“What is a Metaphor?” A Guide for English Students and Teachers


Metaphor: a comparison between two things
that are otherwise unrelated. With metaphor, the qualities of one thing are
figuratively carried over to another. When I say “Dude, I’m drowning at work,”
I’m using qualities associated with one thing (the urgency and helplessness of
drowning) to convey meaning to another thing (all the work I’ve got to do).
Metaphors are everywhere: He’s the couch potato. She’s got a heart
of gold. That party was the bomb. Money is the root of all evil. Swear words and
slang are often metaphorical. Take bull [BLEEP], for example. Can I say bull [BLEEP]? [Disapproving sound from camera person] Yeah, but it’s a
perfect example of how the metaphors are everywhere… [Disapproving sound from camera person] Yeah all right. [Under breath] That’s bull [BLEEP]
By bringing two unrelated elements into comparison, metaphors add creativity and
clarity to writing and everyday speech, allowing us to see things in different
angles and in a fresh light. Take the following sentence by HP Lovecraft, which uses
vivid imagery to suggest the limits of our knowledge: “We live on a placid island
of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity and it was not meant that we
should voyage so far.” In rhetorical and literary analysis, we often look at how
authors use metaphors in ways that go beyond short phrases. An extended
metaphor is one that goes on for several sentences. If a metaphor is extended
across an entire piece of writing, it’s called a controlling metaphor. In the
novel Invisible Man, for example, Ralph Ellison extends the metaphor of
invisibility to describe how black men and women are often overlooked in
American society, pushed to the margins into the shadows. So metaphors aren’t
just some stylistic flourish that we use at the sentence level. In fact, according
to George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, our very thought–the conceptual systems we
use to think and act–are fundamentally metaphorical. They’re intrinsic to
thinking which is why it’s wise to pay attention to how they’re used. Metaphors:
equipment for living… (which is also a metaphor. OK, I’ll stop.)

2 thoughts on ““What is a Metaphor?” A Guide for English Students and Teachers

  1. I just showed this video to my English 10 classes in preparation for our study of Macbeth to rousing success. Many in my classes struggle to understand metaphor on a more nuanced level, and this video does a great job of breaking down the types of metaphors and giving excellent examples. I plan to continue using videos from this series in my classes in the future as will a number of my English department colleagues.

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