Simile vs. metaphor?

Metaphors and similes are forms of figurative language because they are figures of speech and thought. Similes use “like” or “as” to draw a direct comparison between subjects, while a metaphor replaces the literal meaning of one subject with something else.

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What is the difference between a simile and a metaphor?

Metaphors and similes are figures of speech that are found throughout the everyday language, whether it’s in poetry, essays, cultural truisms, advertising, or song lyrics. You might even use them without knowing, which we lovingly refer to as “dead metaphors” or clichés. 

And although most English students understand what it means to be “metaphorical,” learning the difference between a simile and a metaphor can feel abstract and confusing. This is especially true since the majority of Google results bombard students with literary terms like “figurative language,” “figures of speech” “tropes,” or “figures.” 

What do any of these terms mean to the average English speaker if they don’t study literature or understand English to begin with? To understand the difference between a simile and a metaphor, The Word Counter is going to take you through step-by-step to explain this literary vocabulary and help you understand how these terms are different from one another. 

What is figurative language?

As mentioned before, similes and metaphors are figures of speech, which is a form of figurative language. According to The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, figurative language involves the use of figures of speech to modify literal interpretations or to provide additional connotations (Murfin 177). Thus, all writing that uses figures of speech is called figurative language.

Metaphors + similes = Figures of speech
Figures of speech = Figurative language
Figurative language = Metaphors + similes

What is a figure of speech?

The traditional way to understand figures of speech is to recognize that it’s a literary device that associates two distinct subjects with one another. The primary signifier of figures of speech includes unusual word orders and the separation of the literal meaning from a word to produce an obscure mental image. In general, we can divide figures of speech into two categories: rhetorical figures and tropes (Murfin 178).

Rhetorical figures vs. tropes

Otherwise known as schemes, rhetorical figures use language to elicit a response without altering the meaning of the words themselves. Rhetorical figures allow writing to convey meaning, persuade, evoke emotion, or extract a mental image. 

The six major types of rhetorical figures include:

  • Antithesis
  • Apostrophe
  • Chiasmus
  • Parallelism
  • Syllepsis
  • Zeugma 

In contrast, tropes allow writers to change the literal meaning behind words. Similes and metaphors are key examples of tropes because they can transfer meaning from one unrelated subject to another. 

The five principle tropes are also the most recognizable figures of speech: 

  • Metaphor
  • Metonymy
  • Personification
  • Simile
  • Synecdoche

Other familiar tropes include hyperbole, auxesis, and amplification. There are times when irony is a trope because of its ability to say one thing and mean the exact opposite (Murfin 252). 

Learning about tropes in regards to figures of speech is confusing because tropes are also “figures of thought.” But make no mistake, figures of speech and figures of thought do not exist as an equal dichotomy. When tropes are figures of thought, a figure of thought is a subset of figures of speech (Murfin 526). 

In summary:

Similes + metaphors = Figures of speech
Figures of speech = Rhetorical figures + tropes
Tropes = Similes + metaphors
Tropes = Figures of thought
Similes + metaphors = figures of speech + figures of tropes 

Figures of thought vs. figures of speech

A figure of thought is a figure of speech, although they are subtly different from one another by definition. A figure of thought changes the way language is perceived in that it misuses English grammar, but it’s permitted by use. For example, the phrase “all hands on deck” replaces the word “sailor” with “hands,” but most English speakers understand what this phrase means. 

In contrast, a figure of speech is noticeable to the visual and auditory senses, such as rhyming, alliteration, or anaphora, which is the repetition of words at the beginning of sentences.

Because similes and metaphors are both figures of thought and speech, they can misuse English grammar in a way that’s permissible by use, and they can affect their audience’s visual and auditory senses. 

Logical vs. illogical figurative language

As we now know, tropes such as similes, metaphors, and metonymy are all figures of speech, but there’s also a logical hierarchy to help distinguish figurative language. For example, metonymy and synecdoche relate topics that are directly related, while metaphors, similes, and irony associate ideas that are not directly related. 

As Abraham Orden points out within “Metaphor, metonymy,” the White House is a metonymic symbol because it can represent the entire U.S. government. A metaphorical symbol, however, resembles its original meaning while conveying something entirely different. 

The Versace clothing logo, for example, uses the head of Medusa, which is a Greek mythological figure. But when people see the Versace logo, they think about high-end fashion, certainly not a banished gorgon that turns people into stone. 

In summary:

Metonymy + synecdoche = logical relations + direct associations
Metaphors + similes + irony = illogical relations + indirect associations

Why do we use metaphors and similes?

Creative writers use figurative language to be imaginative and elaborate, but they specifically use similes and metaphors to express abstract concepts, or sometimes, to use coded symbolic imagery. 

In this sense, we can use figurative language in the same way that we create movies or podcasts–– we can use language like images or sounds to provide additional context and breadth to our sentences. 

What is a simile?

A simile is a figure of speech that compares subjects that are unalike. We can recognize a simile through words such as “like” or “as,” which compare subjects to one another. 

More specifically, a simile uses “like” and “as” to associate or connect a vehicle, the sentence subject, to a tenor, which is the mental image or comparison. A common simile example occurs in William Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It:

‘I found him under a tree, like a dropped acorn (3.2.82).’ 

As we can see, the main subject or vehicle of the sentence is “him,” and “like a” connects him to the tenor, “a dropped acorn.” 

There is more than one type of simile, too. An epic or Homeric simile is one that extends the tenor and vehicle so far apart that the tenor is nearly obscured. As noted by The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, an epic simile occurs within Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1821 poem, “Adonis:” 

‘Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments…’ (Murfin 477)

Etymology of the word simile

The word simile stems from Latin similis, which means “similar, like.” According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, the first known use of the word simile occurred within the Middle English of the 14th century.

What is a metaphor?

A metaphor is an elaborate figure of speech where the literal meaning of a phrase or word replaces the concept of a different word. An example of a metaphor comes from Shakespeare’s comedy, As You Like It:

My better parts/ Are all thrown down, and that which here stands up/ Is but a quintain, a mere lifeless block (1.2.129-131).’ 

As we can see, a man compares himself or his “better parts” to a quintain, which is a post intended for target or jousting practice. This particular metaphor is similar to that of, “I’m not your punching bag,” which relates a body to an object subjected to violence for entertainment. 

The primary difference between similes and metaphors is that metaphors omit connective words such as “like” to link the phrase’s vehicle to its tenor. Within a metaphor, the idea or image that replaces the literal meaning of a word is a tenor, while the actual word that is changed is called a vehicle (Murfin 297). 

For example, the sentence “life is a dream,” metaphorically replaces the word “life” to “dream” by stating that “life” is a “dream.” In this case, the word “life” is the vehicle, and the word “dream” is the tenor. 

Etymology of the word metaphor

The word metaphor originates from Greek metapherein, which means “to transfer.” The first known use of metaphor in the English language occurred in the late 15th century after its translation from French métaphore

Examples of metaphors and similes

We can find metaphors and similes within several types of written communication, but they often occur within poetry, fiction, and song lyrics. This is especially true for hip-hop and rap music, where most artists relate to the world around them through metaphors, similes, euphemisms, and other types of rhythmic prose. 

Examples of similes

Poetry:

“O my Luve is like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June.” 
–– “A Red, Red Rose” by Robert Burns.

Literature:

“Childbirth is like jazz. Muhammad Ali is like jazz. Philadelphia is like jazz. Jazz is like jazz. Everything is like jazz except for me.” 
–– “The Sellout” by Paul Beatty.  

Metaphor examples

Poetry:

“Daddy, I have had to kill you.   
You died before I had time——
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God…” 
–– “Daddy” by Sylvia Plath.

Literature:

“… The slow crumbling of my faith, the pulverization of my fortress – from the time, about a year after I had begun to preach, when I began to read again.”
–– “The Fire Next Time” by James Baldwin. 

What’s the difference between metaphors vs. similes vs. irony?

Because similes and metaphors operate under the same logic, they’re easy to confuse. Where they collide in meaning is that a simile compares subjects, while a metaphor becomes a subject. 

For example,

Simile: “She’s fast like a fox.”
Metaphor: “She’s a fox.”

Both sentences use an animal to describe a person, but their metaphorical vs. simile usage alters the way the sentence is understood. The simile compares a female’s speed to that of a fox, meaning she is quick moving. The metaphor uses the female’s body to represent a fox, where a female fox is called a “vixen,” and thus alludes to the idea that the female is beautiful.

If we changed the animal for the simile, we could also use irony–– which functions through commonality in the way that metaphors can. 

Ironic simile: “She’s fast like a turtle.”

For this example, the sentence compares a female to a turtle to indicate that she’s slow-moving, but it’s also ironic because it’s stating something to mean the exact opposite. 

There are times when irony separates audiences based on their ability to recognize its presence. A great example of this comes from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, where Juliet ironically claims that her “grave” is likely to be her “wedding bed.” If an audience is unaware that Juliet dies on her wedding bed, they might mistake this line as a metaphor instead of irony

Beware of allegories vs. irony and metaphors vs. allegories

Similar to irony, allegory is a literary device that communicates one thing but means another. But unlike irony, allegory is used throughout a piece of work, such as through a fable or parable. In fact, irony is a subset of allegory, so it’s essential to recognize how figurative languages are not always equal. 

An allegory presents a storyline that has a clear secondary meaning throughout the body of writing. This is also the main difference between an allegory and a metaphor: metaphors transfer the attributes from one word to another to convey an idea, while allegories transfer the qualities of something to an entire narrative to present an idea or teach a lesson. 

What’s the difference between metaphors vs. similes vs. analogies?

Like the metaphor or simile, an analogy draws a comparison between two things. What sets an analogy apart from a simile, is that an analogies comparison clarifies or explains an idea. Analogies also tend to be more vivid than metaphors or similes, since analogies tend to compare two starkly different concepts by attributing their unfamiliar characteristics to something recognizable. 

A relatively recent and popular simile comes from the 1994 movie Forrest Gump, when the main character says, “Life is like a box of chocolates.” This line is a simile since it’s comparing the concept of life to a box of assorted chocolates, but audiences forget how the line is followed with, “You never know what you’re gonna get.” The full quote is actually more of an analogy than a simile because it’s comparing two unique ideas and explaining how they are connected. 

FAQ: Related to simile vs. metaphor

What is a dead metaphor?

A dead metaphor is a clichéd word or phrase that has lost meaning due to overuse. Examples of dead metaphors include “time is running out” or “hit the nail on the head.” 

What is a mixed metaphor?

A mixed metaphor occurs when parts of speech combine metaphors that are inconsistent with their original meaning. For example, Rush Limbaugh once wrote: 

“I knew enough to realize that the alligators were in the swamp and that it was time to circle the wagons.”

Test Yourself!

Consider the following passage from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet for the first three questions: 

“But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun” (2.2.2-3).

  1. Is the passage an example of a metaphor or a simile? 
    1. Simile
    2. Metaphor
    3. Mixed Metaphor
    4. A and B
  2. Identify the vehicle within the passage’s second line.
    1. Light
    2. East
    3. Juliet
    4. Sun
  3. Identify the tenor within the passage’s second line.
    1. Window breaks
    2. East
    3. Juliet
    4. Sun
  4. True or false: Metaphors transfer or change the meaning of dissimilar things or concepts. 
    1. True
    2. False
  5. True or false: An antithesis is a type of metaphor. 
    1. True 
    2. False

Answers

  1. C
  2. D
  3. A
  4. B

Sources

  1. Analogy.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
  2. Baldwin, J (1963). “Quotable Quote.” Goodreads, Inc., 2020. 
  3. Beatty, P. “The Sellout: A Novel.Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015, pp. 16. 
  4. Burns, R (1794). “A Red, Red Rose.” Poetry Foundation, 2020. 
  5. Cummings, M. “As You Like It Study Guide.” Shakespeare Study Guide, 2019.
  6. Dead metaphor.”  The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  7. Glossary of Literary Terms.” Faculty of English, University of Cambridge, 2020. 
  8. Hayman, L. “Metaphor Mix.” The New York Times Magazine, 24 Oct 2018. 
  9. Irony.” Definition and Examples of Literary Terms, Literary Devices, 2020. 
  10. Metaphor.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
  11. Metaphor.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  12. Mixed metaphor.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  13. Murfin, R. and Ray, S.M. “The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms.” Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, pp. 177-526. 
  14. Orden, A. “Metaphor, metonymy.” Theories of Media, The University of Chicago, 2004.
  15. Plath, S (1965). “Daddy.” Poetry Foundation, 2020. 
  16. Shakespeare, W. “Romeo and Juliet.” Translated by Ben Florman. LitCharts, 2020. 
  17. Simile.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  18. Simile.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
  19. Using Metaphors in Creative Writing.” Purdue Online Writing Lab, Purdue University, 2020. Walz, J. “The Power of Metaphors.” SPeak Performance: Using the Power of Metaphors to Communicate Vision, Business Expert Press, 2004, pp. 3-4.