What’s the difference between a simile and a metaphor?

Posted on October 23, 2008

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My critique group was discussing which makes for better writing, similes or metaphors. I felt stupid because I said they’re sort of the same. The rest of the group said I was totally wrong. Now I’m confused. What’s the difference between a simile and a metaphor?

Don’t be so hard on yourself. Understanding similes and metaphors can be confusing. I always say you know it when you see it – meaning a simile or a metaphor.

Actually, you were on the right track. A simile is a type of metaphor. Still confused? The reason they can be confusing is because similes and metaphors basically accomplish the same thing by comparing things that are not alike, or unrelated to one another. But they accomplish this is different ways.

Simile

A simile uses two different nouns to create an image (or description). The words “like” or “as” are usually involved.

The kitten’s fur was like silk.

Although fur is nothing like silk, the reader knows this means the fur is soft and smooth – like silk.

Her nose was as cold as a snowflake.

Again, a nose and snowflake are two completely different things, yet comparison creates a more vivid description.

Metaphor

A metaphor is a figure of speech. You say one thing when you really mean something entirely different.

My grandma’s a peach.

Of course everyone knows Grandma’s not really a juicy fruit that grows on trees. She’s a very sweet lady.

My car is a gem.

If my car was really a gem I couldn’t drive it. In this case, the reader knows it’s special.

In the literary world a metaphor is considered stronger than a simile simply because it requires more skill to create, and often packs more punch than a simile.

In her article It’s Like This: Mastering Similes & Metaphors (scroll down to Item 7), Laura Backes says, “Similes are easier, and can be more effective for younger readers.” So whether one is preferred over the other depends on your targeted age group. Skilled writers use both.

Below are some examples of really bad similes and metaphors taken from the Washington Post’s Style invitational which had invited readers to submit really bad writing.

Enjoy!

Every year, English teachers from across the country submit their most amusing similes and metaphors gleaned from high school essays. Here are some of the winners from 2007:

He spoke with the wisdom that can only come from experience, like a guy who went blind because he looked at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it and now goes around the country speaking at high schools about the dangers of looking at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it.
 
She grew on him like she was a colony of E.Coli, and he was room-temperature Canadian beef. 

She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up. 

Her hair glistened in the rain like a nose hair after a sneeze.
 
John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.
 
Even in his last years, Granddad had a mind like a steel trap, only one that had been left out so long, it had rusted shut.
 
The ballerina rose gracefully en Pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.
 
It was an American tradition, like fathers chasing kids around with power tools.
 
He was deeply in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a garbage truck backing up.

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