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What are Analogies?

Diane Goettel
Updated May 23, 2024
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In the simplest terms, analogies are comparisons. In more specific terms, analogies are cognitive processes that have been employed since antiquity in the fields of linguistics, rhetoric, mathematics, engineering, and law. Analogies can be used to create or strengthen arguments. They can also be used to increase understanding of one topic by comparing it to another. This is done by comparing an unfamiliar topic or idea with one that is quite familiar. By making an analogy, the unfamiliar topic or idea becomes easier to understand.

Many people are familiar with analogies from their use in academic testing. Some educators and testing companies will check a student's understanding of one subject by comparing it with another subject. Let's say, for example, that an English teacher was testing her students' knowledge about the characters in Shakespeare's Hamlet. The teacher may include the following type of analogy question on the test.

Bart Simpson : Marge Simpson :: Prince Hamlet : ___________

This question is asking what character has a relationship with Prince Hamlet that is similar to the relationship between Bart and Marge Simpson. The answer to this question would be "Queen Gertrude" because Gertrude and Hamlet, like Marge and Bart, are mother and son. While it is arguable that Hamlet and Gertrude have a much more complex relationship than Bart and Marge, the analogy here is a tool simply to test knowledge of relationships. This example shows a flaw within analogies; although they can be very useful cognitive tools, they can also be reductive.

Analogies are often used in legal cases that do not correspond to a set precedent. If a legal case includes issues that have never before been handled in a court of law, then there is no precedent to use while judging them. In these cases, the legal professionals involved often search for cases that are somehow similar. In so doing, it is possible to create analogies between the case that is being tried and the previous, similar cases.

Analogies are often used in literature to help a reader understand an idea or to more fully visualize a scene. Here is an example of the way that an analogy can be used in fiction:

At the end of the worst day yet that year, the boy crawled under his bed covers the way a scared hermit crab retreats into its shell.

The analogy here is that the boy is to his bed as a hermit crab is to its shell or boy : bed :: hermit crab : shell. Similes and metaphors are closely related to analogies.

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Diane Goettel
By Diane Goettel
"Diane Goettel has a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and an MA in English from Brooklyn College. Diane lives in Mount Vernon, New York with her husband, Noah. They are the proud parents of a Doberman Pinscher named Spoon. Specialties: book editing, book marketing, book publishing, freelance writing, magazine publishing, magazine writing, copywriting,"
Discussion Comments
By Oceana — On May 19, 2012

I found an analogies list online to help me study for my college entrance exams. I've never been the best at language concepts, and this list was very helpful to me.

It included analogies like stuffed: satiated :: saturated: moist. At first glance, I didn't get the comparison, so I had to pause and really think about it.

Having to analyze analogies helped me learn them. The more I thought about them, the more it was like studying.

I did really well on the language section of my test. I believe that the analogies list helped me out greatly.

By wavy58 — On May 18, 2012

The comparison of the boy retreating to safety like a hermit crab in this article reminds me of an analogy I use to describe my dog's behavior. She is terrified of thunderstorms, and there is one thing she will always do whenever she hears the rumbling.

She seeks shelter in the closet the way that humans take cover in the storm cellar. My grandmother used to rush to the cellar every time a thunderstorm came, even if it wasn't supposed to be tornadic. In this respect, she and my dog are very similar.

Whenever I hear a rumble and see my dog running for the closet, I say that she is going to her storm cellar again. It's quite humorous for us to watch, though I'm sure she doesn't think it's funny at all.

By cloudel — On May 18, 2012

@shell4life – I home-school my daughter, and I often use analogies in her lessons. It's so great to suddenly see a light come on in her head as she gets a revelation of what I'm trying to say.

I think that analogy usage is very helpful in increasing a child's vocabulary. Though it may do nothing to help her learn the spelling of a word, it can show her what a word really means.

The analogies I'm using on her now are pretty simple, but I'm sure that they will get more complicated as she grows older. By the time she is ready for high school, I will probably need to get some sort of guidebook including analogies in order to use them properly.

By shell4life — On May 17, 2012

My school teachers often used analogies to help us understand things. For kids who are starting with no basic concept with which to understand some things, analogies can be very helpful.

One teacher would use four or five analogies on tests. For me, this was the best way to get a good understanding of biology, in particular. The teacher would relate parts of the cell to relationships between other physical things that were much easier to understand.

It helped me learn big scientific words and their true meanings. If I ever have kids, I will use analogies to help them grasp relationships.

Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel
"Diane Goettel has a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and an MA in English from Brooklyn College. Diane lives in Mount...
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