Idioms and Metaphors

Idiom vs. Metaphor
Burning the candle at both ends
Image by gfpeck

There are occasions when something literally happens – and there are times when things happen figuratively speaking. The latter is when we often times fall back to using idioms or metaphors to express the state of a situation, our feelings, or that something happened.


Idioms and metaphors are not only a creative and very picturesque way of expressing yourself, they are also easily confused. Because, yes, there is a difference between the two! And today, we will find out what these differences are and how to distinguish idioms from metaphors.


Using a metaphor means linking two things that usually do not go together or are usually not linked. Instead of a simple and open comparison, metaphors carry some hidden meaning that says that something is similar or equal to something completely and otherwise unrelated.

Examples for Metaphors

He may be big, but he's as gentle as a lamb.

In a figurative sense, the male person talked about is assigned the attributes of a small lamb. Literally, it means that he has a kind and mild nature or character.

My daughter is the apple of my eye.

Of course, the speaker doesn’t literally have his or her daughter being a part of his eye. Instead, the saying expresses that said daughter is cherished and loved above anything else by the speaker.

When faced with a complicate problem, he develops tunnel vision.

Tunnels are dark and do not leave many options to look around. With this metaphor, the speaker wants to express that the person talked about focuses on only one thing and nothing else – just like looking through a tunnel where all that matters is the exit on the other side.


Idioms don’t follow a scheme like metaphors do. Their literal meaning oftentimes doesn’t make sense, and yet most people (at least natives) know what is meant. Often used idioms become cliches, and those should be avoided in writing if not really necessary to not sound tacky or too cliche. Not all cliches are idioms though.

Examples for Idioms

He kicked the bucket.

So what?, you may ask if you don’t know this idiom. Instead of a man literally kicking a bucket though, it means that he, in fact, died.

It's raining cats and dogs.

That doesn’t mean that these beloved pets are falling from the sky, but that it is raining very heavily.

Break a leg.

An idiom very common in a theatrical environment. Of course, one actor doesn’t wish the other to break his or her leg during the performance. It’s merely a way to say “Good luck”.


The biggest difference between idioms and metaphors may be that you can, somehow, find out about the meaning of a metaphor by looking at the context where it is used in.

Idioms, however, don’t make any sense when looked at with regard to their literal meaning. Instead, the meaning behind an idiom has to be learned like the meaning behind a peculiar or foreign sounding word.

Thus, understanding the image a metaphor tries to create is much easier than figuring out the meaning of an unknown idiom.


Another difference is that you can make up new metaphors quite easily. Especially novelists and creative writers try to express and put down the image they have in their heads by using the most fitting or expressive metaphor they can think of or make up.

Yet, you can not simply make up a new idiom because the meaning behind the phrase has to be shared with several people to actually make sense.