March 12:  Analogy Day

Today is the birthday of Irish writer and politician Richard Steele (1672-1729). In 1709, Steele founded The Tatler, a newspaper that featured a new style of journalism. More than just reporting the news, The Tatler featured essays, reviews, gossip, and satire.

In the March 18, 1710 edition of The Tatler, Steele wrote a sentence to illustrate the benefits of literacy:

Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.

Steel’s analogy is perfect because reading is not just about retaining information; instead, it is about training your mind to lift more mental weight.  When you consistently lift weights in the gym, your muscles adapt, allowing you to lift more and more weight. Similarly, when you consistently read, your mind adapts, allowing you to lift and grapple with weightier ideas. Reading nourishes and strengthens the mind, giving you a mental six-pack of memory, imagination, logic, creativity, language, and knowledge.

Steele’s memorable and insightful sentence is a classic example of an analogy.  Analogies reflect the ways humans learn: trying to understand what we don’t know by comparing it to what we do know.  

Analogies are similar to metaphors and similes, but unlike similes and metaphors — which captivate us with surprising imagery, the primary purpose of an analogy is to explain via logical balance.  Analogies are also a bit more mathematical than similes and metaphors; in Greek analogia means “proportionate,” and a good analogy reveals a corresponding relationship between two pairs of things.  As Steele’s analogy illustrates, the basic formula for an analogy is: A is to B as C is to D.

In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. uses an analogy to illustrate the way racial prejudice blinds us:

Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

To paraphrase King’s analogy, we might state it as follows:

Racial prejudice is to human love and brotherhood as fog and dark clouds are to seeing the beauty of the night sky.

The ability to think using analogies requires a high level of cognition.  It requires the thinker to synthesize complex concepts and to make parallel connections between seemingly unrelated ideas.   

It is no wonder, then, that analogies have been used to measure intelligence. The Miller Analogies Test, for example, is a graduate school admissions test made up of analogy word problems.

An analogy word problem follows a predictable format:

A : B :: C : D (A is to B as C is to D)

Steele’s analogy would be stated:  READING : MIND :: EXERCISE : BODY.

Try this analogy word problem:

story : fable :: poem : _______

  1. poet
  2. novel
  3. rhyme
  4. sonnet

The key to solving these analogies is to identify the bridge idea that connects both pairs.  In the problem above, for example, if you understand that a “fable” is a type or genre of story, you will probably realize that the answer is D because a “sonnet” is a type or genre of “poem.”

When you are solving analogies, try writing your answer in the form of a balanced sentence, a sentence that has two parallel independent clauses, such as “A fable is a type of story; a sonnet is a type of poem.”  Doing this will allow you show your thinking by explicitly stating the bridge idea.

Try the following:

  1. puppy : litter :: soldier : (A. group B. war C. army D. battle)
  2. entomology : insects : : etymology : (A. birds B. words C. foods D. ants)
  3. Grendel : Beowulf :: Hydra : (A. Achilles B. Vulcan C. Atlas D. Hercules)
  4. adverb : sadly :: conjunction : (A. the B. none C. but D. happily)
  5. Mark Twain : Huckleberry Finn :: William Shakespeare : (A. Tom Sawyer B. Jim C. Hamlet D. Hester Prynne)

Today’s Challenge:   Four-part Formula for Framing Analogies

As Windex is to a clear, picturesque view so are analogies to clear writing.  What are some topics that you know well enough to explain to someone less knowledgeable?  Brainstorm a list of topics that you might explain using an analogy. Use the basic four-part formula:

As ________ is to __________, so ________ is to _________.


As kindling is to fire so is brainstorming to creativity.

As weeding is to gardening, so is editing to writing.

As fast food is to the stomach, so is television to the mind.

As yeast is to bread, so is honesty to friendship.

As wood fuels a fire, so memory fuels the imagination.

As dancing is to walking, so dancing is to walking.

As the selection of bait is to fishing, so is audience analysis to public speaking.

Once you have written your complete analogy, follow it with some explanation that elaborates and expands the comparison.

Example Analogy with Explanation:

As the correct number of employees is to an effective business, so are the right number of words to effective writing.

Imagine each word you write is an employee of the company you own.  Each word needs a job to do. You can’t afford to pay a salary to words or employees who do nothing.  Your job, therefore, as the writer is to keep your workforce — your “wordforce” — at a size no larger than what it takes to get the job done.

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  Analogies, it is true, decide nothing, but they can make one feel more at home. -Sigmund Freud

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