All About Metaphors

This post is not for everyone.  If you’re confident that you can understand any metaphors on the SAT, skip this.  If you’re not sure, give it a quick read.  And if you’re thinking “what’s a metaphor?” you should turn off your iPod and read carefully.

Those pesky SAT writers love to test you with metaphors.  Some are easy to recognize, but others are quite subtle.  Many of my students can tell me what a metaphor is, but are surprised by how often they overlook them in Critical Reading passages.

Let’s start with the basics.  According to dictionary.com, a metaphor is “a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance.”  Got that?  Don’t worry…

If a writer wants to compare one thing to another, he can use several methods.  One way is a simile, which usually includes the word “like” or “as.”  If I read “she’s as beautiful as an angel,” I know what that means.  She may not have wings, but she sure is gorgeous.  Similes are easy to understand.

Metaphors can be trickier.  “She has the face of an angel” isn’t too hard; it also means she’s pretty.  But consider “her eyes are glowing jewels.”  Does light actually come out of her eye sockets?  Can you string her eyes on a necklace?

The point is that metaphors don’t mean exactly what they say.  A simile states “A is like B,” and it means exactly that.  A metaphor also means “A is like B,” but it reads “A is B.”  B doesn’t even have to exist: “Lawrence has the heart of a dragon.”

That, in a nutshell, is the key feature of a metaphor.  When an author uses a metaphor that reads “A is B,” he’s not talking about B.  B is just a reference for comparison.

Sometimes you’ll find extended metaphors on SAT passages.  There is a specific definition of “extended metaphor,” but for practical purposes you can just think of an extended metaphor as one that goes on for more than one sentence.  Consider the following paragraph:

The MightyCorp manufacturing company is a great solar system.  The workers may draw light from the sun, but they each follow their own path.  Comets may leave the system, but they return from time to time, and are often visible to many.

Q) By stating that “The MightyCorp manufacturing company is a great solar system,” the author implies that

a) Many manufacturers are interested in astronomy.

b) The company will make great strides in the future.

c) MightyCorp is a productive place to work.

d) Comets can be as viewable as businesses.

e) MightyCorp is organized as a hierarchy.

Okay, I know that doesn’t have the “look and feel” of the actual SAT, but it was fun to write.  Now let’s answer the question.  Remember what we just talked about regarding metaphors – there is no solar system in the passage!  No sun, no planets, no asteroids.  The writer is only comparing a business to a solar system.  So you know right away that (a) and (d) are incorrect.  Those are the answers that students who don’t understand metaphors will go for.

Solar System Planets.

Image via Wikipedia

Answer (b) must be wrong, because there was no mention of the future.  Since there’s no mention of productivity, (c) is out, and you know the answer is (e), even if you don’t know what a hierarchy is (“any system of persons or things ranked one above another” – again, from dictionary.com).

Of course, once you are comfortable with metaphors, the best way to answer a question is in your own words, before you look at the answers.  Even if you say “that company is like a solar system, with things like suns and planets,” you’ll still choose (e) readily.

Now, if you’re still having trouble with metaphors, you might be getting discouraged.  Perhaps you’re thinking “I’m just not as smart as the kids who get it.”  More likely, you simply don’t read as much as the kids who get it.  Try to read as often as you can.  Even if you just read the sports or entertainment page of the newspaper (or Google News) each day, you’ll do better on the SAT, and have an easier time in college.

And as you travel the escalator of knowledge, remember to oil the gears!

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