Commonly Confused

‘Metaphor’ vs. ‘Simile’

Shall we compare thee to a summer’s day? Yes, two different ways!

What to Know

A simile is a figure of speech that compares two otherwise dissimilar things, often introduced by the words like or as (‘you are like a summer’s day’). A metaphor is when a word is used in place of another to suggest a likeness (‘you are a summer’s day’).

dog with rose in mouth

This pup is a master of both simile and metaphor

Many people learn the words simile and metaphor as part of a poetry class in school, but these figures of speech aren’t solely found in poetry. People use metaphors and similes daily in all types of communication for a variety of purposes, often without even realizing it. If you’re having trouble navigating the neighborhood (metaphor!) between metaphors and similes, here’s how to tell them apart like a boss (simile!).


Using Similes

How’s the weather in your neck of the woods? If it’s partly cloudy, you might tell a friend that a certain puffy cloud looks like an elephant (or a car, or a turtle—you do you). If a storm is approaching, maybe the thunder sounds like a drum set, thrown down a flight of stairs. If the storm is already overhead, it might be as loud as waves crashing on the shore. Each of these expressions is an example of a simile, “a figure of speech comparing two unlike things that is often introduced by like or as.”

Poets, lyricists, and other writers often use similes wonderfully and creatively. In her poem “Surety,” Jane Huffman uses simile to compare the titular feeling to a number of concepts using the adverb as: “I’m sure as sweat / that follows heat,” “I’m sure as blood / that follows / meat.” And who can forget Nelly Furtado’s simile-bearing earworm “I’m Like a Bird”? Not us, certainly, and since 2000. But conversational speech is peppered with similes, too, and that makes us as happy as clams at high tide.

More examples of similes:

—Hungry like a wolf
—Cute as a button
—Tough as leather
—Work like a dream
—Drawn like a moth to a flame  

Using Metaphors

Continuing with weather, is it raining cats and dogs where you live? Or is the rain coming down in buckets? Probably neither of those, at least literally. But if you’re speaking metaphorically, and we bet you are, then we hope your garden is at least getting a much-needed drink.

RELATED: Your Body is a Metaphor

A metaphor is similar to a simile in that it is a figure of speech used “to suggest a likeness or analogy between” two things, but without the prepositions “like” or “as.” In other words, a metaphor is a more direct comparison “in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another.” When we use metaphor, we make a leap beyond rational, ho-hum comparison to an identification or fusion of two objects, resulting in a new entity that has characteristics of both: the voice isn't just like silk, it is silk.

More examples of metaphors:

—Life is a highway
—Blanket of snow
—Heart of gold
—All the world’s a stage
—Hope is the thing with feathers

Using a Simile vs. Using a Metaphor: Not Just Splitting Hairs

Using a metaphor can give a bit more oomph to a sentence, statement, or verse than using a simile. But that might not always be the right path to take. In The Poet’s Dictionary: A Handbook of Prosody and Poetic Devices, the late William Packard deftly explained the relative charms of metaphors and similes: “If Martin Luther had said, ‘Our God is like a mighty fortress,” his statement would not have carried the full force of the metaphorical ‘Our God is a mighty fortress.’ Conversely, if Robert Burns had said, ‘My love is a red, red rose,” he would have lost some of the delicate subtlety of the simile statement, ‘My love’s like a red, red rose.’”

MORE TO EXPLORE: 31 Useful Rhetorical Devices

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