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What is an Analogy?

Mary Elizabeth
By
Updated Jan 22, 2024
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One important type of analogy is a method of explanation or clarification involving a comparison of the difficult material to something that is more easily grasped by the explainer’s audience. The two items used in the analogy do not have to be alike in any respect other than the element that is the topic of the discussion. Because of the restricted need for similarity in an analogy, items that we would normally think of as quite disparate from the topic may serve a role in increasing understanding.

In an analogy in conversation, the comparison is often made to either:

• something that is present and can be manipulated—you can sometimes see people in restaurants demonstrating scenarios using their salt and pepper shakers and silverware to create the analogy;

• something that is common knowledge for almost everyone—for example, a movie, song, story, or cultural experience that is shared and therefore can be used as a basis to explain an item that is not yet shared may be referenced;

• a particular common experience or understanding that the explainer shares with the particular audience, such as something that occurred in a previous interaction, may form the basis of an analogy.

Possibly the most famous use of analogy in entertainment is found in the explanations that Dr. Charles Eppes gives in the show Numb3rs to help non-mathematicians, like his brother and colleagues at the FBI, understand a concept or data analysis method that involves highly specialized mathematics. By using everyday examples or actually using objects that are present in the immediate environment, Charlie is able to make his leap of logic concrete for the people he’s talking with.

Many of this type of analogy are made using the word like, and therefore are technically examples of the figure of speech called simile.

A second type of analogy, metaphor, differs from the first in that it takes more liberties in that it says that one thing is another. As with other tropes, this is not to be taken literally, but to be seen as figurative language. The expression, “Time is running out” is a metaphor that creates an analogy between time and an hour glass in which the particles of sand run from one side to another. Time is not really a bunch of little particles: it’s a dimension. Through the metaphor, we momentarily imagine time in a different way.

A third type of analogy is the type found in the Verbal Section of the Graduate Record Exam, or GRE. In this type of analogy problem, the relationship between one set of items is given, and the test taker must choose an analogous set from five choices. An example is:

COW : CALF :

(A) ewe : kid
(B) mare : foal
(C) hen : rooster
(D) ram : lamb
(E) sow : pig

The answer is B, because just as a cow is the mother of a calf, a mare is the mother of a foal. None of the other choices show a mother/offspring relationship.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for WiseGeek, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.
Discussion Comments
By Armas1313 — On Jan 08, 2011

The ancients drew heavily upon analogy and had little of what we now consider to be logic. Their mode of thinking had to do with things which were somehow connected to other things, and their reasoning often proceeded in a fashion which we would consider absurd today. Balancing analogous thinking with logic is an important task for a good mind.

By FitzMaurice — On Jan 07, 2011

In Jungian psychology, the archetypes of the unconscious are important analogies for patterns of thinking in people's lives. The sun analogy symbolizes creativity and creation, since all life stems physiologically from the sun. The love analogy connects with the sun as well, and ultimately points to the common unconscious belief in God, as the source of well-being and existence.

By Proxy414 — On Jan 05, 2011

Seeing and identifying analogies is an important part of associative reasoning and recognizing patterns. The GRE analogy section measures the exactitude and quickness of this capacity. Most IQ tests also include an analogy section. Recalling similar things you have learned when learning new things makes for an important research capacity in the brain. Training yourself to think in terms of analogies can be quite helpful in fostering a creative mind.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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