"What is a Metaphor?" A Guide for English Students and Teachers

View the full series: The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms

What is a Metaphor? Transcript (Spanish Subtitles Now Available)

By Tim Jensen

Metaphor is a comparison between two things that are otherwise unrelated.

With metaphor, the qualities of one thing are figuratively carried over to another. When I say, “Dude, I’m drowning in work,” I’m using qualities associated with one thing—the urgency and helplessness of drowning—to convey meaning for another thing—the work I’ve got to do.

Metaphors are everywhere: He’s a couch potato. She’s got a heart of gold. That party was the bomb. Money is the root of all evil. Swear words and slang are often metaphorical. Take bullshit for example [bleep out] Can I say bullshit? Why not? It’s a perfect example of how metaphors are everywhere. No? Well, that’s bullshit. 

By bringing two unrelated elements into a comparison, metaphors can add creativity and clarity to writing and everyday speech, allowing us to see things from different angles and in a new light. Take this sentence by H.P. Lovecraft, which uses vivid imagery to suggest the limits of our knowledge: “We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.”

In rhetorical and literary analysis, we often look at how authors use metaphors in ways that go beyond short phrases. An extended metaphor is one that goes on for several sentences. If a metaphor is extended across an entire piece of writing, it’s called a controlling metaphor.

In the novel Invisible Man, for example, Ralph Ellison extends the metaphor of invisibility to describe how black men and women are often overlooked in American society, pushed to the margins and into the shadows. 

So, metaphors aren’t just some stylistic flourish that we use at the sentence level. In fact, according to George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, our very thought—the conceptual systems we use to think and act—are fundamentally metaphorical. They’re intrinsic to thinking, which is why it’s wise to pay attention to how they’re used.

Metaphors: Equipment for living.  Which is a metaphor… okay, I’ll stop now.

Further Resources for Teachers:

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" offers students many opportunities to identify metaphors (and metonyms) in its portrayal of the confined narrator. Once students have identified these metaphors, they could begin to analyze why the narrator might find it easier to think metaphorically about her situation rather than express it directly.