Metaphors: What Are Metaphors? (Definition and Examples)

By Carly Forsaith, updated on June 28, 2023

Want to learn about metaphors? You're in the right place! This article will teach you everything you need to know about what they are and how to use them in your writing.

In short:

  • A metaphor is a form of figurative language used to compare one thing with another.

This guide is part of our free online Grammar Book.

What Are Metaphors?

The first thing to know about metaphors is that they are figurative. If you tried to take a metaphor literally, it wouldn't make any sense. Using them in your writing helps create an image in the reader's mind so they can understand the comparison you're trying to make. In this way, it brings your writing to life and makes the journey more interesting for the reader.

Here are some examples of popular metaphors:

Laughter is the medicine of the soul.

He was just barking orders at us the whole time.

You're my rock.

So what if you want to use metaphors in your own writing?

  • Due to their symbolic nature, metaphors can be anything you want.
  • You can use already established ones like the ones above or make up your own.

It's pretty to do so. Let's give it a go.

For instance, imagine you want to talk about someone who hasn't shown any kindness. You could say that their behavior is cold, and that would do the job. Or you could go one step further and create a metaphor.

Here are some metaphors to talk about someone who is cold:

She could freeze an oasis in the desert.

He gives Frosty the Snowman a run for his money.

You need to wear a fur coat when you talk to her.

As you can see, what you're doing with a metaphor is using the image of one thing to explain another. 

Additionally, there are different types of metaphors, all of which we'll go over in the following section. But first, I'd like to clarify the difference between metaphors and similes and metaphors and idioms since they have many similarities.

Metaphors vs Similes

Metaphors and similes are very similar, what with them both using figurative speech to make a comparison.

  • Where they differ is that similes are a lot more obvious in their comparison as they use prepositions such as 'like,' 'than,' and 'as.'

To continue with our earlier example, here are some similes to describe a person that displays cold behavior:

colder than a dog's nose

cold as ice

cold like a frozen over lake in winter

As you can see, these still use metaphors, so in a way, similes are a type of metaphor, but they make overt comparisons, whereas metaphors are a bit more subtle and require the reader to think a bit more in order to figure out the meaning.

Metaphors vs Idioms

Idioms bear some similarities with metaphors, the biggest one being that they explain one thing by describing another.

  • Just like metaphors, they don't use literal language.

The difference is that you can't figure out an idiom. You can sit there for as long as you want, reading over the words and trying to understand what the writer meant; you'll never understand what it means unless you are already familiar with the idiom and have been explained its meaning.

Here's a popular idiom:

It's raining cats and dogs.

If you didn't already know that this idiom means it's pouring down torrential rain, how could you possibly guess? 'Cats and dogs' in no way implies 'heavy rain.'

To compare, here's a metaphor to describe a rainstorm:

It was as if all the Angels of Heaven were crying.

See the difference? And here's a simile that does the same job:

The rain came down harder than my mom when I used to skip school.

Metaphor Lingo

Before we move on to the different metaphor types, I want to review some of the lingo often used when talking about metaphors, as this will help you understand the mechanics of how a metaphor is built and used.

  • The two terms to familiarize yourself with are 'tenor' and 'vehicle.'

The tenor is the subject of the metaphor, while the vehicle is the actual metaphor—the actual words used to make the symbolic comparison. The interaction between the tenor and the vehicle is what creates a metaphor.

Let me illustrate using the following sentence:

That lawyer is a shark.

Here, 'lawyer' is the tenor, and 'shark' is the vehicle. Used alone, the word 'shark' refers to a type of large fish. Used together with the tenor, they express that the lawyer in question is dishonest.

Types of Metaphors

Now we've gone over the basics of what a metaphor is and how to create one, let's look at the different types of metaphors. There are many documented types of metaphors, but to cover them all here would just be overwhelming and wouldn't serve the purpose of this article, which is to cover the primary uses of this literary device.

That's why I'll cover a few of the main ones to give you an idea of the different ways metaphors can be used:

  • standard
  • implied
  • dead

The following are also classed as metaphor types, but in my view, they refer more to the various ways you can use metaphors.

  • mixed
  • extended


Standard metaphors are the easiest ones to figure out: they provide a direct comparison between two things.

Here's an example:

We all need to try to have more fun because laughter is the medicine of the soul.

Of course, everyone knows that you can't literally give the soul medicine. But if you could, that medicine would be laughter. So laughter is the soul's metaphorical medicine.

Here are some more examples of common standard metaphors:

You mean everything to me: you are my sunshine.

She has the voice of a lark.

I didn't believe it before but knowing is seeing.


Implied metaphors aren't as to the point as standard ones. The comparison isn't apparent because one of the terms (the vehicle or tenor) is missing. Rather than being stated explicitly, it's implied.

Look at the following sentence, which is an example of an implied metaphor.

The audience erupted in applause.

The verb 'erupt' is used as a metaphor because when a volcano erupts, it's explosive. So the implication is that the audience didn't just applaud; they applauded loudly and enthusiastically, like a volcano's eruption. However, notice that there's no mention of a volcano in the sentence: it's implied.

Here are some more examples of implied metaphors:

My heart shattered.

They waddled into the room.

She crumbled under the pressure.


Dead metaphors still do the job—they communicate an idea through figurative comparison—but they have lost their impact over time. Usually, this decline in effectiveness is due to the metaphor being overused.

As I said, it still does the job, but it doesn't cause the reader to stop and really consider what the writer was trying to say because they immediately know what it means. In other words, it takes some of the fun out of it.

Here are some examples of sentences containing dead metaphors (underlined):

The artist's entre body of work will be displayed at this Saturday's exhibition.

I'm ready to fall in love again!

She really does have a heart of gold.


Mixed metaphors combine two or more established metaphors to spice things up and create new meanings or produce a comedic effect. It can also be used as a literary device to highlight a character's ignorance. That's why these should be used sparingly and only when your readers will understand it was intentional, lest they assume you are ignorant.

Here's an example of a mixed metaphor, which combines the two metaphors 'Get our ducks in a row' and 'Be on the same page:.'

Let's get all our ducks on the same page.

Here are some more examples of sentences that contain mixed metaphors:

She screamed her hair out. (mixture of 'scream her head off' and 'pull her hair out')

This is hardly rocket surgery.('rocket science' and 'brain surgery')

We must iron out the remaining bottlenecks. ('iron out the details' and 'bottleneck')


A metaphor can be a lot more than just a phrase or sentence. If you want, you can carry it over several sentences, lines, paragraphs, or even across your entire text.

There are several ways you can do this:

  • One way is to mention the metaphor once and bring it up again later.
  • You'll likely bring it up again and again throughout your text.
  • Or you can be a bit more obvious than that and continue with the metaphor in every line or paragraph.

This is more common in poetry, for example.

Here's an example of an extended metaphor from Shakespeare's famous Romeo and Juliet, where the former compares Juliet to the sun:

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.

Extended metaphors are often found in popular culture, such as movies and TV shows. Take the movie franchise 'Lord of the Rings,' for example; the ring is a metaphor. There are many theories about what it's a metaphor for, and my guess is we'll never truly know for sure, but that's beside the point. It's a metaphor that's carried over three movies. Now that's an extended metaphor!

Concluding Thoughts

That concludes this article on metaphors. I hope you found it helpful. Now you can go out into the world and liven up your writing using metaphors!

Let's summarize what we've learned:

  • Metaphors are a way of describing or comparing in a figurative manner.
  • They cannot be interpreted literally, as they would make no sense.
  • Every metaphor needs a tenor and a vehicle (unless it's an implied metaphor).
  • There are many types of metaphors; some of the main ones include standard, implied, dead, mixed, and extended metaphors.

If you enjoyed this article, check out our online Grammar Book; I'm sure you'll love it! It's a free database of grammar articles just like this one.

Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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