An analogy (uh-NAHL-uh-gee) is a rhetorical device in which a writer compares the shared qualities of two unrelated objects. They are different from similes and metaphors, which also compare unrelated objects by equating them. However, an analogy can employ either one to drive home its larger point. Analogies support logic, present rational arguments, and back up ideas by showing the relationship between disparate things.
The word analogy comes from the Greek analogia, meaning “proportion,” which builds off ana, meaning “according to,” and logos, meaning “ratio.”
How to Construct an Analogy
Most analogies in literature, rhetoric, and everyday communication contain two components: the unknown concept, which is the target, and the known concept, which is the source. The target is the idea the analogy hopes to explain, while the source is the idea used to explain it. The source is something familiar or widely understood to most people; the target is something unfamiliar and mysterious.
When creating a link between the two concepts, writers are essentially making the unfamiliar into something familiar. For example, take the classic line from Forrest Gump: “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never known what you’re gonna get.” Forrest, quoting his mother in this line, uses a box of assorted chocolates as the source, comparing it to a target that is nebulous and difficult to understand: life. Connecting the two concepts illuminates a specific insight about the randomness of life.
In logic and reasoning, and occasionally in literature, analogies are a four-part comparison expressed via the formula of A:B::C:D, or A is to B as C is to D. This comparison depends on the relationship between A and B and the relationship between C and D to make its point, so A can never be D, and B can never be C. For instance, in the analogy “Haggis is to Scotland as caviar is to Russia,” haggis (A) is a food associated with Scotland (B), just as caviar (C) is a food associated with Russia (D). It explains that haggis originated in Scotland by equating its relationship to the relationship between caviar and Russia, as the former originated in the latter.
Relationships that Analogies Can Convey
There are several different comparative concepts that can fit into the A:B::C:D formula.
- Opposite relationships, or antonyms: “cold is to hot as night is to day”
- Similar relationships, or synonyms: “draw is to sketch as sofa is to couch”
- Cause and effect relationships: “smiles are to joy as tears are to grief”
- Part-to-whole relationships: “finger is to hand as leaf is to tree”
- Location relationships: “apples are to orchards as fish are to sea”
- Object-to-action relationships, wherein objects are paired with associated actions: “bake is to pie as simmer is to soup”
- Performer-to-action relationships: “actor is to acting as writer is to writing”
- Performer-to-object relationships: “plumber is to wrench as artist is to paintbrush”
- Function relationships: “pencil is to writing as knife is to cutting”
- Attribute or characteristic relationships: “teachers emit wisdom as lamps emit light”
- Classification relationships: “ waltz is to dance as American Beauty is to rose”
The Function of Analogies
An analogy helps make an abstract concept more tangible and relatable. Many professionals rely on sharing information, and analogies play an important role in making that information understandable. Writers, teachers, advertising and marketing professionals, government officials, scientists, and healthcare providers are just a few of the occupations that involve disseminating information to the general public. Employing analogies is a common method of ensuring an audience understands what they hear.
Analogies also inject substance and emotion into an idea or image. Writers mainly utilize this function to convey meaning and beauty in the stories they tell. It’s nearly impossible to read a novel or a poem without finding at least one analogy.
Finally, analogies make compelling arguments in rhetoric. Advertising and marketing lingo, political debates, and didactic nonfiction works are some of the arenas where analogies present powerful, persuasive arguments. In 2009, President Barack Obama responded to the Republican criticism of his proposals with a potent analogy comparing politicians’ responsibilities with mopping up messes. “I’m busy. Nancy’s busy with our mops cleaning up somebody else’s mess,” he said. “We don’t want somebody sitting back saying ‘You’re not holding the mop the right way.’ Why don’t you grab a mop? Why don’t you help clean up? ‘You’re not mopping fast enough! That’s a socialist mop!’ Grab a mop. Let’s get to work.”
Analogies, Similes, and Metaphors
While these terms all involve making comparisons, they differ in that analogies merely point out commonalities between two unrelated things, while similes and metaphors are figures of speech that imply the unrelated things are equals. Both similes and metaphors are popular in the target/source approach to analogies.
The difference between similes and analogies is subtle. A simile compares two things through the words like or as. While it can have a powerful effect when making comparisons, analogies address more detailed explanations that elevate the relationship between the compared concepts. The earlier Forrest Gump quote is an example of both a simile and an analogy. The first part of the movie line—“Life is like a box of chocolates”—is a simile. The subsequent explanation—“You never know what you’re gonna get”—expands upon the simile’s concept to make a larger point; thus, it is an analogy.
Metaphors and analogies have a similar relationship. Metaphors compare two objects directly, without the linking words that similes use. For example, here is a famous excerpt from the William Shakespeare classic Romeo and Juliet, spoken by Juliet:
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet.
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title.
In this passage, Juliet compares Romeo’s perceived perfection to a rose’s sweet scent; since she does not use linking words to state this similarity, her description is a metaphor. It becomes an analogy because she expounds upon it. She starts by declaring that names are irrelevant. To prove this point, she posits that a rose will always smell like a rose no matter what one might call it. Bringing the analogy to a close, she says that, just like the rose, Romeo will remain who he is—someone she loves—no matter what name he has.
Examples of Analogies in Literature
1. William Shakespeare, As You Like It
Shakespeare’s comedy involves a woman named Rosalind escaping persecution at her uncle’s court and fleeing to the Forest of Arden. There, she finds a cast of quirky characters, including an introspective traveler named Jacques. He delivers one of Shakespeare’s most memorable monologues:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel…
In this passage, Jacques likens the world to a stage and all the world’s inhabitants to actors performing on the stage. By saying “one man in his time plays many parts,” Jacques—and Shakespeare through him—implies that the roles people fulfill evolve throughout the natural span of human life. Even further, he compares this evolution to the “acts” that make up a play.
2. T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
Eliot’s narrative poem encompasses a series of thoughts by a narrator on the search for love in a loveless world. Despite the title, it is less a love song and more of a collection of fragmented ideas about frustrated and unexpressed love and devotion.
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
This excerpt depends on vivid analogies. The narrator paints a scene of emptiness and despair by comparing a night to an unconscious patient on an operating table—something that is inert and seemingly lifeless. He also equates the meandering streets to monotonous and devious disputes—both taking travelers places they may not want to go. The result is a bleak snapshot of a city at night and the hopeless man at the center of it.
3. Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Kundera’s novel follows the overlapping stories of Tomáš, Tereza, Sabina, and Franz during the 1968 Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia. Kundera presents many analogies throughout the course of the story. The following passages discuss the depth of Tomáš’s sudden, shockingly intense feelings for Tereza:
He kept recalling her lying on his bed; she reminded him of no one in his former life. She was neither mistress nor wife. She was a child whom he had taken from a bulrush basket that had been daubed with pitch and sent to the riverbank of his bed. She fell asleep. He knelt down next to her….
He had come to feel an inexplicable love for this all but complete stranger; she seemed a child to him, a child someone had put in a bulrush basket daubed with pitch and sent downstream for Tomáš to fetch at the riverbank of his bed.
Kundera underscores Tereza’s innocence and her need to be cared for by comparing her to a helpless child in “a bulrush basket that had been daubed with pitch and sent to the riverbank of his bed.” This analogy employs a metaphor to equate Tereza to the Biblical Moses, who, as a baby, was saved from a basket floating down a river.
Further Resources on Analogies
John F. Sowa and Arun K. Majumdar delve into the details of using analogies in logical reasoning.
Butte College offers some guidance on how to write an analogy.
iWriteEssays shares tips on writing an analogy in essay form.
Copyblogger talks about the power of analogies in business and marketing.
An academic paper by Yan Chang explores rhetorical functions and structural patterns of analogies.