I have recently been asked to think about the difference between idioms, metaphors, and analogies, and I thought it would be interesting to share it here.
Idiom is a combination of words that together have a different meaning from when used separately. For example, "give up" means to admit defeat. However, if we take the phrase word by word, “give” means to transfer possession and “up” means toward the top. Clearly, transferring possession toward the top is very different from admitting defeat. Idioms are made up of regular words. The power of an idiom is not in creating an association with another image (the words “give up” do not bring up an image of something else), but in providing special meaning to several words that when taken separately, mean something totally different.
Metaphor is a figurative expression used to describe something else. For example, “Ben can be a bull in a china shop” does not actually mean that Ben is able to turn into a large animal that likes shopping. This metaphor creates a figurative image of someone that is likely to cause damage because there is a mismatch between the person’s presence and the fragility of the situation.
Analogy is a comparison, an equation. Equations have two parts that are equated to each other. In analogies, words “as” and “like” often serve the function of an equal sign. “He is as clumsy as a bull in a china shop. She is fast like the wind.” Whereas in metaphors the meaning is implied, in analogies it is usually expressed. An analogy then is an equation one part of which is a metaphor.
Is it really important to understand all of these distinctions and to identify the name of a phrase before using it? I don't think so. We use idioms all the time. However, overusing analogies abd metaphors may make the language sound less natural, so be careful.
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