English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

Many a time I've asked what the difference is between an analogy and a metaphor. I've asked it to my teacher, on internet sites, to my parents, so on and so forth. I got a different answer every time, and I never fully grasped what the difference is, so what is the difference?

share|improve this question
An analogy is more like a simile, while a metaphor is more like an allegory. – tchrist Dec 18 '12 at 17:41
it's like the difference between a dream and a daydream – bharal Dec 18 '12 at 17:53
It might help if you try and work out what they are in your first language. – Barrie England Dec 18 '12 at 17:54
There is an extended discussion on this topic at wordwizard.com/phpbb3/… . Metaphor, for example, is used in far wider-ranging contexts than the central sense (expressions such as Peter's a tiger). – Edwin Ashworth Dec 18 '12 at 17:56
You got a different answer every time? Look below, you will get some additional different answers. – GEdgar Dec 18 '12 at 18:37
up vote 14 down vote accepted

Briefly, analogy is a perceived likeness between two entities; metaphor is one “figure of speech” which you might use to communicate that likeness.

For example: you may recognize that many Greek and Shakespearean tragedies have a similar structure: a phase of increasing conflict between opposed sides or characters, a major confrontation between the opposed characters, and a phase in which the opposition is worked out and resolved in one character's victory and the other's defeat.

It may then occur to you that this structure is very like the shape of a pyramid isosceles triangle, which rises from a baseline to a central point and then falls back to its baseline. You have then perceived an analogy betweeen a temporal phenomenon and a spatial one.

To communicate this analogy, you may employ metaphors. You name the central confrontation the “climax” —this is the classical name for a figure of speech, which is itself a metaphor: the word means “ladder”. You then name the first phase the “rising action” and the fourth stage the “falling action”.

Subsequently you perceive that the rising action has its own inceptive phase, when the characters and conflicts are introduced. These don’t fit so well into the triangular analogy, so you cast about for another analogy. One that occurs to you that of a public display of new works—so you employ the metaphor “exposition”. And for the final phase, when everything has “fallen” all the way back to the “baseline” you adopt the Greek word “catastrophe”, meaning “turn or fall down” or, metaphorically, “come to an end”.

And then you publish this elegant treatment of dramatic structure to universal applause, and the critical world pays you the ultimate honor of putting your own name on the basic metaphor: it becomes known to all succeeding generations as “Freytag’s pyramid”.

Most of those succeeding generations, however, find singular deficiencies in the model. They point out, for instance, that “exposition” of new facts occurs continuously throughout a play, and that many different actions occur alongside each other. They perceive a different analogy, that between dramatic structure and a tangle of threads; and to express this analogy they employ the metaphors complication (literally, a “folding together”) for the developing action and dénouement, a French word meaning “untying”, for the conclusion.

The analogy is what is expressed; the metaphor is how it is expressed.

Note, however, that metaphor is not the only way to express analogy. You may also employ simile: instead of talking about the analogous entity instead of the primary entity you may say that your primary entity is like the analogous entity. Or you can avoid language altogether and express the analogy in graphic form, using a labeled picture.

share|improve this answer
Is this post a metaphor or an analogy for a bit of Literary history? (+1 meta point) – tylerharms Dec 18 '12 at 19:38
@tylerharms It can't possibly be Literary History, because that would be Off-Topic. And in fact it's not History of any sort, because I haven't actually read Freytag and I don't know what terms he actually uses. It's a Fable: a tale told for a moral or instructive purpose. – StoneyB Dec 18 '12 at 19:41
Actually, it's a metaphor for the rise and fall of critical schools of thought. – WhatRoughBeast May 29 '15 at 19:10
+1 for The analogy is what is expressed; the metaphor is how it is expressed. simple and straight forward – Peter Parker Jul 28 '15 at 10:08
I'd rather say that an analogy is a likeness between two relationships. If you find a rock that's like another rock, it makes sense to draw a comparison between them, but not an analogy. – Jason Melançon Jul 28 '15 at 15:48

An analogy is logically consistent whereas a metaphor is emotionally consistent (being consistent in one respect, however, doesn't exclude the other.) Both are used to present similarities between the objects compared.

For example, the term "snake oil" is a metaphor for an ineffective and fraudulent product, even if it contains neither a snake nor its oil. A "snake oil salesman" is an analogy for someone who doesn't scruple to sell such products.

share|improve this answer

I remember this confusing even my high school English teachers.

The short answer is that a metaphor is one kind of analogy.

Broadly speaking, analogies are a problem-solving tool -- you use them on a daily basis to make sense of your world. For example, maybe you read in passing that Switzerland is divided into cantons. If you live in the United States and you've never heard of a canton before, a helpful analogy might go like this: "Oh, cantons in Switzerland are like states in the USA -- a way of dividing a territory." In this sense, cantons are analogous to states, and the comparison can help you understand an unfamiliar term.

Metaphors are also comparisons. While they can shed light on an unfamiliar concept, they are most often used to connect drastically unrelated concepts in order to make a point, provide humor, or because the writer is trying really hard to be deep.

For example, in the Qur'an:

The metaphor of those who take protectors besides Allah is that of a spider that builds itself a house; but no house is flimsier than a spider's house, if they only knew. (Surat al-Ankabut, 41)

Obviously the unfaithful are not actually spiders -- nor are they in any way similar to spiders. The text is making the point that, since only Allah can offer protection, the infidels are so vulnerable, they might as well be spiders.

share|improve this answer
no house is flimsier than a spider's house, if they only knew. That's a great line, but are you sure you are interpreting it right? Is the antecedent to "they" the spider? (Bad grammar in the translation if so.) – Malvolio Dec 18 '12 at 18:33
I agree, the grammar isn't great. I chose it from this site solely for its metaphor. – Rebecca Wilson Dec 18 '12 at 19:04
I would be careful in stating that metaphors connect "drastically unrelated topics." The reason something becomes a metaphor for something else is because we see a similarity between the two things. In your example, there is a perceived similarity in the precarious existence of people who take protectors besides Allah and spiders and their houses. – tylerharms Dec 18 '12 at 19:52

An analogy is specifically a discursive or argumentative technique; a metaphor is strictly a literary one.

When you make an analogy you do it specifically to illustrate a point. A heart is like a two bicycle pumps. See? here are the valves, here is are the pistons. It's part of a discussion between you and the reader about items at hand.

A metaphor is emotional, allusive, discursive. His heart is like the sea. I cannot explain any sea-like parts of the heart and I'm not trying to prove anything about it. I just you to feel that his heart -- not the cardiac organ, of course, but his love for the heroine -- has the power and the restlessness of the sea.

share|improve this answer
Neither of these is a metaphor; they are both similes. – StoneyB Dec 18 '12 at 18:58
@StoneyB -- I don't know who told you that either a metaphor or an analogy couldn't be phrased as simile, but that person was hugely mistaken. – Malvolio Dec 18 '12 at 23:18
This is certainly what I was taught 50 years ago, and it is confirmed in Abrams & Harpham, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 10th ed., 2012, p.130 s.v. figurative language. "In a simile, a comparison between two distinctly different things is explicitly indicated by the word "like" or "as". [...] In a metaphor, a word or expression that in literal usage denotes one kind of thing is applied to a distinctly different kind of thing." Analogy is not defined there; it's not in my experience a specifically literary term. – StoneyB Dec 19 '12 at 0:18
@StoneyB - The definitions you cited for simile and metaphor do not seem to explain the two are mutually exclusive. english.stackexchange.com/questions/3868/… – Bryan Downing Apr 7 '14 at 4:56

I have often tried to conceptualize the difference, and here's my two cents.

Think of them this way: Analogy is a documentary. Metaphor is a fictionalization

which would make the above an analogy (I hope!)


share|improve this answer
That's an extremely confusing and unhelpful 'explanation'. – Erik Kowal Jul 30 '14 at 6:20

A metaphor is an implicit simile, while analogy is an explicit one. Put differently, a metaphor is literally false, while an analogy is literally true. Metaphors need a bit more imagination to interpret, while analogies are readily apparent.

"My cat is affectionate" is an analogy. You can literally see the cat shows behavior deemed affectionate. The comparison is straightforward, 1:1, between the cat's behavior and our idea of what "affectionate" looks like.

"My cat is a rock" is a metaphor. You can see literally the cat isn't a rock. The comparison isn't straight forward and asks us to imagine more so what it means to for the cat to be a "rock".

"My cat is an affectionate rock" is both, an analogy and a metaphor. "Affectionate" is apparent, while "rock" isn't.

share|improve this answer
Some examples of usage and more detailed explanation would make your answer much more useful. – Honza Zidek Jul 30 '14 at 6:07
You may start with english.stackexchange.com/help/how-to-answer: "Any answer that gets the asker going in the right direction is helpful, but do try to mention any limitations, assumptions or simplifications in your answer. Brevity is acceptable, but fuller explanations are better." – Honza Zidek Jul 30 '14 at 6:19

"Metaphor is a term used in literature for a special type of comparison. Analogous or analogy is a generell term in a lot of scientific branches and describes a special kind of similarity.

Here is a definition of analogous organs in biology: https://www.biology-online.org/dictionary/Analogous

Stylistics or rhetoric is a very old discipline elaborated by the Greeks and adopted by the Romans and the terms were adopted in the Latin/Greek form in modern languages. Metaphor and analogy have something in common, but metaphor means transfer from one area to another. As other disciplines of science which use the term analogy or analogous don't see a transfer they did not use metaphor. Biology speaks of analogous organs which have something in common, but there is no transfer.

Added: I now realize that "analogy" is used as a literary term as well. The problem which these terms for literary devices is that comparison, analogy, simile and metaphor are overlapping terms and that precise definitions are lacking. Comparison is a general term, simile and analogy mean the same, but simile is more a literary term and analogy is in my view only a variant for simile. The clearest term is metaphor, a comparison without like/as/as if. But there are cases where it is difficult to decide whether something is a metaphor or not. Generally one may say terms of rhetoric have their difficulty, precise definitions are lacking, there are large overlapping areas and often views of different authors diverge as to what is what.

By the way, the best book I know about this topic is by Heinrich Lausberg (In German). Link here

share|improve this answer

protected by tchrist Aug 13 '14 at 14:30

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.