I. What is an Analogy?
An analogy is a literary technique in which two unrelated objects are compared for their shared qualities. Unlike a simile or a metaphor, an analogy is not a figure of speech, though the three are often quite similar. Instead, analogies are strong rhetorical devices used to make rational arguments and support ideas by showing connections and comparisons between dissimilar things.
II. Examples of Analogy
Analogies are commonly used to show important comparisons and make solid arguments. Here are some examples:
Every choice you make is like spinning the wheel of fortune—sometimes you will get the result that you desire, while other times you will end up with something you always hoped to avoid.
Raising children requires the same dedication you would give to a garden. Nurture them, feed them, introduce them to both light and dark, and have patience; and soon you will see them grow into blooming wonders.
In the first example, the writer could have said “Every choice has a different consequence.” But like similes, analogies make associations between things that wouldn’t usually be compared (like choices to wheels of fortune and children to gardens). These comparisons create better descriptions and sensory images in the minds of readers. On the other hand, analogies are more elaborate and informational than similes or metaphors, providing support for the comparisons made rather than just stating them as simple truths. As you can see, the second example explains how children and gardens have similar qualities because they require similar growing conditions.
Photosynthesis does for plants what digesting food does for animals. It is the process that lets them convert nutrients into the fuel needed to grow and develop.
You may also see analogies that compare relationships rather than individual things. But the analogy still works in the same way; it explains how the relationships share a similar quality of transforming nutrients.
III. Types of Analogy
a. Literal Analogy
In a literal analogy, you are saying that one thing really is similar to another. This is the kind of analogy that you would draw if you wanted to make an argument or persuasion. For example, when scientists test a new medicine on laboratory mice, they are arguing that mice and humans really are similar in medically significant ways. Therefore, as the argument goes, if a medicine works on mice, it should also work on humans (or at least it’s ready for human testing).
b. Figurative Analogy
In a figurative analogy, you’re simply drawing a comparison between two unrelated things to highlight a certain characteristic; you’re not necessarily saying that the things are truly similar. Take, for example, the wheel of fortune example. If life were truly similar to a wheel of fortune you would have a lot less control over our choices and the consequences would be unpredictable.
IV. The Importance of Analogy
As mentioned, analogies are used to make logical arguments and comparisons. Here are a few ways writers might use analogies:
a. Make abstract ideas more concrete
There are some people – like teachers, professors, and technical writers – who explain difficult ideas for a living. It’s a tough job! One way to make it easier is to draw analogies to things your readers or students are already familiar with. For example, a biology teacher might explain the immune system by saying, “What policemen do in a town, white blood cells do inside the body.”
b. Add depth and feeling to an image
Consider this example:
She felt like a raft floating in the middle of an dark, endless ocean. Like her, the raft was was floating along, alone, worn out, and unable to reach a steady place in which to settle.
Notice what a powerful image this descriptions brings to mind. Without the analogy, the author would just be saying “She was lonely and exhausted.” How boring! The analogy makes her emotions seem dark and overwhelming – just as the ocean at night.
c. Making a persuasive argument
Obviously, this is rare in poetry and fiction, where making an argument isn’t the point. But in essays, literary analysis, and many other fields, persuasion is the name of the game – and analogy can be a powerful tool for that purpose. It’s especially useful when you want to show the flawed reasoning in another person’s argument:
Person A: Lots of history’s dictators started as soldiers; therefore, soldiers should never become politicians because they’ll end up as dictators.
Person B: But that doesn’t make sense! It’s like saying “lots of alcoholics started out by drinking milk; therefore no one should ever drink milk.” Just as there are many milk-drinkers who don’t become alcoholics, there are also many soldiers who don’t become dictators.
Notice how Person B has employed a clever analogy to show that Person A is making a faulty argument.
V. Examples of Analogy in Literature
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)
In this passage, Orwell is describing the crowd’s reaction to seeing a man hanged. One interpretation of the analogies is that they create a supernatural feeling by subtly suggesting the possibility that the dead man may simply disappear, or may suddenly come back to life.
What gunpowder did for war the printing press has done for the mind. (Wendell Phillips, Public Opinion on the Abolition Question)
Gunpowder revolutionized war and brought down old hierarchies and strategies – after the introduction of the gun, war would never be the same. Similarly, the invention of the printing press allowed books and newspapers to reach vast audiences that otherwise had no access to the written word. This revolutionized education and made possible an era of widespread literacy and democratic thought.
“Evolution is a blind giant who rolls a snowball down a hill. The ball is made of flakes—circumstances. They contribute to the mass without knowing it. They adhere without intention, and without foreseeing what is to result. When they see the result they marvel at the monster ball and wonder how the contriving of it came to be originally thought out and planned. Whereas there was no such planning, there was only a law: the ball once started, all the circumstances that happened to lie in its path would help to build it, in spite of themselves.” (Mark Twain, Tales of Wonder)
Here, Twain uses an analogy to speak about evolution, comparing it to a giant rolling a snowball down the hill–the results are quite unpredictable, but inevitable.
VI. Examples of Analogy in Pop Culture
“My momma always said “life is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re gonna get!” (Forrest Gump)
Here, Forrest Gump shares a very memorable analogy, beginning with the simile “life was like a box of chocolates.” But, this is an analogy because it gives further support and explanation for the comparison, showing that life has many choices and surprises, just like a box of chocolate.
Oh, he ‘loved to laugh?’ Well, that doesn’t tell you anything! That’s like saying, ‘He hungered for food! (Patton Oswald, Obituaries)
This is a humorous version of argument by analogy. Oswald, a standup comedian, is poking fun at articles about him by comparing that statement to something obviously commonplace, showing that the argument that he “loved to laugh” is about as strong as saying he gets hungry for food.
People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within. (Quote by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in The Leader’s Digest by Jim Clemmer, 2003)
In this quote, the groundbreaking psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross (well-known for her 5 Stages of Grief) gives an analogy about the human condition, saying that people, like stained-glass, work differently in situations of light and dark.
VII. Related Terms
People often confuse analogies with similes and metaphors, which are both figures of speech. However, they are actually very different, specifically because an analogy is a rhetorical device, not a figure of speech. While similes and metaphors are generally quite short and simple, analogies are more elaborate and explanatory, because they support arguments.
A figure of speech that makes comparisons using explicit “comparing” words such as like or as. So when you see like or as underlined in this article, you know it’s an example of a simile.
“What light through yonder window breaks? It is the East, and Juliet is like the sun!”
“…It is the East, and Juliet is as radiant as the sun!”
A figure of speech where unrelated things are compared – basically, it’s just a simile with the “like” or “as” removed.
“What light through yonder window breaks? It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!” (William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet)
It’s important to remember that a metaphor is not a kind of analogy – it’s a different figure of speech altogether. However, it’s very similar to analogy in that they both depend on some kind of similarity between two different objects.
Example of an analogy versus simile and metaphor:
Simile: Life is like a garden.
Metaphor: Life is a garden.
Analogy: Life is just like a garden–it is ever growing and changing, needing care and dedication, and always filled with beautiful surprises.
Again, it’s important to remember that metaphors and similes are figures of speech, while analogies are NOT. However, they are very similar to analogies in that they both depend on some kind of similarity between two different objects.