Analogy whiz
September 27, 2007 1:09 PM   Subscribe

What's the difference between a metaphor, allegory, simile, and analogy?

I need closure on this. I've been using them all interchangeably all my life without anybody correcting me. I've tried google, but all I get are definition-style answers. I'm a pragmatic learner, so if someone could walk me through the differences, I'd appreciate it.
posted by Mach3avelli to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Metaphor: The wind is a lion.
Simile: The wind is like a lion.

I'll let someone else handle analogy and allegory for you, since they're more complicated concepts and I don't feel like being told I'm wrong on Metafilter today.
posted by The World Famous at 1:13 PM on September 27, 2007

This seems to be pretty straight forward about the differences between metaphor, simile, and analogy. I've always thought allegories were stories, or at the very least long concepts that are drawn out throughout a story.
posted by bjork24 at 1:17 PM on September 27, 2007

Allegories are more action-based and fleshed out by detail than the other three, used to demonstrate results of decisions or interactions, as in Aesop's fables and Orwell's Animal Farm.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 1:18 PM on September 27, 2007

There was once a man who asked, "What is an allegory?" He asked everyone he knew, until someone said, "Let me illustrate by telling you a story..."
posted by ScarletPumpernickel at 1:18 PM on September 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

As my elementary teachers always told me, "a simile is a metaphor that uses 'like' or 'as'". Those two figures of speech are ways to relate two unlike things so that the familiar can help explain the unfamiliar.
Say, describing a driver in a car to help explain a printer driver to your mother - the car can't "go" without the driver, and neither can the printer.

An allegory is a story that represents another story (has a literal and symbolic meaning). Most notably/easily seen in the Bible, wherein Jesus tells a story about SomeGuy but he's really talking about the Pharoh or ThatOtherGuy, etc.

Analogies are commonly seen on the standardized tests from school: Blank is to blank as blank is to blank. (hot is to cold as fire is to ice) It's a more literal comparison than the other methods that you've listed.
posted by at 1:22 PM on September 27, 2007

"Metaphor is to Similie as Analogy is to..."

:rhetorical comparisons.
posted by klangklangston at 1:26 PM on September 27, 2007

Metaphor and analogy are on the surface very similar. The difference, IMO, is that a metaphor tends to be poetic, while an analogy is intended to actually aid in understanding or persuasion. As such, an analogy is more likely to go into greater detail, comparing individual pieces and aspects of the two things compared, although that can happen with metaphor too, becoming an extended metaphor.

"The river was a silver road" is a metaphor. "The river was a silver road, with fish as cars, and its current the one-way sign leading to the four-way stop of Lone Island" is an extended metaphor. "Think of electricity as water flowing through a pipe: voltage is the water pressure, while current is the flow rate," is an analogy.

Simile is nearly the same as metaphor, but metaphor asserts actual equivalence, while a simile uses "like" or some other word to avoid that. "The river was like a silver road" is a simile.

Allegory often refers to a fictional story where people and things represent greater concepts. Unlike the other three, the thing being compared is not expclictly spelled out. The author of an allegory doesn't have to tell the reader that Polly Pureheart is actually an anthopomorphization of the concept of goodness; he can let the reader figure that out for himself.

That said, the distinction between the four isn't always clear (except perhaps between metaphor and simile) and more than one may apply to various devices. I would argue that Plato's allegory of the cave is at least as much analogy as allegory.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:33 PM on September 27, 2007

An allegory is an entire story which is a masked retelling of another event or a thing, and which by its retelling, tells you something about the original event or thing.

A similie is a comparision of one thing to another.

An analogy is a set of comparisons-- X is to Y as A is to B. The interaction of the comparisons tells us about the things being compared.

A metaphor is describing one thing as another, and in the process tellling the reader or listener something about the thing described.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:48 PM on September 27, 2007

Analogies have a great algebraic style, adhering to some colloquially understood order of operations, when used simply for persuasive purposes, imo.

Stephen Colbert is to Jon Stewart as Dr. Phil is to Oprah
for example, makes an arguably different point than
Oprah is to Dr. Phil as Jon Stewart is to Stephen Colbert.

Of course, it's left open for interpretation or explanation exactly how these comparisons are intended, but the emphasis of attention seems to stay on the first part of the second pair. (perhaps highlighting spin-offness vs. punditry)
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 1:50 PM on September 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


A metaphor compares seemingly unrelated subjects directly with "is." That guy is an ox!

An allegory is a representation of abstract principles by characters or figures, be it a poem or story. In Aesop's Fables, every mouse, lion, and character represents a virtue to teach a moral lesson.

A simile is like a metaphor, except it's typically marked by use of "like", "as", "than", or "resembles" instead of directly with "is." That guy is like an ox!

A written analogy could look like a metaphor or simile, but it must be a comparison between two different things, in order to highlight some form of similarity. Shoe is to foot as tire is to wheel. Unwritten, it could be any example or model: the birthing class instructor used a balloon and a ping-pong ball as an analogy for the baby in the womb.

It can get complicated. But those are the basics.
posted by Soup at 1:56 PM on September 27, 2007

Technically speaking, a metaphor has four subjects: A is to B as C is to D. If it doesn't have four distinct subjects, it's one of the others.

Bear in mind that you can write a metaphor where one (or more) of the subjects is implied without being explicitly stated (through cultural shorthand, for example), or where one subject is depicted visually, while another is present in text (such as you might see in a newspaper political cartoon with a caption), but if you can't identify four separate elements, it's not a metaphor.
posted by -harlequin- at 4:43 PM on September 27, 2007

-harlequin-, I've never heard of such criteria for a metaphor, and they fly in the face of the other answers so far and my personal understanding, which includes the idea that "The moon was a soft cheek pressed against the sky" counts as a metaphor. It sounds more like you're describing an analogy. Check here, maybe?
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 4:57 PM on September 27, 2007

Ambrosia Voyeur:

Context - it's a definition for what is needed for a linguistic trope to be a metaphor (spent too long on that at uni). Even the wiki page on tropes doesn't go into that detail. Yes, in normal use or less clinical contexts, metaphor is a much looser term, however this strict definition is useful analytically, if only to get you to unpack your metaphors and see if they're any good.

Consider the metaphor "You are my sun". Are there four elements in a A is to B as C is to D relationship? "You warm(brighten/whatever) Me as the Sun warms the Earth", yup, that unpacks into a metaphor. Some of the elements are implied, but people universally get them, so it doesn't fail to unpack properly.

Analogy on the other hand (which I don't know much about) seems to work as "A is to B as C is to what?", ie A and B factually do have the same relationship as C to D, so much so that if you are given only three of the elements, there is a correct answer as to what is the forth.
Metaphor, in contrast, is making connections where previously there might not have been one.

So given only three elements of a metaphor, there still remains a wide range of choices as to what the fourth might be, depending on what kind of meaning the author wants to suggest. There is not a correct answer.

"You are my Sun" as analogy would presumably be referring to a situation like a hypothermic person being physically warmed by proximity to the bodyhead of another.
posted by -harlequin- at 5:46 PM on September 27, 2007

It's a good thing I asked.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 5:56 PM on September 27, 2007

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