Simile vs. metaphor


Consider three sentences, based on a comment by Morley Safer on the radio show Car Talk:

  1. The Renault in my garage is a crouching tiger.
  2. The Renault in my garage is like a crouching tiger.
  3. The Renault in my garage is like a BMW.

Sentences 2 and 3 both use the word “like” but are very different kinds of comparison. Sentence 3 is fact-oriented; 2 is imaginative, an example of figurative language.

Both 1 and 2 are figurative (they paint a picture). Sentence 2 is a simile because it uses “like” (or “as”) to make an explicit comparison. Sentence 1 is a metaphor because the comparison is implied rather than stated.

The difference between a metaphor and a simile is usually a minor matter, hardly worth noticing. In a few cases, a simile may come across as less passionate, more detached, because of the “like” or “as” phrasing:

METAPHOR: When I saw her, my heart caught fire.

SIMILE: When I saw her, it was as though my heart caught fire.

In a general discussion of figurative language, the term “metaphor” may encompass all such comparisons – similes as well as metaphors. During Metaphor Awareness Month, we keep an eagle eye out for figurative comparisons of any stripe.

Photo: Karl Stull; tiger from Did It Best

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