In spite of the fact that we often hear the term “metaphor”, it is not always used in accordance with the original (classic) linguistic definition. Moreover, even some students-linguists tend to confuse it sometimes with such linguistic phenomena as metonymy* or simile. Therefore, I hope that this post may help to clarify the situation.

  • “From a cognitive perspective metaphor can be briefly defined as thinking of one thing (A) as though it were another thing (B) and linguistically this will result in an item of vocabulary of large stretch of text being applied in an unusual or new way” [emphasis added] (Goatly, 2007, p. 11).

In other words, we deal with metaphor when something is compared to something else in an unusual or new (unexpected) way. e.g. my home is my castle; she is the light in my life; he is a fresh airstream in our company; my LING 101 class is a gym for my brain.

Metaphors are often constructed according to the following structure: (1)target+(2)source+(3)ground. Let us consider another example in order to illustrate the role of each of these elements:

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

(originally this sentence appeared in the novel entitled “The Go-Between” by J.P. Hartley and was also used as an example by Goatly (2007, p. 11) in his study of metaphors).

The target (the past) is the element at which our metaphorical comparison is directed (i.e. the word/phrase which we try to make more expressive). The source (a foreign country) is the element which helps to make our comparison truly expressive/new/unusual. The ground (they do things differently there) is the explanation helping to unfold or clarify our metaphor.

From the stylistic point of view, metaphor is a figure of speech which is used to make discourse more expressive and thus to draw readers’ attention to a particular place in the text. Metaphors are often used in fiction and poetry.

Goatly, A. (2007). Washing the brain: Metaphor and hidden ideology. Amsterdam; Philadelphia: John Benjamins Pub. Co.

*For the comparison between metaphor, metonymy, and simile as well as related examples, see the comments to this post.



  1. SIMILE [‘sɪmɪlɪ] can be defined as a figure of speech which is used for the purpose of comparison of two people, animals or inanimate things, for example:

    Tom is as strong as Benjamin.
    This cake tastes like honey.
    Dolphins have larger brains than many other mammals.
    This child resembles his parents.

    Note the usage of as … as, like, than, resemble. These words are like flags for us (when we make linguistic/stylistic analysis of a text) which signal that we deal with simile.

    It is worth pointing out that simile is unlike metaphor because it compares two things rather than stating that one thing IS another thing (e.g. love is a cure).

  2. METONYMY [me’tɔnəmɪ] (from Gr. metōnymía – change of name) can be defined as a figure of speech in which a thing is called not by its name, but rather by something associated with this thing, for example:

    I like reading Sir Walter Scott. [i.e. his novels]
    The parliament voted “yes” last week. [i.e. the members of the parliament]
    He always wears leather. [i.e. clothes made from leather]
    It was so hot outside that I drank three glasses. [i.e. three glasses of water, not the container]

    The examples above illustrate some common types of semantic substitution characteristic of metonymy: author-work; place-resident; object-material; container-content. The semantic connection that metonymy involves is of a causal, temporal or spacial nature, therefore it is narrower than metaphor, but broader than synecdoche (Bussmann, 1998).

    Bussmann, H. (Ed.). (1998). Routledge dictionary of language and linguistics; translated and edited by Gregory Trauth and Kerstin Kazzazi. London: Routledge.

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