The art of analogy

To illustrate one thing by its resemblance to another has been always the most popular and efficacious art of instruction. There is indeed no other method of teaching that of which any one is ignorant but by means of something already known.

From The Idler, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

Analogy is a useful tool in the writer’s kit: it allows us to create a comparison between two apparently unconnected things in order to make a point clearer, to develop an argument or to communicate an attitude. There may be linguistic indicators such as the subordinating conjunctions as or as if … or the preposition like … to draw attention to the analogy.

The following examples show how analogy can be used to affect the audience in different ways.

An appeal to our emotions

1325627622728677631Sick… can I draw an analogy … if babies were dying in hospital for lack of drink and their skin breaking down, society would be up in arms and if nurses said, ‘Well, I’ve put the bottle in the crib and I’ve put the nappy in the crib – I can’t understand why the baby’s died.’ And yet at the end of our lives we may have that level of dependency and we may need that level of care …

Anne Challoner Wood, Director of ‘See Change in Dementia Care’, Today, Radio 4 (12 March 2013)

 A Care Quality Commission report (published on 12 March 2013) has shown that older people suffering from dementia who are admitted to hospital with a minor, avoidable condition stay much longer and will often never return home.

So, how does the analogy work?

  1. the speaker explicitly draws attention to the fact that she wishes to make a comparison using the polite question can I draw …
  2. the analogy is introduced with the conditional conjunction if which marks the example as hypothetical
  3. specific references to minor, avoidable conditions  experienced by people with dementia are linked directly to a baby  (lack of drink = dehydration; skin breaking down= pressure sores)
  4. the use of hypothetical direct speech highlights the absurdity of the situation
  5. the fronted conjunctions And yet make the link between the imagined baby and the reality for people suffering from dementia clear

The emotive effect is hard-hitting.  The figurative up in arms sets the tone of indignation that we should feel for this neglect. The analogy works because it takes an image which will make us all feel outraged and shows how the same argument applies in the debate about care for people with dementia.   

A visual explanation

… an American commentator recently described the kind of decline of public service in the United States as akin to seeing, from a 11954280451742271342shipswheel_john_olsen_01.svg.meddistance, a ship that appears to be veering from one direction to another. The captain and the crew must appear to be maniacs, but in fact on closer inspection there’s no captain or crew at all – just a set of ideologues committed either to Jesus Christ or to Adam Smith temporarily grabbing the wheel before being thrown overboard …

Paul du Gay, Copenhagen Business School, In Defence of Bureaucracy, Radio 4 (12 March 2013)

The programme explores the relationship between the civil service and government ministers. We choose our government every four years, but the civil servants remain constant, providing continuity and stability to our services.  In America, the situation is quite different – the civil servants change each time the administration changes.

So, how does the analogy work?

  1. the speaker focuses attention on his topic (the kind of decline of public services)
  2. the analogy is introduced with the subordinating conjunction as and the comparative marker akin to …
  3. the visual image of the ship is established – something familiar, making the abstract topic concrete through a lexical set of nouns (ship, captain, crew, wheel)
  4. proper nouns establish the two extremes of American politics: ideologues committed to either Jesus Christ (i.e. the Republicans) or Adam Smith (i.e. Democrats)
  5. the image of conflict and the adverb of time (temporarily) suggest that the process is illogical

The effect is to clarify an otherwise abstract concept: the visual element helps listeners to appreciate the difficulties that arise from having a transient rather than a permanent civil service. The analogy works because it creates a comic scene which is easily understandable and memorable.

An expression of attitude


Order. The hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) is noisier in heckling the Secretary of State than he was in heckling me at Essex university 30 years ago. He needs to calm down.


1197093693305734410johnny_automatic_monkey_silhouette.svg.medWith respect, Mr Speaker, the hon. Gentleman’s noise covers a complete lack of intelligence. That is what I would say. Let me bring something forward – [Interruption.] No, monkeys can jump around, but the noise they make is not necessarily relevant.  

  Commons Debates, ‘Under-occupancy’,
Hansard (11 March 2013)

The debate focuses on proposed legislation which has been called the ‘Bedroom tax’ – people in social housing with a spare room will have their housing benefit reduced. The Speaker interrupted debate to stop persistent heckling by the Labour MP Ian Austin.

So, how does the analogy work?

  1. the Conservative minister, Iain Duncan Smith, makes a direct criticism of a Labour MP (the hon. Gentleman’s noise covers a complete lack of intelligence)
  2. politeness markers like the prepositional phrase (With respect) and the formal title the hon. Gentleman aim to soften the criticism, making it appropriate for the formal, adversarial context
  3. the implicit analogy links the Labour MP and a monkey through the repetition of the noun noise
  4. Austin’s arguments against the legislation are implicitly reduced to the chatterings of a monkey i.e. noise without meaning or relevance

The effect is expressive here. Ian Duncan Smith communicates his opinion clearly in the comparison. It allows him to be rude without breaking the unwritten rules of parliamentary exchange – the language was not seen to be inappropriate because The Speaker did not interveneThe analogy works because it creates a comic image which allows the minister to undermine his opponent.

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