14 Common Types of Metaphors With Examples

Discover the most common types of metaphors that writers and poets regularly use in their works.

The definition of metaphor is a figure of speech applied to an action or object which is abstract rather than literal. The English word metaphor comes from the Greek word “metaphor“, which translates to “apply” or I transfer”. Great writers and thinkers rely on a good metaphor to resonate and make a mark on a reader’s mind. English literature is full of examples of different types of metaphors. From Emily Dickinson’s writing, “hope is the thing with feathers” to Romeo and Juliet, and As You Like It by William Shakespeare, we’ve plenty to study! 

Sylvia Plath wrote a poem all in metaphors, called Metaphors which, on the surface, paint the picture of her pregnancy. Digging deeper, it says so much more. William Shakespeare used many metaphors in his plays and other works. Some famous examples of these can be found in Sonnet 18 Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day? Margaret Atwood uses creative metaphors liberally too.

Pop culture is full of examples of metaphors too. Some metaphor examples from song include Firework by Katy Perry, Hound Dog by Elvis Presley and Titanium by David Guetta. Common metaphors like “black sheep” are so well used as to be a cliché. 

1. Personification as Metaphor

Personification is a standard metaphor type. In literary terms, it gives the characteristics of a person to an object. The Velveteen Rabbit used personification. So does Winnie the Pooh and many good children’s book authors who write stories involving animals and toys. Another (clichéd) example? The sun smiled down, and the wind growled. If you want to hone your use of metaphors, this type is the easiest to start with, as it’s relatively easy to assign human qualities to an inanimate object or a concept and vice versa. For more, read our list of metaphor examples for kids.

2. Extended Metaphor

An extended metaphor is more than a phrase or an English word. It’s often a type of poetry, such as Emily Dickenson’s Hope. An extended metaphor takes that comparison and discusses it for several sentences, stanzas, or an entire work.

The technique of using extended metaphor works by explaining a complex or thought-provoking topic differently. It draws comparisons between the two separate things, explaining the other so thoroughly that your perception of the subject is heightened.

Students often use this technique in creative writing. But you’ll find it’s taught in higher education because the technique works so well in essays, longer prose, speech writing, and poetry. 

3. Dead Metaphors

Dead metaphors started as metaphors but have become so common that they no longer mean what they once did. George Orwell discussed dying metaphors at great length.

He also discussed an in-between, metaphors that are common enough that they’re not evocative, but they still do work as metaphors. A dead metaphor is a phrase that has changed to mean something else. For instance, the face of a watch. A watch has no literal face, it’s not human.

However, we’ve used the metaphor face for so long that it has become the actual term for a watch face. It’s no longer a metaphor. If you look closely at the etymology of words and phrases, you’ll find many begin as figures of speech. Similes and metaphors have often become favorite literary devices. 

4. Overused Metaphors

Dead metaphors are simply new phrases that no longer work as metaphors. But there is a space between original metaphors and dead metaphors that no longer work as that type of literary device. Enter overused metaphors. They often make an obvious or direct comparison. For example, “My life is like a rollercoaster”.

Any good writer knows to avoid overused words or cliches. Editors and professional writers often talk about winnowing out cliches from your work. It’s easy to fall into because these phrases become common and lifelike.

Some common metaphors might be acceptable if you have a character who is unoriginal in thought. You can have cliches that are not metaphors, of course. But common metaphors do tend to read as cliche. So if you’ve heard them repeatedly, remove them from your writing unless you have a concise reason to include them.

You can also check out our list of rhetorical devices with examples.

5. Mixed Metaphors

Mixed metaphors are just what they sound like. It uses two metaphors in the same sentence or sequence to talk about a single person, action, or thing. Mixed metaphors are always frowned upon in writing because they confuse the description.

You’re trying to paint a vivid picture when you use a metaphor. By using two metaphors that don’t work together, you’re often giving a description that doesn’t work well. In many cases, it becomes logically impossible if you think through the wording.

6. Complex Metaphors

Complex metaphors extend a simple metaphor and add another element to make the reader think more deeply about what the words are saying and mean. In a way, it creates a metaphor within a metaphor. You could say, “The ball happily danced past the playing child.” In this case, both “happily” and “danced” are metaphoric because a ball cannot have emotion and does not have legs to dance with. Sometimes a complex metaphor has a different emotional weight to its different parts.  Oscar Wilde uses this in his novel The Picture of Dorian GrayIn one line, he says,

“I want a breath of our passion to stir dust of dead lovers into consciousness to wake their ashes into pain.”

This sentence alone has four metaphors: breath of passion, the dust of dead lovers, the breath of passion stirring the dust and waking the ashes into pain. Weaving multiple metaphors into one line makes this a powerful example of a complex metaphor. Read our guide to love metaphors

7. Implied Metaphor

An implied metaphor compares two things but does not explicitly mention one of the things. The metaphor is implied because the reader knows that the unnamed item or being is part of the comparison based on the other words in the sentence. For example, if you said that the “drill master barked his orders”, you are implying a metaphor between the drill master and a dog, but you do not say the word “dog.”

In her poem “Caged Bird,” Maya Angelou uses implied metaphor. She says, “For the caged bird sings of freedom.” The “caged bird” is not a bird but is the black community in America. The poem is an implied metaphor about racial and social discrimination, using free and caged birds to compare free white people and oppressed African American people.

8. Root Metaphor

A root metaphor shapes someone’s worldview or perception of reality. Root metaphors are not based on fact but support how a person interacts with the world or builds their knowledge base. In literature, root metaphor can impact how characters behave in works. Sometimes a root metaphor is so deeply a part of someone’s language or culture that it is hard to identify as a metaphor. For example, in most English languages, “mountain” is a root metaphor for a difficult problem to overcome, and no one thinks twice about that meaning.

In her poem “I Took Power in My Hand,” Emily Dickinson expresses her challenges as “Goliath.” Most English readers know she is not fighting a biblical giant, but understand that Goliath refers to her challenges in the world when she says: “Was it Goliath – was too large – or was it myself – too small?”

9. Absolute Metaphor

Absolute metaphors offer no connecting points between the metaphor and the real-life subject. This type of metaphor aims to create a dramatic or humorous effect. Because the reader knows there is no correlation, it makes them think about the meaning. For example, “The world is my oyster” is an absolute metaphor.

In The Fault in Our StarsJohn Green says, “The sun was a toddler insistently refusing to go to bed.” This is an absolute metaphor because there is no connection between the sun and a small child.

10 Literary Metaphor

Literary metaphor describes any showing up in great literature. Absolute metaphors, complex metaphors and simple metaphors can all be examples of literary metaphors. Both poetry and prose can have examples of literary metaphors.

One of the most famous literary metaphors comes from William Shakespeare’s As You Like Itwhere he compares the world to a stage and actors. He says, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances.”

11. Visual Metaphor

Metaphor examples in Literature
The elephant in the room is a popular and overused visual type of visual metaphor

Visual metaphors rely on a strong visual image and sometimes puns, for example, “The elephant in the room”. The picture or video communicates clearly to the reader, often without the written word. This type of metaphor is often rich in hyperbole too. Advertisers often use visual metaphors. They may show a light bulb turning on, but the implied idea is that someone has a great idea.

In the movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the character Cameron gets in trouble for taking his father’s car out without permission. Many of the character’s fears and anxieties throughout the film are tied to that car, and in the end, the character faces his fears by talking to his father about the car. This is an example of a visual metaphor.

12. Conceptual Metaphors

When you understand one idea in terms of another idea, you experience a conceptual metaphor. For example, most English cultures understand the idea that “time is money.” thus, we have phrases that say, “You’re wasting time” or “you will save hours.” Even though wasting and saving are more in line with the idea of money, they are automatically applied to time. The conceptual metaphor of life being a journey shows up in Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.” It says,

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

This famous line implies that taking the less popular route through life made all the difference in the poet’s experience. For more, read our guide to common types of poetry.

13. Ontological Metaphor

Ontological metaphors use abstractions, like emotions, to represent a concrete object. One ontological metaphor commonly accepted in modern society is the idea of the brain being a machine. Thus, we can say, “My brain doesn’t work.” The brain is a more abstract concept, and a machine is a concrete object.

William Wordsworth’s poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” exemplifies this. It compares the abstract idea of loneliness to a cloud. Technically, this is a simile as it uses “as,” but the entire poem continues the comparison, making it also an example of a metaphor.

14. Container Metaphor

A container metaphor describes when one of the concepts is shown as having an inside and an outside or being capable of holding another item. For example, if you say that your day is crammed with activities, it takes the abstract concept of a day and shows that it can hold a more concrete object, such as activities. Saying someone is “in love” is another example of a container metaphor. In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Shakespeare shows an example of a container metaphor when he says,

“I do desire thee, even from a heart

As full of sorrows as the sea of sands.”

Here, the heart becomes a container that holds sorrows. For more, read our guide to the best  British authors

 

FAQs

Should you use common metaphors in your writing?

The general rule is that you should use original metaphors in writing whenever possible. There are some reasons why you would use a common metaphor.

For instance, if it’s a phrase that helps establish the character’s voice, a common metaphor can be perfect. Often, though, common metaphors border on cliche. They’ve been used so frequently that they lose their potency for the audience. 

Why are metaphors and similes used?

These types of figurative language help you paint a picture or illustrate a point in a simplified way. Writing a straight description can be burdensome and heavy for the reader. A well-developed simile or metaphor can clearly showcase your ideas in a shorter and more concise way.

What types of writing use metaphors?

You can find metaphors in virtually every type of writing. You’ll see them used in social media posts, articles, blog posts, and personal email. You’ll also see metaphors employed to a high degree in literature, pop culture, and song lyrics. 

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