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How metaphors work


Techniques > Use of languageMetaphor > How metaphors work

Metaphor, analogy and simile | Power | Limitation | See also


Metaphor, analogy and simile

Metaphors basically say 'A is B', unlike similes which say 'A is like B' and analogies which offer a vaguer linkage between A and B.

This gives a stronger association between A and B in metaphor. B is effectively overlaid and A, and everything about B is attributed to A. Thus A effectively becomes B.

In analogy, the association is much weaker. Parts of B may be compared with parts of A, but B is not considered to be the same as A.

Similes are constrained in that the word 'like' or 'as' is explicitly used.

Metaphor: All the world's a stage
Simile: The world is like a stage
Analogy: People may treat the world as their stage

The power of metaphor

If I say 'You look like a dog', then I am placing some of the visual attributes of a dog on you. If, however, I say 'you are a dog', then I am saying that you are a dog in all ways, and that all attributes that a dog has, you have.

Metaphors are thus much stronger than similes or analogies, as the vehicle holds more weight than the subject that it replaces.

The power of metaphors is in the way that they change the subject by bringing new thinking and ideas, extending and changing the way that a person thinks about something.

Limitations of metaphors

The power and the limitation of the metaphor is the way that the vehicle brings not just a little bit of understanding but a whole world. When you say 'I am a dog', you bring the entire world of dogginess to the subject.

The underlying assumption is that the vehicle is correct and that in any conflict of meaning, the subject is wrong.

This can be a limitation and a trap, as you may want to bring some attributes but not some of the less desirable ones. Metaphors must thus be used with care. If I say 'you are stupid', then 'stupid' effectively replaces 'you', and all of you becomes all of stupid.

See also


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