What is Analogy

elephant analogy
"As economists in Beijing are fond of saying, China is like an elephant riding a bicycle. If it slows down, it could fall off, and then the earth might quake" (James Kynge, China Shakes the World, 2007). (John Lund/Getty Images)

In rhetoric, analogy is reasoning or explaining from parallel cases. Adjective: analogous.

A simile is an expressed analogy; a metaphor is an implied one.

"As useful as analogies are," say O'Hair, Stewart, and Rubenstein, "they can be misleading if used carelessly. A weak or faulty analogy is an inaccurate or misleading comparison suggesting that because two things are similar in some ways, they are necessarily similar in others" (A Speaker's Guidebook, 2012).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Etymology: From the Greek "proportion."

Examples of Analogy

  • "I am to dancing what Roseanne is to singing and Donald Duck to motivational speeches. I am as graceful as a refrigerator falling down a flight of stairs."
    (Leonard Pitts, "Curse of Rhythm Impairment." Miami Herald, Sep. 28, 2009)
  • "Memory is to love what the saucer is to the cup."
    (Elizabeth Bowen, The House in Paris, 1949)
  • "Chicago was to corruption what Pittsburgh was to steel or Hollywood to motion pictures. It refined and cultivated it, and embraced it without embarrassment."
    (Bill Bryson, One Summer: America, 1927. Doubleday, 2013)
  • "If you want my final opinion on the mystery of life and all that, I can give it to you in a nutshell. The universe is like a safe to which there is a combination. But the combination is locked up in the safe."
    (Peter De Vries, Let Me Count the Ways. Little Brown, 1965)
  • "American politics is fueled by fear and frustration. This has prompted many in the white middle class to seek a savior rather than someone with rational and realistic policies. It's like asking the balloon clown at a kid's party to start juggling chain saws."
    (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, interviewed by Mike Sager in Esquire, March 2016)
  • "My favorite analogy to success in free markets is looking through a telescope at Saturn. It is a fascinating planet with those bright rings around it. But if you walk away from the telescope for a few minutes and then come back to look again, you'll find that Saturn is not there. It has moved on . . .."
    (Warren D. Miller, Value Maps, 2010)
  • "It has been well said that an author who expects results from a first novel is in a position similar to that of a man who drops a rose petal down the Grand Canyon of Arizona and listens for the echo."
    (P.G. Wodehouse, Cocktail Time, 1958)
  • "They crowded very close about him, with their hands always on him in a careful, caressing grip, as though all the while feeling him to make sure he was there. It was like men handling a fish which is still alive and may jump back into the water."
    (George Orwell, "A Hanging," 1931)
  • "If I had not agreed to review this book, I would have stopped after five pages. After 600, I felt as if I were inside a bass drum banged on by a clown."
    (Richard Brookhiser, "Land Grab." The New York Times, Aug. 12, 2007)
  • "Harrison Ford is like one of those sports cars that advertise acceleration from 0 to 60 m.p.h. in three or four seconds. He can go from slightly broody inaction to ferocious reaction in approximately the same time span. And he handles the tight turns and corkscrew twists of a suspense story without losing his balance or leaving skid marks on the film. But maybe the best and most interesting thing about him is that he doesn't look particularly sleek, quick, or powerful; until something or somebody causes him to gun his engine, he projects the seemly aura of the family sedan."
    (Richard Schickel, review of Patriot Games in Time magazine)
  • "A nation wearing atomic armor is like a knight whose armor has grown so heavy he is immobilized; he can hardly walk, hardly sit his horse, hardly think, hardly breathe. The H-bomb is an extremely effective deterrent to war, but it has little virtue as a weapon of war, because it would leave the world uninhabitable."
    (E.B. White, "Sootfall and Fallout," October 1956. Essays of E.B. White. Harper, 1977)
  • "[T]he college/university situation in the United States has finally wound up in the position of the Church in the late Middle Ages, which sold people indulgences (read diplomas) so that they could get into heaven (read a well-paying job). This has become the rule at thousands of institutions of higher education, where a grade of B is now considered average (or slightly below), and where A's are given out almost automatically so as not to threaten student enrollments, on which institutional funds depend."
    (Morris Berman, The Twilight of American Culture. W.W. Norton, 2000)
  • "That novels should be made of words, and merely words, is shocking, really. It's as though you had discovered that your wife were made of rubber: the bliss of all those years . . . from sponge."
    (William H. Gass, "The Medium of Fiction," in Fiction and the Figures of Life. David R. Godine, 1979)

Life Is Like an Examination

  • "In a sense, life is like an examination that has only one question--the one that asks why you're taking the exam in the first place. Having been instructed to 'fill in the blank' (an aptly phrased command), you ponder, and then wonder if perhaps the truest answer is no answer at all. But in the end, because there is, after all, plenty of time to reflect and you do want to leave the room, you hunker down and fill in the blank. My own response is hardly profound or incisive: I'm taking the exam because I like writing sentences, and because--well, what else do I have to do?"
    (Arthur Krystal, "Who Speaks for the Lazy?" The New Yorker, April 26, 1999)

The Center of Human Cognition

  • "[O]nce you start to look for analogies, you find them everywhere, not just in the metaphors and other figures of speech used by politicians. It is by way of analogy that human beings negotiate and manage the world's endless variety. We would make an even grander claim: that analogies lie at the very center of human cognition, from the humblest of everyday activities to the most exalted discoveries of science ...

    "Consider the 2-year-old child who delightedly states, 'I undressed the banana!'; or the 8-year-old who asks his mother, 'How do you cook water?'; or the adult who inadvertently blurts out, 'My house was born in the 1930s.' Each of these spontaneous utterances reveals an unconsciously-made analogy that contains a deep rightness despite a surface wrongness ...

    "The making of analogies allows us to act reasonably in situations never before encountered, furnishes us with new categories, enriches those categories while ceaselessly extending them over the course of our lives, guides our understanding of future situations by recording what happened to us just now, and enables us to make unpredictable, powerful mental leaps."
    (Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander, "The Analogical Animal." The Wall Street Journal, May 3, 2013)

    Douglas Adams's Australian Analogies

    • "Every country is like a particular type of person. America is like a belligerent, adolescent boy, Canada is like an intelligent, 35 year old woman. Australia is like Jack Nicholson. It comes right up to you and laughs very hard in your face in a highly threatening and engaging manner. In fact, it's not so much a country as such, more a sort of thin crust of semi-demented civilisation caked around the edge of a vast, raw wilderness, full of heat and dust and hopping things."
      (Douglas Adams, "Riding the Rays." The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time. Macmillan, 2002)

    Using an Analogy to Explain Koans

    • "I'll give you the whole koan:
      A monk asked Chao-Chou, 'What is the meaning of Bodhidarma's coming from the West?'
      Chao-Chou said, 'The oak tree is in the courtyard.'
      . . . Koans are mind-cracking, often irritating, seemingless pointless riddles or dialogues, which if contemplated in the right spirit will help students crack through the confines of their own limited ability to see the world as it is and become enlightened, often like a bolt out of the blue.

      "Koans are often structured like a classic comedy routine. A student (let's use, for this example, Lou Costello) asks the teacher (Bud Abbott, then) a thoughtful question (the setup), to which the teacher responds with a seemingly unrelated or paradoxical answer (the punch line). Sometimes the teacher drives the point home with a sharp crack of his kotsu staff on the student's back or the top of his head (the sight gag), which causes the student to fall (the pratfall) and perhaps think more deeply not only about the answer but about the question."
      (Kevin Murphy, A Year at the Movies: One Man's Filmgoing Odyssey. HarperCollins, 2002)

    Pronunciation: ah-NALL-ah-gee