What is Analogy (3 Types) and How to Write One?

In this post, we’ll cover analogy in depth, including the most important part: how to write different types of analogies.

What is an analogy?

Analogy is a rhetorical device (that’s a broader umbrella than figure of speech) of comparison that explains a less-known or abstract idea by saying that it is similar (and not same as, which is the case in metaphors) to a well-known or concrete idea, which makes it easier to understand the less-known. The two ideas are quite unlike, but they point to a common message. Example:

Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things. Winston Churchill

Look at how this analogy explains why criticism is necessary (primary idea, also called tenor) by comparing it with something we know, pain in our body (idea being compared to, also called vehicle). The two ideas are quite unlike – criticism and pain – but they point to the common message that both are necessary for us. Humans have been using this method of explaining – comparing with something that is easier to understand – for thousands of years. Analogies, besides comparing, can also contrast two unlike ideas to explain (see ‘Analogy 1’ later in the post).

More resources on analogy:

Whereas metaphors and similes merely show (or build images in the mind of the reader) comparison between two unlike things and do so more for stylistic purpose, analogies go a step further. They also explain the comparison. They build arguments. That’s why analogies are richer and more complex than metaphors and similes, and therefore generally are more elaborate.

Hence, the two key points in analogies are:

  1. Use of a well-known or concrete thing as a comparison point to explain a less-known or abstract thing
  2. Purpose is explanation and not stylistic effect

To elaborate on the two points, there is a reason why we often say ‘let me give an analogy’ while explaining something complex. We give an analogy to explain through a comparison with well-known thing. If it wasn’t well-know, what’s the point in using it as a comparison point. That’s why using well-known to explain less-known is such an inalienable part of analogies. (It’s part of similes too but isn’t emphasized as much.)

We rarely say ‘let me give a simile or metaphor’ when explaining something. In a way, explanation naturally lends to analogies.

For the purpose of understanding analogies, we can divide them into three broad types:

1. Analogies with proportionate relationship

You would recall analogies such as these from aptitude tests:

Lisbon : Portugal :: _____  : Finland

On : Off :: Bright : _____

In the first analogy, the first pair bears the same relationship (capital city : country) with the second. So is the case in the second analogy (antonyms).

You can reduce above analogies in mathematical form to text. The first one has been done in two different ways:

Lisbon is to Portugal as Helsinki is to Finland.

What Lisbon is to Portugal, Helsinki is to Finland.

This is essentially of the form A is to B as C is to D. The word analogy, in fact, is derived from the Greek word analogia, which means proportionate relationship between two pairs of things, exactly the form mentioned in the previous sentence. Few analogies of this type:

I’m as uncomfortable in taking a swim as a lion is in taking a climb to a tree.

MTV is to music as KFC is to chicken. Lewis Black

College football is a sport that bears the same relation to education that bullfighting does to agriculture. Elbert Hubbard

Because of its structure, these analogies are easy to identify and easy to write. However, life often gets complicated. So do analogies when they extend beyond the formulaic first type.

2. Analogies building on similes

The second type of analogies are quite similar to similes, often using similar comparison words such as like and as. And that’s why these analogies are often confused with similes. Analogies, however, go a step further and explain:

Like the deadly fog that envelopes the region, affecting normal life for many days, global warming has emerged as the envelope of the entire planet, wreaking untold harm on the earth’s inhabitants.

It has a simile-like structure, but it’s an analogy because it explains, and such explanations can extend to few sentences and even paragraphs. This analogy uses a well-known item (fog in a region) as a comparison point to explain a less-known item (global warming). Simile for the above analogy would be:

Global warming has enveloped the entire planet like the deadly fog envelopes the region.

But some are too close to call as simile or analogy:

Doing business without advertising is like winking at a girl in the dark. You know what you are doing, but nobody else does. Stuart H. Britt

Some would call it simile, some analogy. I believe it’s arguably a simile because the first sentence may leave people hanging without the explanation of second. In other words, if explanation is essential to understanding the simile, then that explanation is part of that simile.

Note that similes and metaphors too use a well-known or concrete thing to explain less-known or abstract thing, but they don’t stretch into explanation the way analogies do.

3. Analogies with no particular pattern

Speaking from my experience on analogies, most of our analogical thoughts naturally drift towards a free style, no particular pattern. An example:

All of sub-Saharan Africa receives just over $1 billion in economic aid. If everyone in the United States gave up one soft drink a month, we could double our current aid to Africa. If everyone gave up one movie a year, we could double our current aid to Africa and Asia.

This one, taken from the book Made to Stick, is not in the mould of a simile or a proportionate relationship. It uses a well-known item twice (giving up one soft drink a month/ giving up one movie a year) as a comparison point to explain a less-known item twice (double current aid to Africa/ double current aid to Africa and Asia). Note that soft drink and movie are much more concrete, and therefore they make it easy for people to visualize how low the economic aid is. (The data is from 2003.)

What if the same information was conveyed by this statement?

All of sub-Saharan Africa receives just over $1 billion in economic aid.

This statement doesn’t reveal much and may even be taken as significant aid by some. The elaborate response, through an analogy, however puts the aid amount in perspective. (The authors also mention the real situation: “The truth is that we spend less than 1 percent [of budget], the lowest of any industrialized nation.”)

Note that the analogies we discussed in the second type, especially the one on doing business without advertising, also serve some stylistic purpose through their form, which is similar to a simile. But the third type of analogies has little stylistic purpose. It’s purely for explaining, the soul of analogies.

How to write analogies?

Writing first type of analogy is all about thinking two proportionate ideas and then putting them into words. Remember, A is to B as C is to D? You’ve seen analogies of this type earlier in the post.

Writing second type of analogies is also somewhat formulaic: think of a simile and explain it. You’ve seen analogies of this type too earlier in the post.

Writing third type is more of a free-flowing comparison explaining less-known through well-known. I’ve thought of or written quite a few analogies, and almost all of them fall into this category. This type, in my opinion, is in line with our natural analogical thought process. How to go about it? Decide a tenor, think of a striking vehicle, and let your comparison flow freely. You don’t have to necessarily fit it into any form. You’ve seen an analogy of this type from the book Made to Stick. Here are four more of third type:

Analogy 1

Here is an analogy I wrote after seeing, on National Geographic channel, how two leopard cubs escaped wild dogs.

While their mother was away, the two leopard cubs escaped wild dogs by remaining standstill, camouflaging perfectly with the rocks in the background. Clearly, the two cubs, barely two months old, had been learning only what matters in the real world – escaping predators (and hunting few months down the line). In contrast, we humans learn myriad of subjects in school and college, of which only a tiny portion matters in the real world.

This analogy contrasts, rather than compares, two items. Note that this analogy doesn’t follow any simile-like structure. It’s more a free-flowing explanation. You can apply the test of two key points we covered earlier and see for yourself how this analogy fits in.

Are you surprised at the length of the analogy? Don’t be. Because analogies explain, they can be expanded into several sentences, paragraphs, or even an entire article.

Analogy 2

Here is another one I wrote, comparing two items:

If you want to do really well in career, one option is to be exceptionally good in one skill, maybe entering top 0.1 percent in that field. But that’s hard. Very, very. Alternatively, you can be in top 20 percent of few useful skills, including your core technical skill, and do really well in your career. For example, if you’re a software engineer, you can also learn to speak well in public forums and write well. If you do that, you’ll move from the club of, say, 100,000 software engineers with technical skill to a club of 100-odd with few additional skills.

The dramatic drop-off in the size of the pool you see when you acquire new skills can be explained through a similar drop-off in number of planets in the universe with intelligent life (like human beings).

There are many barriers to be crossed before a planet can bear intelligent life. First, the planet should be just at the right distance from its sun. Second, the planet should hold complex organic molecules, amino acids, water, etc. for life to develop from non-life. Third, the planet’s climate should hold steady for billions of years, and this could be completely accidental like it has happened with earth (our moon is unusually large for the size of our planet, and this size happens to be just perfect for a stable climate). And there are many more barriers. If the probability of crossing each of these barriers is multiplied, ours is likely the only planet in the universe with intelligent life despite there being hundreds of billions of galaxies, with each galaxy housing trillions of planets.

Analogy 3 and 4

Analogies can be expanded to an entire article. This 1,200+ word article, for example, explains investing in stocks through an analogy with surfing, a more well-known and concrete phenomenon. If this long analogy is to be converted to a simile, it would read: Stock markets are like surfing.

To give another example, this 1,500+ word article explains how Covid-19 is a reflection of society through an analogy with X-ray. If this long analogy is to be converted to a simile, it would read: COVID-19 is like an X-ray of society. This in fact is the title of the article.

When an analogy gets long, it is easily distinguishable from its simile. The confusion arises only when both are short. I’ve written an analogy for this confusion:

Eggs of some birds look similar like an analogy and simile look similar when short. But their hatchlings look very different like an analogy and simile look very different when explanation kicks in.

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