What Are the Different Types of Metaphors?

Bobby R. Goldsmith

Metaphor is a rhetorical device used to compare two dissimilar objects or ideas in an implication that establishes an equivalency between the two. There are numerous types of metaphors. They are used in both classic rhetorical constructions and in everyday casual language. The degree of the comparison dictates what type of metaphor it is. Though there are more than a dozen distinct types of metaphors, there are five primary types: allegorical, absolute, mixed, extended, and dead metaphors.

Shakespeare used all types of metaphors in his writings.
Shakespeare used all types of metaphors in his writings.

Allegory is a metaphor that employs an extended story illustrating the comparison between two things using symbols rather than explicit words. An allegory in literature often presents the overt elements of a given story along with subtle, nuanced commentary for other events that the author wishes to show an equivalency with. For example, an element of the novel The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is considered an allegory for the resurrection of Christ.

"Love is a rose with thorns" is a common metaphor for love.
"Love is a rose with thorns" is a common metaphor for love.

Absolute metaphor, compared with other types, cannot be obfuscated or reduced in any way. An absolute metaphor presents a simple equivalency, such as light standing for knowledge or snow indicating purity. Absolute metaphors can be symbolic or literal, and they differ from other types of metaphors in that they cannot be replaced by other metaphoric constructions.

"Life is like a box of chocolates" is a metaphor.
"Life is like a box of chocolates" is a metaphor.

Mixed metaphor is one of the most common types of metaphors, yet they may be difficult to understand. A mixed metaphor is the blending of two contradictory elements that are completely inconsistent in type, yet the symbolic meaning of the comparison is still conveyed. Sometimes the mixed metaphor can be employed intentionally for effect. For example, "There's no place like a home on the range" blends two well-known idioms.

Politicians use rhetorical metaphors to make a point.
Politicians use rhetorical metaphors to make a point.

Extended metaphor presents a complex comparison with multiple objects. It compares a primary object with a symbolic object, then compares secondary objects connected to the primary with other elements of the symbolic object. For example, Shakespeare's famous "All the world's a stage, And the men and women merely players" is an extended metaphor, in which the "world" and the "stage" act as the primary objects, while "we" and "players" represent the secondary objects.

Dead metaphor offers a comparison that is not symbolic in form, but to physical motion instead. A dead metaphor is simply a comparison that goes unnoticed because the metaphor rests on a comparison that has simply become part of the language. It often involves the use of an idiom. For example, the sentence "the committee will hold a meeting" is a dead metaphor with respect to the word hold. The committee cannot physically grasp the meeting, but the word is being used to equate a physical action with a conceptual one.

Extended metaphors are often used in works of literature.
Extended metaphors are often used in works of literature.

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Discussion Comments


I kind of like it when someone uses a mixed metaphor well, and I think of all the metaphor types it gets a bad name for no reason. I mean the whole point of metaphors is to make something clear. If a mixed metaphor manages to do that, then does it really make a difference if it isn't traditional?

Of course, sometimes they aren't used on purpose and they can make something less clear, in which case, of course, they should be sorted out.


@croydon - I think eventually dead metaphors just become part of the language though. Like when people say "run for office". If you look up the word "run" that particular meaning isn't a figure of speech. It's literally considered to be a definition of the word that it is used when a politician is attempting to win a particular office.

But originally it would have been a metaphor, probably because the elections were being compared to a race.

I think it would be quite cool to see someone make a bunch of portrayals of dead metaphors in literal pictorial form though. Like someone actually holding a meeting in a giant hand, or two old politicians trying to sprint past each other down a race track.


I've never heard that about a dead metaphor before. That's a pretty interesting example as well, since I don't think many people would even notice that was a metaphor.

There are actually quite a few examples of that metaphor type in English if you start looking for them. "Fishing for compliments" is one, although that one might be a little more obvious when you think about it. Or maybe "I didn't catch that" is a better example. You aren't literally trying to catch the meaning, after all.

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