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Symbol vs. Metaphor: What's the Difference?

Edited by Harlon Moss || By Janet White || Published on December 2, 2023
A symbol is a tangible object or sign representing an idea, quality, or concept, whereas a metaphor is a figure of speech comparing two unlike things directly.

Key Differences

A symbol is a physical manifestation or representation of an idea, quality, or entity, often used to convey deeper meanings. A metaphor, in contrast, is a linguistic tool that describes something as being the same as another thing for rhetorical effect.
Symbols are used in various forms of communication, from literature to everyday life, to represent concepts without directly stating them. Metaphors directly equate one thing with another to emphasize similarities or convey meanings in a more vivid or imaginative way.
Symbols can be universal or culturally specific, carrying meanings recognized broadly or within a particular group. Metaphors are creative language expressions, often unique to the author or speaker, creating new connections between different concepts.
The power of a symbol lies in its ability to evoke emotions or ideas through a single image, sign, or object. Metaphors, however, rely on the power of language and imagination to draw parallels between disparate entities or ideas.
In symbolism, the relationship between the symbol and what it represents is often established and recognized over time. In metaphor, the comparison is crafted by the speaker or writer, often in an original and unexpected way.

Comparison Chart


Physical object or sign representing something else
Figure of speech comparing two unlike things


Conveys deeper meanings or ideas indirectly
Directly equates one thing with another for rhetorical effect


Can be universal or culturally specific
Often unique to the author or speaker


Evokes emotions or ideas through imagery
Draws parallels using language and imagination


Established and recognized over time
Crafted uniquely in each instance

Symbol and Metaphor Definitions


A mark or sign used to represent an idea, object, or relationship.
The dove is a symbol of peace.


A figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.
All the world's a stage.


Something that stands for or suggests something else by reason of relationship, association, or convention.
A heart symbolizes love.


An imaginative way of describing something by referring to something else which is the same in a particular way.
Her voice was a melody.


A visible sign of something invisible.
The scales are a symbol of justice.


A rhetorical figure used to make implicit comparisons.
Time is a thief.


A character used in writing as a conventional representation of an object, function, or process.
The ampersand (&) is a symbol for 'and'.


A thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else.
His tower of strength was just a metaphor for his resilience.


An emblem representing a group, idea, or quality.
The Olympic rings are a symbol of global unity.


An expression that describes a person or object by referring to something that is considered to have similar characteristics.
The classroom was a zoo.


Something that represents something else by association, resemblance, or convention, especially a material object used to represent something invisible
The lamb is a symbol of innocence.


A figure of speech in which a word or phrase that ordinarily designates one thing is used to designate another, thus making an implicit comparison, as in "a sea of troubles" or "All the world's a stage" (Shakespeare).


An instance that typifies a broader pattern or situation
His striking out to end the rally was a symbol of everything that had gone wrong with the team over the past month.


One thing conceived as representing another; a symbol
"Hollywood has always been an irresistible, prefabricated metaphor for the crass, the materialistic, the shallow, and the craven" (Neal Gabler).


The use of a word or phrase to refer to something other than its literal meaning, invoking an implicit similarity between the thing described and what is denoted by the word or phrase.


A word or phrase used in such implied comparison.


The use of an everyday object or concept to represent an underlying facet of the computer and thus aid users in performing tasks.
Desktop metaphor; wastebasket metaphor


(intransitive) To use a metaphor.


(transitive) To describe by means of a metaphor.


The transference of the relation between one set of objects to another set for the purpose of brief explanation; a compressed simile; e. g., the ship plows the sea.


A figure of speech in which an expression is used to refer to something that it does not literally denote in order to suggest a similarity


How is a metaphor different from a simile?

A metaphor directly compares two things, while a simile uses "like" or "as" for comparison.

What is a symbol?

A symbol is a sign or object representing an idea, concept, or other entity.

What is a metaphor?

A metaphor is a figure of speech that describes an object or action in a way that isn’t literally true, but helps explain an idea or make a comparison.

Can a symbol be a metaphor?

Sometimes a symbol can also function as a metaphor, but not all symbols are metaphors.

Do metaphors have to be based on truth?

Metaphors are not necessarily true but are used to create vivid or imaginative comparisons.

Can symbols be words?

Yes, symbols can also be words that represent something beyond their literal meaning.

Are symbols culturally dependent?

Some symbols have universal meanings, while others may vary in different cultures.

Is learning metaphors important in language?

Yes, understanding metaphors is important for grasping the nuances and creativity in language.

Are metaphors only used in literature?

Metaphors are widely used in literature, everyday language, and in various forms of art and communication.

How do symbols convey messages?

Symbols convey messages through their established and recognized meanings.

Why do we use symbols?

We use symbols to communicate complex ideas, beliefs, and concepts in a simple and universal manner.

What makes a good metaphor?

A good metaphor is original, vivid, and makes a clear and imaginative comparison.

Can the same symbol have different meanings?

Yes, depending on the context and culture, a symbol can have multiple meanings.

Are symbols innate or learned?

Most symbols are learned and culturally ingrained.

What are some common symbols in literature?

Common symbols include the heart (love), the raven (death), and light (knowledge).

Can a metaphor become a cliché?

Yes, overused metaphors can become clichés and lose their original impact.

Do symbols evolve over time?

Yes, the meanings of symbols can evolve and change over time.

Can metaphors be visual?

Yes, metaphors can also be visual, not just verbal or written.

How do metaphors enrich language?

Metaphors enrich language by adding depth, creativity, and vivid imagery to expressions.

Are metaphors universal?

While some metaphors are widely understood, others may be culture-specific or context-dependent.
About Author
Written by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.
Edited by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.

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