What is an Analogy?

analogy - plumbing
In an analogy comparing writing to plumbing, William Zinsser said, "I don’t want any of my sentences to leak" (The Writer Who Stayed, 2012). (Martin Leigh/Getty Images)

An analogy is a type of composition (or, more commonly, a part of an essay or speech) in which one idea, process, or thing is explained by comparing it to something else.

Extended analogies are commonly used to make a complex process or idea easier to understand. "One good analogy," said American attorney Dudley Field Malone, "is worth three hours' discussion."

Examples and Observations

  • "Normally an analogy compares substantially different kinds of things and reports several points of resemblance. . . . [I]f we claim that a state is like a human body, and we find in the state equivalents for the brain, heart, and limbs, we are offering an analogy. Similarly, one might construct an analogy between feeding the body with food and supplying the mind with ideas: the diet must be balanced, taken at regular intervals, in proper amounts, and digested. An analogy may be useful in explaining the unfamiliar by comparing it to the familiar ('The heart is like a pump . . .'), but of course the things compared are different, and the points of resemblance can go only so far. For this reason, analogies cannot prove anything, though they are sometimes offered as proof."
    (Marcia Stubbs et al., The Little Brown Reader, 9th ed. Longman, 2003)
  • On Writing and Plumbing
    "It may seem perverse that I compare my writing to plumbing, an occupation not regarded as high-end. But to me all work is equally honorable, all crafts an astonishment when they are performed with skill and self-respect. Just as I go to work every day with my tools, which are words, the plumber arrives with his kit of wrenches and washers, and afterward the pipes have been so adroitly fitted together that they don’t leak. I don’t want any of my sentences to leak. The fact that someone can make water come out of a faucet on the 10th floor strikes me as a feat no less remarkable than the construction of a clear declarative sentence."
    (William Zinsser, The Writer Who Stayed. Paul Dry Books, 2012)
  • The Shape of Staten Island
    "Staten Island has the shape of an ankle boot. The sole runs along a channel called the Arthur Kill, and the upper heel and back border the Kill Van Kull; on the other side of those waterways, connected by three highway bridges and one railroad bridge, is New Jersey. The ferry terminal occupies the point at the top of the boot where you sometimes find a tab for pulling the boot onto your foot. From the terminal it is five miles across the harbor to South Ferry, in lower Manhattan. At the top end of the boot's tongue, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge gives the island its only highway connection to the rest of New York City--and not an ideal one, because the bridge deposits incoming traffic on the Belt Parkway or the Gowanus Expressway in distant Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. The front part of the boot, where the lacings would be, faces southeastward, toward the Atlantic Ocean."
    (Ian Fazier, "The Toll." The New Yorker, February 11 & 18, 2013)
  • Dr. King's Analogy of the Bad Check
    "In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the 'unalienable Rights' of 'Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.' It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.'

    "But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice."
    (Martin Luther King, Jr., "I Have a Dream," August 28, 1963)
  • Mark Twain's Analogy in "Two Ways of Seeing a River"
    "No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty's cheek mean to a doctor but a 'break' that ripples above some deadly disease? Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn't he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn't he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?"
    (Mark Twain, "Two Ways of Seeing a River," from Life on the Mississippi, 1883)
  • Henry Adams Analogy on the Human Mind and the Laws of Motion
    "If any analogy whatever existed between the human mind, on one side, and the laws of motion, on the other, the mind had already entered a field of attraction so violent that it must immediately pass beyond, into new equilibrium, like the Comet of Newton, to suffer dissipation altogether, like meteoroids in the earth’s atmosphere. If it behaved like an explosive, it must rapidly recover equilibrium; if it behaved like a vegetable, it must reach its limits of growth; and even if it acted like the earlier creations of energy,--the Saurians and Sharks,--it must have nearly reached the limits of its expansion. If science were to go on doubling or quadrupling its complexities every ten years, even mathematics would soon succumb. An average mind had succumbed already in 1850; it could no longer understand the problem in 1900."
    (Henry Adams, "A Law of Acceleration," 1907)
  • T.H. Huxley's Analogy of Life as a Game of Chess
    "Suppose it were perfectly certain that the life and fortune of every one of us would, one day or other, depend upon his winning or losing a game at chess. Don’t you think that we should all consider it to be a primary duty to learn at least the names and the moves of the pieces; to have a notion of a gambit, and a keen eye for all the means of giving and getting out of check? Do you not think that we should look with a disapprobation amounting to scorn upon the father who allowed his son, or the state which allowed its members, to grow up without knowing a pawn from a knight?

    "Yet, it is a very plain and elementary truth that the life, the fortune, and the happiness of every one of us, and, more or less, of those who are connected with us, do depend upon our knowing something of the rules of a game infinitely more difficult and complicated than chess. It is a game which has been played for untold ages, every man and woman of us being one of the two players in a game of his or her own. The chess-board is the world, the pieces are the phenomena of the universe, the rules of the game are what we call the laws of Nature. The player on the other side is hidden from us. We know that his play is always fair, just and patient. But also we know, to our cost, that he never overlooks a mistake, or makes the smallest allowance for ignorance. To the man who plays well, the highest stakes are paid, with that sort of overflowing generosity with which the strong shows delight in strength. And one who plays ill is checkmated--without haste, but without remorse."
    (T.H. Huxley, "A Liberal Education," 1868)