What Is a Metaphor Versus a Simile?

3 min read

Stating, “Her hair is red” is factual, but, “Her hair is like a flame,” or even, “Her hair is a flame” create a much more descriptive picture. These two examples are both figurative language, but the first is a simile and the second is a metaphor, and the word “like” plays an important role. Let’s take a look at what metaphors and similes are, and the different uses for each.

What Is a Simile?

Writers generally use similes to create an interesting comparison between two items, typically to illuminate something compelling about a character or place. A simile can be identified by the use of “like” or “as” — there’s a comparison present.

A writer could say, “She was happy,” or, “Her smile was bright like the sunshine.” Though these two statements deliver a similar sentiment, the second sentence is far more compelling, poetic, and memorable.

Using a simile is an attempt to show rather than tell. Instead of telling us the woman was happy, the figurative language gives a comparison to show the emotion.  Similes can also increase the emotional impact. Saying “My love for you is as deep as the ocean” delivers a more powerful message than “I love you very much.”

Similes are found in many common English idioms. While they run the risk of sounding cliché, there’s power in a simile that is immediately understood.

“She is as innocent as an angel.”

“He was as stubborn as a bull.”

“He was as blind as a bat.”

“The siblings fought like cats and dogs.”

“The new building stuck out like a sore thumb.”

When the figurative language is not an overused simile, the addition of “like” or “as” statements can refresh a reader’s attention with creative connections to unexpected items and descriptors.

“A mind is like a parachute. It doesn't work if it is not open.”

― Frank Zappa

“Her romantic mind was like the tiny boxes, one within the other, that come from the puzzling East . . .” — Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie.

“Character is like a tree and reputation its shadow. The shadow is what we think it is and the tree is the real thing.”

― Abraham Lincoln

“Kate inched over her own thoughts like a measuring worm.” — East of Eden, John Steinbeck

What Is a Metaphor?

Metaphors claim that an item is something else. A metaphor is another tool of figurative language that draws a comparison between two unexpected items, but it’s more of a declarative statement than a simile. A metaphor will use “is” and “are” in the comparison.

“The man was quiet like a ghost” is a simile, but, “The man was a ghost” is a metaphor. The first version suggests that the man might have moved quietly or appeared pale, but the directness of the metaphor offers something much more ominous. Just as with similes, metaphors are sprinkled throughout the English language.

“The lake was a mirror.”

“The daycare was a zoo when she arrived.”

“The librarian’s computer was a dinosaur.”

“The wind was a roaring lion.”

“The girl’s smile was a ray of sunshine.”

“His voice was a perfectly tuned guitar.”

Notice the animals in these examples? Metaphors work best when the object being compared TO is something well known and recognizable. It wouldn’t work to compare your neighbor to the sound of an obscure instrument. Are they annoying? Pleasant? Silent?

But in the hands of a skilled wordsmith, original metaphors will bring the words to life.

“Books are the mirrors of the soul.”

― Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts

“Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.”

― Truman Capote

Metaphors are a little trickier for both the writer and the audience. By stating one object is something else, it draws the attention of the reader, but it also calls into question the writer’s intent. The audience’s own knowledge and perspective can create an unintended effect.

Final writer’s tip: “Simile” has the letters “s” and “l” and it will always use the words “Like” or “aS.” Match the letters up, and you’ll know if you have a simile or a metaphor.

Featured image credit: BrianAJackson/ iStock

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