Simile Vs. Metaphor: What’s The Difference?

This articles compares simile vs. metaphor and explains how and when to use both.

Each is a figurative language strategy English language writers use to enhance their messages. Similes and metaphors make comparisons between two different things.

When writers explore similar qualities, or traits, of two different things, such as a person and an animal or a room and the weather, s/he uses similes or metaphors. The main difference between these two figures of speech is that similes use the words “like” or “as” to compare one thing or idea to another.

A metaphor identifies one thing or idea to another without using “like” or “as.” While you might have heard of these literary devices, you might find using them a bit more challenging.

The article below demystifies these figures of speech so you can incorporate them into your writing with ease.

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Everyday Uses of Similes and Metaphors

People use similes and metaphors in everyday language, often without even realizing they are using them. For example, one might say, “You're as busy as a bee,” employing a simile, while another might say, “Oh my, aren't you a busy bee?” using a metaphor.

Or someone might say, “You are as tall as a giant!” (simile), while another concludes, “You are a giant” (metaphor). As you grow more aware of using similes and metaphors in speaking, you can more readily use them in written language.

Let's look more closely at each of these types of figurative language.

What Is A Simile?

Use a simile to make a direct comparison between the qualities of two different things. You connect these two things by using “like” or “as.”  Then you draw upon the comparison by outlining what they have in common.

Example of Similes

The movie Forrest Gump made famous the saying, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get.”

Life isn't literally a box of chocolates, but the title character used a simile because he wanted the listener to understand the comparison between life and a box of chocolates. Hence, the next statement: You never know what you're going to get. 

The listener has a mental image of reaching into a box of chocolates and choosing a piece of candy without knowing what's in its center. Is it caramel or nuts, cream or marshmallow?

After taking a bite, SURPRISE! You learn the sweet center's flavor. The comparison between chocolates and life grows more evident as the listener continues to think about the simile.

Life also holds many surprises. One day might offer a happy surprise of a new bike or friend. The next day might hold the horrible shock of a loved one dying. You never know what life holds from one day to the next.

Below are examples of more common similes. Consider what the writer is trying to get you, the reader, to think about when making the comparison using “like” or “as.”

  • As light as a feather
  • As cold as ice
  • As hot as fire
  • As quiet as a mouse
  • As sly as a fox
  • As quick as a gazelle

A simile, then, makes creative writing more interesting for the reader. Similes add depth and interest to a topic.

Whether you're writing an essay or poem, song lyrics, or an advertisement, similes make a comparison as juicy and unforgettable as…well…fresh-squeezed orange juice! 

What Is a Metaphor?

Similar to the simile, a metaphor makes a connection between the qualities of two different things. However, in making the comparison, the words “like” or “as” are not used.

This difference is important because, when using a metaphor, the thing or quality takes on the characteristics of the object of comparison. In a sense, thing A becomes thing B.

Examples of Metaphors

Consider the William Shakespeare play, Romeo and Juliet. In this classic love story, Romeo describes his feelings about his one true love in Act 2, Scene 2:

But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?

It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon….

Within these three lines, Shakespeare uses metaphor to compare Juliet and the sun. Juliet doesn't literally become the sun, but she does embody its radiance.

The reader of this play thinks about the brightness, warmth, joy, and Life the sun brings to the world. Everything the sun offers, Juliet provides to Romeo.

In line three from above, the reader's mind envisions how the rising of the morning sun far outshines the moon, and Juliet in her beauty far outshines anything around her. As the reader continues to think about how the sun shines and what it offers to the world, s/he also gets a clearer picture of who Juliet is and what she means to Romeo. 

Below are a few more examples of metaphors. Consider what the writer is trying to get you, the reader, to think about as one thing becomes, or takes on the qualities of, another thing.

  • Cry me a river 
  • The snow is a white, shiny blanket.
  • Her eyes are windows to her soul.
  • My dad is a couch potato.
  • The team is a volcano of power.

Four Common Types of Metaphors

standard metaphor compares one thing to another, as in the example, “My dad is a couch potato.”

In a visual metaphor, two unlike things sharing similar qualities might be pictured together. In the example, “The team is a volcano of power,” imagine a picture of an athletic team and an erupting volcano in the background.

Check out this great list of visual metaphors.

The message suggests the team is strong, powerful, and explosive, similar to a volcano. The above example, “Cry me a river,” illustrates a type of metaphor called an implied metaphor, meaning the metaphor being used is suggested rather than direct.

The person crying might have many tears, but s/he certainly will not create a river from those tears. An extended metaphor extends or flows through several lines or sentences. The Romeo and Juliet passage shows an example of an extended metaphor.

Beware of Mixed Metaphors

A mixed metaphor occurs when a writer combines two metaphors that don't go together.  For example, a company president might say, “Let's run this project down the field and finish with a slam dunk!”

The speaker combines two different sports metaphors—football and basketball—to complete a successful project. The message is confusing.

Instead, the president could say, “Let's run this project down the field and finish with a touchdown!” A metaphor, then, makes writing more visual to the mind.

Metaphors add depth and richness to a topic. Whether you're writing a play or poem, essay or news article, metaphors turn a boring piece of writing into an exciting, adventurous…space odyssey of discovery!

When To Use a Simile or a Metaphor

One question remains, and that is, “When might you choose to use a simile instead of a metaphor, or conversely, a metaphor instead of a simile when you're writing?” Using these elements of figurative language takes practice, but as you're writing and revising, ask yourself these two questions:

  1. “Do I want to bring a quick punch to an idea without building upon the comparison?” If your answer is yes, use a simile. 
  2. “Do I want to build upon the comparison” If your answer to this question is yes, use a metaphor.

In the case of the first answer, consider this example:

   Her arthritic hands were bent and gnarled like an old fruit tree.

Here, you want to create a visual image of your character's hands, no more, no less. 

In the case of the second answer, ponder this example:

   Her life is a fruitless tree. Her mind is unproductive. Her arthritic hands are bent and gnarled. She offers little nourishment to those around her….

In this example, you stand and linger in the comparison, creating more profound meaning. 

Simile Vs. Metaphor: The Final Word

By now, you understand what similes and metaphors are, how to use them, and why you should use them in your writing. Comparing two different things builds a bridge between the reader and you.

Similes and metaphors help the reader understand what you're trying to convey and help the reader relate to your portrayal. After all, isn't that what writing is all about—creating a relationship between you and the reader?

You have something important to say. Readers can get that message from you. Similes and metaphors help you say it more excitingly and appealingly.

Author

  • Tammy Tilley has taught Language Arts and college writing courses for over 35 years. She has written for almost as many years, primarily human interest stories for newspapers, magazines, online sources, and for the tourism industry. She makes her home in the Midwest.

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