclusion. If you’re trying to figure out if a phrase is a metaphor or an analogy, ask whether it’s meant to provoke an emotional reaction or help a reader understand something through logic.
- Metaphor: Time is a remorseless river.
- Analogy: Time is like a rapid river, flowing remorselessly onward. Trying to swim upstream is futile; you must simply go where the currents take you.
Metaphor vs. Simile
To add to the confusion, similes are another type of figurative language comparison used as a literary device. In a simile, though, the writer uses the words “like” or “as” rather than making a direct comparison.
- Metaphor: The sound of her voice was music to their ears.
- Simile: Her voice was like music.
What are the different types of metaphors?
We can break metaphors down into specific types:
This is the most basic type of metaphor, in which the writer simply makes a stated comparison between two unrelated things.
- Standard metaphor example: Racism is a fatal disease for our society.
The direct comparison here is between racism and a disease, bluntly stated and easy to identify.
Implied: In an implied metaphor, the writer is more subtle, using imagery to evoke the comparison between two things.
- Implied metaphor example: It was time for Elijah to spread his wings and fly.
By using language about wings and flying, the author implies a metaphor between Elijah and a bird.
In a visual metaphor, an image replaces or reinforces the words. This classic public service announcement from the 1980s is an excellent visual metaphor example:
As the name implies, an extended metaphor is more than just one sentence. It can be a series of lines in poetry, or a theme carried through paragraphs (or an entire book) in prose. Analogies can seem like extended metaphors, but remember that analogies are meant to help the reader draw logical conclusions, while metaphors provoke an emotional response.
- Extended metaphor example: “The dim attic was a forgotten lifetime. Cobwebs in the corners were shadowy memories, and rusty locked trunks held the passed years. A layer of soft dust lay over all, a blanket of lamented time gone by.”
Each sentence in this paragraph extends the metaphorical connection between the attic and a life lived long ago.
The term “dead metaphor” can be used in several ways, but it generally means a metaphorical expression that has lost its power over time. This might be because the original meaning of a word has changed or that it has fallen out of use. A dead metaphor can also be an overused cliche, one that we’ve all heard so often it no longer has much impact.
- Dead metaphor example: That remark was really beyond the pale.
You’ve probably heard this phrase, but do you know what it actually means? Many years ago, “the pale” referred to a wooden stake used to mark a boundary line. To say something was “beyond the pale” meant that it crossed an accepted boundary. This phrase is still used today, though few know what it actually means, making it a dead metaphor.
What about the phrase “mixed metaphors”? Once again, the clue is in the name: A mixed metaphor is when the writer or speaker mixes two comparisons into one metaphor, making things more confusing instead of clearer. Mixed metaphors are often combinations of well-known phrases.
- We’ll cross that bridge when the ball is in our court.
This sentence combines two common metaphors. The first, “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” compares dealing with an issue or making a decision to crossing a bridge. The second, “The ball is in our court,” makes a connection between taking your turn in a ball game and dealing with an issue or a decision. Put together, the two frankly sound a little bit silly, so strong writers try to avoid mixing metaphors.
General Metaphor Examples
- Tom is the black sheep of his family.
- The vast parking lot was a Sahara under the relentless sun.
- As the children started to work, the classroom became a beehive of activity.
- Laughter is the best medicine.
- Time is a thief, stealing moments away before we know it.
- Her smile was a lighthouse, guiding him safely across the crowded room.
- Li’s anger was a volcano, ready to erupt at any moment.
- Romance is the key to her heart.
- Olivia’s words were sharp daggers, cutting Jordan down to size.
- To Leslie, the vacant lot was a blank canvas, waiting to be turned into a beautiful park.
- Your bedroom is a pigsty—clean it up!
- A storm of emotions brewed deep inside, under Juan’s calm exterior.
- Life is a journey, so enjoy each step along the way.
- Her shrill laugh was nails on a chalkboard to me.
- Love is a rose, with sweet fragrance and sharp thorns.
- If I’m going to get all this work done on time, I’ll need to be a real machine today.
- With our boss out of town for the week, this place is a real circus.
- As she watched him sing, April’s face was an open book.
- Assad’s eyes were deep pools, drawing him in.
- Layla’s pride is her armor, protecting her from all attacks.
Metaphor Examples From Literature
- “I’m a riddle in nine syllables.” (“Metaphors” by Sylvia Plath)
- “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” (As You Like It by William Shakespeare)
- “Hope is the thing with feathers / that perches in the soul.” (“Hope Is the Thing With Feathers” by Emily Dickinson)
- “It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.” (Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)
- “Her mouth was a fountain of delight.” (The Storm by Kate Chopin)
- “Mr. Neck storms into class, a bull chasing thirty-three red flags.” (Speak by Laurie Anderson)
- “The sun was a toddler insistently refusing to go to bed: It was past eight thirty and still light.”(The Fault in Our Stars by John Green)
- “Light the first page, light the second page. Each becomes a black butterfly. Beautiful, eh?” (Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury)
- “He glanced out the rear window at the iron centipede of traffic.” (Sins of Two Fathers by Denis Hamill)
- “His grin is a large plastic comb of teeth.” (Anagrams by Lorrie Moore)
- “Do not go gentle into that good night / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” (“Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas
- “Trees are poems the earth writes upon the sky.” (Sand and Foam by Kahlil Gibran)
- “Time rises and rises, and when it reaches the level of your eyes you drown.” (The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood)
- “Fame is a bee / It has a song— / It has a sting— / Ah, too, it has a wing.” (“Fame Is a Bee” by Emily Dickinson)
- “Middle C is the belly button of the piano.” (I Could Tell You Stories by Patricia Hampl)
Metaphor Examples From Songs
- “Baby, you’re a firework! Come on, let your colors burst.” (“Firework” by Katy Perry)
- “Love is a battlefield.” (“Love Is a Battlefield” by Pat Benatar)
- “Life is a highway. I wanna ride it all night long.” (“Life Is a Highway” by Tom Cochrane)
- “You are the sunshine of my life.” (“You Are the Sunshine of My Life” by Stevie Wonder)
- “You ain’t nothing but a hound dog, crying all the time.” (“Hound Dog” by Elvis Presley)
- “I’m the sunshine in your hair / I’m the shadow on the ground.” (“I’m Already There” by Lonestar)
- “I’m the satellite, and you’re the sky.” (“Cecilia and the Satellite” by Andrew McMahon)
- “My heart’s a stereo / It beats for you so listen close.” (“Stereo Hearts” by Maroon 5)
- “You are the thunder and I am the lightning.” (“Naturally” by Selena Gomez)
- “I’m a hot-air balloon that could go to space.” (“Happy” by Pharrell Williams)
- “My lover’s got humor / She’s the giggle at a funeral.” (“Take Me to Church” by Hozier)
- “All in all you’re just another brick in the wall.” (“Another Brick in the Wall” by Pink Floyd)
- “And he’s watching us all with the eye of the tiger.” (“Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor)
- “I got that sunshine in my pocket.” (“Can’t Stop the Feeling” by Justin Timberlake)
- “You’re my kryptonite / You keep making me weak.” (“One Thing” by One Direction)
How To Teach Metaphors
In addition to sharing metaphor examples with students, try these smart teaching ideas.
Write paint chip poetry
Kids will love this creative activity where they write color metaphors on paint chip samples. Hang a bulletin board full of them, and you’ll have a vivid metaphor display for the classroom!
Learn more: Paint Chip Poetry via Fabulous in Fifth
Mix and match similes and metaphors
This split-page book is so much fun for kids to make, and it gives them practice with figurative language like metaphors, similes, and more.
Learn more: Mix-and-Match Metaphors via Teaching in Room 6
Take the metaphor challenge
This one is great for middle or high school, since it can be a bit tough. Each student draws a slip of paper with a random word or phrase on it. Then they partner up and try to create a metaphor that links their two words together.
Learn more: Metaphor Challenge via Learning in Room 213