Metaphor and personification are designed to convey something more than a literal meaning in your writing. In other words, rather than saying what you mean, you use a figure of speech like a metaphor or personification that makes the language sound more elaborate.
This can add a lot of flavour, life and creativity to your work by assigning human characteristics to objects (personification) or making other interesting and colourful comparisons (metaphor).
However, metaphors and personification are regularly confused because they are kind of similar, and can even be used in the same sentences. If you find them confusing, this is the article for you. Keep reading to understand how they function and how you can best make use of them in your own writing.
Definition of a metaphor
A metaphor makes an indirect comparison between two different and unrelated things without using words such as like or as to do this. So, unlike a simile, that states something is like another thing, a metaphor states that one thing is another. In this way, the metaphor (the word or phrase) takes on the meaning of something else.
Do note that a metaphor is not always used for humans or human characteristics. And strictly speaking, the statement may not actually be true. For example, we may describe a job “as a dream” when the job is not actually a dream, just a figure of speech to indicate it is very easy or enjoyable.
Or we may say someone “is walking a tightrope” with their grades or in a similar difficult situation, even though it is not the same activity. It’s just meant to convey there is some danger involved if they are unable to complete the assigned task.
Metaphors are fun to use and very effective because they can persuade a reader an object can be something else.
Here are some more examples of some famous metaphors in literature, speech and music with the metaphor in bold:
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women are merely players” (As You Like It, William Shakespeare, play)
“The frosted wedding cake of the ceiling” (The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, novel)
“Life is a highway” (“Life is a Highway”, Tom Cochrane, song)
“But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.” (Dr Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have A Dream” speech)
“If this virus were a physical assailant, an unexpected and invisible mugger, which I can tell you from personal experience it is, then this is the moment we have begun together to wrestle it to the floor.” (Boris Johnson, The Guardian, article.)
Here are some other common ones you might have seen:
Life is a journey.
I am drowning in a sea of grief.
He/she is the light of my life.
His/her voice was velvet.
Why don’t you see if you can write some or use them in your writing?
Definition of personification
Personification attributes human characteristics or human nature to inanimate objects, animals, or something that is not human, even if this object or being does not really have this characteristic. For instance, we may say the wind is howling, the sun is smiling, stars winking or hyenas laughing, but they don’t actually have these characteristics, we’ve just attributed human characteristics to them.
The beauty of this kind of writing is that an object can be described in a way a reader can relate to it. We all feel tempted, so if pastries tempt, we know what that means. And an angry sea or howling wind are great ways to describe elements of a storm.
Here are some examples of how personification has been used in well-known literature:
“Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.” (“Because I could not stop for Death”, Emily Dickinson, poem)
In this example, Dickinson personifies Death by having him ride a carriage. In this way, Death goes about his/her business like another human might.
“But when the sun set and darkness came on, they lay down to rest by the stern cables of the ship, and as soon as early rosy-fingered Dawn appeared, then they set sail for the wide camp of the Achaeans.” (The Iliad, Homer).
Here, Homer gives both dawn human characteristics, having fingers.
Here are some other very common examples:
The heavens wept at the injustice.
The sun played side and seek with the clouds.
Lightning danced in the sky.
The story jumped off the page.
Why don’t you see if you can write some?
If you would like to understand more about personification, see how it is used in this review of The Red Badge of Courage.
Differences between them
Let’s now look at a metaphor vs. personification, using similar examples to compare them.
Metaphor: The wind was an old codger, blowing and hissing over the dunes.
Personification: An angry, cantankerous wind blew over the dune.
In the first example, the metaphor says the wind was something else. In the second example, the personification assigns the wind human characteristics of being old and cantankerous.
Metaphor: His face was stone.
Personification: The stone ignored us.
The metaphor says his face was stone (something else), whereas the personification assigns an inanimate object with human characteristics.
Metaphor: The leaves are dancers.
Personification: The leaves danced in the wind.
The metaphor describes leaves as something else (dancers), and the personification assigns the leaves human characteristics of dancing in the wind
There can be confusion between the two when metaphors and personification are used in the same sentence or even cross over. How does that work?
Well, let’s use the example above about the leaves, but this time we might say:
“The leaves are dancers twirling with abandon.”
In this example, the “leaves are dancers” is a metaphor (saying they are something else), and the “leaves twirling with abandon” is personification (giving them human characteristics.
Both metaphors and personification are very useful literary tools, and the better grasp you have of them, the more colourful and interesting your language will be. Why not try them today?