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Tutorial: GAMSAT Metaphor Questions

A metaphor is a literary technique used to describe the subject by asserting that it is in some way similar to an otherwise unrelated object or idea


Different Types of Metaphor Questions

The following are a few of the most straightforward ways in which a metaphor-themed question might be posed on the GAMSAT:

  1. The passage describes something – which of the following would be the best metaphor for it?
  2. Which of the following, (A,B,C,D) taken from the passage, is an example of a metaphor?
  3. Why is X a poor metaphor for Y?
  4. Questions about literary techniques, for example:


1. “The boy was as fast as a shrew” (line 9), is an example of which of the following literary techniques?

  • A      Framing
  • B      Simile  (this is actually the correct answer, see below)
  • C      Metaphor
  • D      Symbolism

Any other metaphor questions you might come across will likely just be less direct permutations of those above.


Identifying Metaphors

Spotting the use of a metaphor is usally pretty simple. They tend to jump out when an otherwise literal reading would seem strange. The trouble arises not in spotting the use of this literary technique, but in differentiating it from its closest allies – symbols and similes.

A symbol is a sign whose meaning is inferred from existing social or literary conventions. The meaning implied by a symbol is arbitrary – rarely connected in any way to its appearance or physicality.

White flag – surrender
Skull and cross-bones – piracy/pirates
Big red balloon – joy, parties (A symbol can connote multiple ideas.)

A metaphor is a way of describing one thing by likening it to something else which is unrelated. Although metaphors and symbols are distinctly different, symbols may be heavily involved in the construction of a metaphor. For example:

Two angry dogs were engrossed in a standoff. The terrier let out a fierce roar and, to my surprise, the collie, twice her size, quickly dipped his head and waved the white flag.

In the above example, the dog is not literally waving a white flag. The standalone symbol of the flag must be understood, however, in order to comprehend the metaphor.

The difference between a simile and a metaphor is primarily grammatical. A simile states that X is like a Y, or that X is as __ as Y.


As stiff as a tree trunk.
Hung like a horse.
Waving the white flag like a Frenchman


In a metaphor, the use of ‘like’ or ‘as’ is not used.


Dismantling Metaphors

There are two efficient ways to uncover the meaning of a metaphor


1) By Properties

The connection between metaphors and their subjects is centered on the properties which they share.

For example: John is an elephant.
Out of context, this could mean many things; he’s big, strong, clumsy, or maybe that he just has a great memory.

When assessing the validity of a metaphor for describing an idea, list the properties of each, then compare them.

Why is a falling line of dominoes a good metaphor for a car crash? Because the row of dominoes is causal, linear, destructive and sudden – and these are all the properties of a good car crash.


2) By Context

Some metaphors, no matter how extensively you consider their properties, seem to make utterly no sense. On the surface it seems like the writer is blindly mixing a multitude of insoluble ideas and then hoping for the best. In these situations you must disect the rest of the content of the passage. Figure out what the central idea of the passage is, and the metaphor’s intended meaning will make itself apparent.



The passage below is an extract from Seth Godin’s ‘Tribes’, entitled The Balloon Factory and the Unicorn. Use what you’ve learned about metaphors to answer the question that follows.


I’m not sure you’ve ever visited a balloon factory. Probably not.
The people who work in the balloon factory are timid. Afraid, even. They’re very concerned about pins, needles, and porcupines. They don’t like sudden changes in temperature. Sharp objects are a problem as well.
The balloon factory isn’t really a bad place to work if you rationalize a bit. It’s steady work, with a bit of a rush around New Year’s. The rest of the time it’s quiet and peaceful and not so scary. Except when the unicorns show up.
At first, the balloon factory folks shush the unicorn and warn him away. That often works. But sometimes, the unicorn ignores them and wanders into the factory anyway. That’s when everyone runs for cover. It’s amazingly easy for a unicorn to completely disrupt a balloon factory. That’s because the balloon factory is organized around a single idea, the idea of soft, quiet stability. The unicorn changes all that.


1. In the above passage, the unicorn is presented as a metaphor for which of the following?

  • A The innovative new staff member
  • B The clumsy delivery men
  • C The aggressive balloon factory supervisor
  • D The inconsiderate trainee
  • Answer:
    The obvious properties of a unicorn are beauty, magic, horse-like, and possibly dangerous if you’re a balloon. As you can see this doesn’t really help with any of A,B,C or D.

    This question is testing your ability to decipher the metaphor based on the context. The balloon factory is organised around a single idea: soft, quiet stability. Change is not appreciated and is avoided at all costs. The unicorn ‘changes all that’ and must therefore be intended as a metaphor for someone who changes things – or attempts to. The factory staff shoe them away in an attempt to protect the status quo. They are the innovators.

    Gamsat Sample Questions

    July 16, 2012

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