A metaphor is a figure of speech of comparison which says that two unlike things are one and the same. The most common, and the easiest, way to write a metaphor is to equate the two things through a be verb (am, is, are, was, were, be, been, and being).
Michael Phelps was a dolphin in the pool.
(The unlike thing being compared to has been underlined in all the examples for ease of following.)
Here, two unlike things – Michael Phelps and dolphin – have been described as one and the same through the be verb. This doesn’t mean he was a dolphin. What it means is that they were indistinguishable when it came to their flair at swimming. Remember, metaphor is figurative language and shouldn’t be taken literally. It’s a way of saying. It’s a way of making your message impactful.
More resources on metaphor:
- More than 100 examples of metaphors
- How to write explicit and implied metaphors? Meant for advanced learners, this covers broader range of implied metaphors
- Difference between metaphor, simile, and analogy
- Exercises on metaphor
How to write a metaphor?
Continuing from Michael Phelps example, it’s relatively easy to write metaphors with be verb if you can think of a vivid image of something that is unlike your primary thing. (We’ll also see implied metaphors later in the post, which are relatively difficult.) Since Michael Phelps was a swimmer par excellence, what better way than comparing him to something that is also natural in water, a dolphin. It is also quite unlike a human being (see the definition above).
If you want to take it a step further, search for the fastest creature in the ocean. That will be even more fitting comparison because he broke so many records in swimming.
I Googled and found sailfish to be the fastest in the ocean. Now, you can make your metaphor even better:
Michael Phelps was a sailfish, the fastest creature in the ocean, in the pool.
You need that appositive about sailfish (the fastest creature in the ocean) because many wouldn’t know anything about its speed. Before we move to examples, let’s look at few examples of what’s not a good metaphor:
Michael Phelps was Ian Thorpe in the pool.
Michael Phelps was a tiger in the pool.
The first one isn’t a good metaphor because the two things being compared aren’t much unlike: both are human swimmers par excellence. The contrast isn’t as striking as between a human and a dolphin. The second comparison provides contrast, but the comparison isn’t up to the mark because tigers, although good swimmers, aren’t known for swimming like dolphins are. So, both striking contrast and common comparison point are a must for a good metaphor.
But you don’t need to stop at just a plain-vanilla metaphor. You can add details to make it more informative. For example:
Michael Phelps was a sailfish, the fastest creature in the ocean, in the pool, sinking dozens of records and winning an unthinkable twenty-three Olympic gold medals.
A word of warning though! Use metaphors sparingly in your writing. Can you think of a metaphor to convey the message that metaphors should be used sparingly? Here is one from me:
Metaphors are condiments. Too much will spoil your food; little will make it tastier.
Examples of metaphors
The metaphor examples below have been divided into metaphors with be verb and implied metaphors. While going through them, pay attention to how unlike the two things being compared are and what’s the comparison point. Note that my comments that go with examples are in square brackets.
1. Metaphors with ‘be’ verbs
So far in this post, we’ve looked at metaphors with be verb. Here are more examples of metaphors of this type.
1. He is a leopard; he can survive in any situation.
[Comment: Without second part of the sentence after semicolon, people wouldn’t understand why someone is a leopard. If you recall, the first metaphor on Michael Phelps didn’t have any explanatory information. That was because most people know what’s common between him and a dolphin.]
2. Money is paper soaked in kerosene. It burns faster than you think.
3. My mother is the police at my house.
[My mother usually takes care of discipline and order issues at home.]
4. His score in mathematics is Mount Everest in the history of this exam.
5. When it comes to finishing the marathon, I’m a dog after a bone.
6. The campaign was Titanic: grand but doomed.
[Colon and dash are commonly used to provide explanatory information in metaphors. Here, grand but doomed explains what comes before the colon. See how striking the comparison is: campaign and Titanic. That’s the crux of any metaphor.]
7. Off the blocks, he is a cork popped out of a champagne bottle.
8. He is a walking encyclopedia.
9. Waiting for my turn to present, I was a hen on a hot stove: extremely jittery.
10. He is the clown in the class. His antics keep us smiling.
[Even if you omit the second sentence, meaning will be clear because most people know what clown means.]
11. Susan is a computer: she can pull off complex multiplications in a blink.
12. I prefer being an owl as I’m more efficient at night.
13. That shot was a monster. The ball landed outside the stadium.
14. With so many ups and downs, life is a rollercoaster.
15. When it comes to embracing technology, some of the public sector units are dinosaurs.
[At the risk of repeating, key in pulling off good metaphors is to think of a striking comparison. Here, dinosaurs take you back to an era where the world existed in its most natural form, with no role for technology.]
16. My niece is a little devil.
17. Time spent in chasing a career in showbiz was time spent chasing a rabbit: both wasted.
18. Dr. King was truly a king among men.
19. Life is the game that must be played. Edwin Arlington Robinson
20. Procrastination is the thief of time. Edward Young
21. Letters are expectation packed in an envelope. Shana Alexander
22. A line is a dot that went for a walk. Paul Klee
23. Fame is the perfume of heroic deeds. Socrates
24. Spring is nature’s way of saying, “Let’s party!” Robin Williams
25. Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase. Martin Luther King, Jr.
26. Life is a journey that must be travelled no matter how bad the roads and accommodations. Oliver Goldsmith
27. Life is a journey, but don’t worry, you’ll find a parking spot at the end. Isaac Asimov
28. Authors are actors, books are theaters. Wallace Stevens
29. The piano is a monster that screams when you touch its teeth. Andres Segovia
30. Writing is thinking on paper. William Zinsser
31. Feedback is the breakfast of champions. Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson
32. Everyone is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody. Mark Twain
33. Freedom is the oxygen of the soul. Moshe Dayan
34. The moon is a silver cookie. Vachel Lindsay
35. Rock & roll is the hamburger that ate the world. Peter York
Write Sentences Like in Newspapers and Books
Step-by-step process. Little grammar. Real-world examples.
2. Implied metaphors
In metaphors with be verbs, both the things being compared are clearly mentioned. In the Michael Phelps metaphor, for example, both Michael Phelps and dolphin were mentioned. In implied metaphors, however, only one of the two things is mentioned; the other is inferred from the specific words in the sentence. Examples of implied metaphors:
36. The boss roared in the meeting, expressing displeasure over the poor discipline.
[In this example, only one of the things being compared is mentioned – boss. We don’t know what boss is being compared to until we see the word roared. The verb roared suggests (or implies) that boss is being compared to a lion or a tiger. In a way, the above sentence can be rewritten as: The boss is a lion who roared in the meeting, expressing displeasure over the poor discipline.]
37. The commander bellowed instructions and moved to the next group. [The commander is a bull.]
38. “Where have you been for the past week?” barked Mac. [Mac is a dog.]
39. Susan galloped to win the race in under a minute. [Susan is a mare.]
40. On returning home, mom erupted over the mess we had created. [Mom is a volcano.]
If you see the pattern in the above five examples, a non-human verb has been associated with a human, sowing the seeds for sprouting two unlike things. A single verb does the trick. In the following five examples, we do the opposite: a human verb is associated with a non-human.
41. The flowers smiled at the rising sun. [Flower is a person. That’s because flowers can’t smile; humans can.]
42. Covid-19 stalked country after country. [Covid-19 is a person or an animal.]
43. The alarm clock yelled at me at 6 AM, forcing me to leave the bed. [Alarm clock is a person.]
44. The dog requested me to play fetch. [Dog is a person.]
45. The moon played hide and seek behind the clouds. [Moon is a person.]
If you noticed, the last five are examples of personification. All personifications are in fact implied metaphors.
So, not difficult, right? But you need vocabulary to pull off good implied metaphors, especially where you associate a non-human verb with a person.