Using Metaphors in Academic Writing

by Swati Sengupta
Using metaphors in academic writing

Have you ever wanted to translate formidable, and sometimes tedious, academic content into one that is easily comprehensible and captivating? Academics are often told that the language of science is formal, precise and descriptive with no space for the abstract. However, using metaphors in your academic writing could be helpful if used to explain complex scientific concepts. Just remember not to be cautious and exercise restraint when using different types of metaphors or it could make your academic writing seem unprofessional.

What is a metaphor?

A metaphor is defined as a figure of speech in which a word or phrase denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them. (Merriam-Webster, 2022). Derived from the Greek word ‘metapherein,’ which means ‘to transfer,’ metaphors transfer the meaning of one word to another to encourage a feeling. For example, by writing ‘All the world’s a stage,’ Shakespeare creates a powerful imagery of ideas through transference. By bringing life to words, metaphors add value to writing and are a great addition to a writer’s toolkit.

Difference between similes and metaphors and analogies

When you’re writing in English, you should know the difference between similes and metaphors and analogies. While these are similar in terms of purpose, i.e., comparing two things, they are different in how they are used. A simile is explicit about the comparison, while a metaphor simply points to the similarities between two things, and an analogy seeks to use comparisons to explain a concept.

This could be confusing, however, there are simple ways to detect the differences between similes and metaphors and analogies. You can identify a simile by looking for the use of words ‘like’, ‘as’, for example, ‘Life is like a box of chocolates.’ On the other hand, metaphors are more rhetorical and not so literal, for example, ‘The news was music to her ears.’ An analogy is more complex and seeks to point out the similarity in two things to explain a point, for example, ‘Finding the right dress is like finding a needle in a haystack.’

Types of metaphors

There are several different types of metaphors in the English language, here are some of the most common variations.

  • Standard metaphor: A standard metaphor directly compares two unrelated items. For instance, by drawing a link between things and feelings, we’ve been able to convey the importance of laughter in this example of a metaphor: Laughter is the best medicine.
  • Implied metaphor: This type of metaphor implies comparison without mentioning one of the things being compared. Take this example, where the coach’s voice is implied to be as loud as thunder: “Don’t give up!” thundered the coach from the side lines.
  • Visual metaphor: This type of metaphor compares abstract objects or ideas that are difficult to imagine to a visual image that is easily identifiable; providing the former with a pictorial identity. This type of metaphor is most widely used in advertisements. For example, for the phrase ‘The Earth is melting’, the visual metaphor used to signal global warming is a melting ice cream.
  • Extended metaphor: This type of metaphor extends the comparison throughout an article, document, or stanza. For example, when poet Emily Dickinson wrote “Hope” is the thing with feathers, she used feathers as a metaphor to compare hope to a bird with wings.
  • Grammatical metaphors: Also known as nominalization, this type of metaphor rewrites verbs or adjectives as nouns. It’s most commonly used in academic and scientific texts as a way to separate spoken and written language, remove personal pronouns, and write in a concise manner. For instance, ‘Millions of men, women and children starved to death in the 1943 Bengal Famine as a direct result of Churchill’s policies.’ This can be rephrased as ‘British policies led to the 1943 Bengal Famine, impacting the country’s people and politics for decades.’

Using metaphors in academic writing

Scholars pride themselves on creating research papers that are factually correct and precise, and metaphors may be perceived to detract from this. However, using metaphors may be a great way to explain scientific and technical concepts to readers, who may not know as much about the subject. While metaphors can add to formal academic writing and make it more engaging, it’s important to find a balance. Here are some tips to keep in mind when using metaphors in academic writing:

  • Don’t use metaphors as the foundation of your academic content, use them instead to support your argument and drive home a point.
  • Choose your metaphors carefully taking into account your primary audience; using figures of speech specific to any one region can introduce confusion instead of clarity.
  • Use metaphors wisely and only when needed so not to distract the reader. They should flow naturally and enhance the content rather than detract from the point.

Metaphors are a nifty way to create engaging content even for academic writers. Greek philosopher Aristotle once wrote, “The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor; it is the one thing that cannot be learnt from others.” So get ready to wield that pen and reach for the stars!

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