We don't have to look very far to find examples of metaphors. We hear and use various common expressions and cliches every day that are metaphors:
- It's raining cats and dogs.
- I'm visiting an old flame.
- He's a loose cannon.
- She found herself behind the eight ball.
- He drives me up a wall.
- She saw the light at the end of the tunnel.
These all are good examples for understanding what metaphors are and how they can effectively express thoughts or ideas. After all, it's easier for readers to connect with the emotions of "drives me up a wall" than with something blander, like "behaves in a way that bothers me." However, these examples and countless others represent the sort of cliches to be avoided in writing.
Metaphors are most effective when they are original and help readers envision complex feelings or actions in ways they never have.
02Literature and Popular Culture
Perhaps one of the most commonly cited examples of a metaphor in English literature is Shakespeare's "All the world's a stage" monologue from "As You Like It":
"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances..."
One reason this metaphor is effective is that each line contains a separate metaphor, but all come together as part of a single, broader idea—that life itself is like a stage play.
Some other examples of metaphors in literature and popular culture include:
- "You ain't nothing but a hound dog." —Made famous by Elvis Presley, but written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller
“A hospital bed is a parked taxi with the meter running." —Groucho Marx
“Dying is a wild night and a new road.” —Emily Dickinson
“Time rises and rises, and when it reaches the level of your eyes you drown.” —Margaret Atwood
- “Books are the mirrors of the soul.” —Virginia Woolf
- “I’m a little pencil in the hand of a writing God.” —Mother Teresa
Each of these metaphors works in different ways, but they all force the reader to think about what they mean. Once the reader is able to make a connection to the metaphor, the meaning becomes very clear. For example, taking the time to imagine a mirror that can look into your soul evokes a powerful image of the impact books can have.
Like most literary devices, metaphors can bomb when used incorrectly. They end up either confusing the reader or drawing attention to the author's lack of skill. A mixed metaphor leaps from one reference to a second, unrelated or inconsistent thing.
For example, in the statement "Our keyboard will teach your mind's eye to play by ear," the speaker has mixed two metaphors, leading to nonsense. A "mind's eye" can't play anything, and certainly not "by ear."
Mixed metaphors often are sports-related: "When we get our chance to step up to the plate, we need to make sure we score a touchdown." A writer in this instance might be trying to express two different thoughts. "Stepping up to the plate," while a cliche, can be an effective way to describe an opportunity, and "score a touchdown," also a cliche, can be equally effective when describing success. By combining the two into one sentence, though, the writer distracts the reader by mixing baseball with football.
04Metaphors So Bad They're Good?
Sometimes a bad metaphor can become a useful tool. This form often is used as a parody of metaphors.
Good examples come from the late, great Yogi Berra, known for his colorful turns of phrase, or "Yogi-isms."
He is known for seemingly nonsensical metaphors like:
- "A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore."
- "If you see a fork in the road, take it."
Berra made these phrases and many more famous, but these two are good examples of bad metaphors because the more you think about them, the more meaning you may find.
In the first example, the idea that a nickel once was worth a dime can be viewed as another way of saying that a nickel used to be worth more.
In the second example, it's literally impossible to take a fork in the road because you can't go two different directions at once. However, there may be a real message in what Berra was trying to say: Make a decision and be decisive about it as opposed to stopping at the fork in the road and going nowhere while contemplating what to do.
A List of Common Metaphor Examples for Writers to Use
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Metaphors
Metaphors can add color to your writing. Without going into verbose explanations, they may provide clarity or identify hidden similarities between two ideas. F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example, once wrote, "All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath."
Metaphors often are confused with similes, but it is easy to distinguish between the two. If Fitzgerald had written that "good writing is like swimming underwater," it would be a simile because it is stating that one thing is similar to something else. Fitzgerald's figure of speech is a metaphor, though, because he wrote that one thing is the other thing.
Metaphors like Fitzgerald's work because they are sensory. Most people know what it feels like to swim underwater while their breath. Even if they are not writers, Fitzgerald's metaphor gives them a sense of what the process feels like.