The Different Types of Metaphors

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Metaphors aren't merely the candy sprinkles on the doughnut of language, not just embellishments to the music of poetry and prose. Metaphors are ways of thinking—and also ways of shaping the thoughts of others.

All people, every day, speak and write, and think in metaphors. In fact, it's hard to imagine how people would get by without them. And because figurative comparisons lie at the heart of language and thought, they have been picked apart by scholars in a variety of disciplines.

Types of Metaphors

There are countless ways of looking at metaphors, thinking about them, and using them. There are countless ways of looking at metaphors, thinking about them, and using them. But in deference to the metaphorical blackbirds of Wallace Stevens ("The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds./It was a small part of the pantomime"), here are a few of them.

  1. Absolute: A metaphor in which one of the terms (the tenor) can't be readily distinguished from the other (the vehicle).
  2. Complex: A metaphor in which the literal meaning is expressed through more than one figurative term (a combination of primary metaphors).
  3. Conceptual: A metaphor in which one idea (or conceptual domain) is understood in terms of another.
  4. Conventional: A familiar comparison that doesn't call attention to itself as a figure of speech.
  5. Creative: An original comparison that calls attention to itself as a figure of speech.
  6. Dead: A figure of speech that has lost its force and imaginative effectiveness through frequent use.
  7. Extended: A comparison between two unlike things that continues throughout a series of sentences in a paragraph or lines in a poem.
  8. Mixed: A succession of incongruous or ludicrous comparisons.
  9. Primary: A basic intuitively understood metaphor such as "knowing is seeing" or "time is motion" that may be combined with other primary metaphors to produce complex metaphors.
  1. Root: An image, narrative, or fact that shapes an individual's perception of the world and interpretation of reality.
  2. Submerged: A type of metaphor in which one of the terms (either the vehicle or tenor) is implied rather than stated explicitly.
  3. Therapeutic: A metaphor used by a therapist to assist a client in the process of personal transformation.
  4. Visual: The representation of a person, place, thing, or idea by way of a visual image that suggests a particular association or point of similarity.

Regardless of the types of metaphors you favor, keep in mind Aristotle's observation 2,500 years ago in "Rhetoric": "Those words are most pleasant which give us new knowledge. Strange words have no meaning for us; common terms we know already. It is metaphor which gives us most of this pleasure."