Metaphors and metaphorical expressions in English


(Pronounced: meta-forz)

Many English words have both literal and metaphorical or figurative meanings. The literal meaning of a word is its most widely used sense. The metaphorical meaning is figurative – it expresses an idea by referring to something else in a non-literal way. Metaphors help us to express our understanding of the world around us. They add colour, vivid imagery and perhaps emotion to a sentence.

In everyday English, words are very commonly used metaphorically. We use metaphors so regularly that we often don’t even register that we are using them. For example, we have lots of metaphors about weather.

  • The sky was dark and angry.
  • His lightning reflexes saved his life.
  • His sunny face was just what I wanted to see.

The sky cannot be literally angry and no-one can have reflexes as fast as lightning; a sunny face helps us to think of the warmth of the sun and we transfer this to the character of this person. These words (metaphors) are used to express our understanding or our interpretation of the world around us as clearly as possible.

A lot of metaphors relate to nature in general.

  • I think this will throw some light on the issue.
  • I’ve made some punch with wine, fruit juice and a little brandy to break the ice.
  • The agreement was hedged around by a large number of restrictions.
  • That politician is a sly fox.

The use of “light”, “break the ice” and “hedged” are all nature-based metaphors that are used to express how we view the world.

A lot of metaphors are based on gardens or agriculture. For example, we often use the word root to refer to the cause of a problem. It can also be used to describe something starting to grow.

  • The root of this problem is Blair’s decision to go into Iraq.
  • If we keep on pushing this idea forward, it might actually take root.
  • The Labour Party wants to have a very strong grass-roots campaign.
  • After a rocky start, their romance blossomed.
  • This is a thorny issue so it will take some time to sort it out.

Many metaphors relate to water.

  • The ocean of his mind was awash with new ideas.
  • I don’t want to go out with him. He’s so wet!
  • Waves of disappointment swept over him.
  • He watered down his proposal quite a lot and in the end it wasn’t radical enough.
  • My legs turned to water and I couldn’t move.

Have a look at these metaphors and think about how they relate to the literal meaning.

  • I swallowed his story whole, I’m sorry to say.
  • Her eyes were filled with pain and I couldn’t look at her.
  • Taking this job is a gamble but I hope it works out well in the end.
  • Hotels have sprouted up all over Thailand.
  • The minutes crept by as the party was so dull!
  • Bush said he would stay the course in Iraq.
  • There was a huge amount of fallout over Blair’s decision.
  • Low interest rated fuelled the house-prices boom.
  • His idea was warmly received.
  • The two presidential candidates were neck and neck.
  • We’d better go back to square one and start again.
  • His refusal set off a chain of events that ended in his arrest.
  • She made a fatal mistake when she signed the agreement.


cliche is ‘a stereotyped, or hackneyed, or trite phrase or expression’ (Jarvie, 1993) used so often that its original value as an expression has been lost; for example, in this day and age; when all’s said and done; axis of evil; light at the end of the tunnel; chalk and cheese; the bottom line is…

Students need to recognize and understand the meaning of common cliches but should avoid overusing them, especially in academic or formal writing.

Cultural implications

A metaphor is a “condensed simile”: instead of explicitly comparing the characteristics of one person or thing with another, we say that person/thing IS the other person/animal/thing.

With a metaphor, because the comparison is not explicit, it can lead to confusion. If the comparison is not recognized, the expression may be taken literally instead of figuratively.

Metaphorical expressions typically relate to one particular characteristic and that characteristic may be implicit within a particular cultural setting. If we say “He is the leader of the pack” we are positively admiring someone’s leadership qualities – we are not saying anything about other similarities to a pack of wolves or other wild animals!

Practice 1

Choose a suitable metaphor from the words below to complete the sentences that follow.

swallowed – – – clouded – – – shower – – – play games
warm – – – lightning – – – dark mood – – – grease

  1. His success was followed by a ……………… of publicity.
  2. Money supply growth in the economy helps to ……………… the wheels of recovery.
  3. He told me a long story and I’m afraid to say that I ……………… the whole thing.
  4. I’m going to tell him straight. I’m not going to ……………… with this man.
  5. The woman had ……………… reflexes and before I knew it, she’d caught the knife.
  6. She was a ……………… caring person and she would offer help to anyone.
  7. The woman was in a very ……………… when she woke the next morning.
  8. Her face was ……………… with disappointment and she wouldn’t answer.

Practice 2

Can you use these examples in a sentence of your own?

  1. neck and neck
  2. wither away
  3. sprouted up
  4. spice up

Practice 3

Choose a suitable metaphor from the words below to complete the sentences that follow.

backyard – – – hotly – – – bullish – – – blossomed
fatal – – – gamble – – – key – – – cultivate

  1. The situation in Iraq was ……………… debated by Congress.
  2. After a slow start, their relationship ……………….
  3. Because of changes in regulations, farming is quite a ……………… these days.
  4. She wanted to do well at work so she set out to ……………… her boss.
  5. He saw his university degree as the ……………… to a successful future.
  6. She made a ……………… mistake when she was rude to him at last week’s small party; now he’s the boss and he’s unlikely to forgive her.
  7. People are ……………… about the future of the university.
  8. America sees Cuba as being in its own ……………….

Practice 4

Can you use these plant-related metaphors in sentences?

  1. grassroots
  2. branch out
  3. to weed out
  4. thorny

The next page of notes is about similes another type of figurative expression widely used in English.