The terms metaphor and simile are slung around as if they meant exactly the same thing.
A simile is a metaphor, but not all metaphors are similes.
Metaphor is the broader term. In a literary sense metaphor is a rhetorical device that transfers the sense or aspects of one word to another. For example:
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas. — “The Highwayman,” Alfred Noyes
Here the moon is being compared to a sailing ship. The clouds are being compared to ocean waves. This is an apt comparison because sometimes banks of clouds shuttling past the moon cause the moon to appear to be moving and roiling clouds resemble churning water.
A simile is a type of metaphor in which the comparison is made with the use of the word like or its equivalent:
My love is like a red, red rose. — Robert Burns
This simile conveys some of the attributes of a rose to a woman: ruddy complexion, velvety skin, and fragrant scent.
She sat like Patience on a Monument, smiling at Grief. — Twelfth Night William Shakespeare
Here a woman is being compared to the allegorical statue on a tomb. The comparison evokes unhappiness, immobility, and gracefulness of posture and dress.
Some metaphors are apt. Some are not. The conscientious writer strives to come up with fresh metaphors.
A common fault of writing is to mix metaphors.
Before Uncle Jesse (Dukes of Hazzard) did it, some WWII general is reputed to have mixed the metaphor Don’t burn your bridges, meaning “Don’t alienate people who have been useful to you,” with Don’t cross that bridge before you come to it, meaning “Don’t worry about what might happen until it happens” to create the mixed metaphor: Don’t burn your bridges before you come to them.
Many metaphors are used so often that they have become cliché. We use them in speech, but the careful writer avoids them: hungry as a horse, as big as a house, hard as nails, as good as gold.
Some metaphors have been used so frequently as to lose their metaphorical qualities altogether. These are “dead metaphors.”
In our own time we have seen the word war slip into the state of a dead metaphor: the war on drugs, the war on poverty, the war on AIDS. In these uses the word means little more than “efforts to get rid of” and not, as the OED has it:
Hostile contention by means of armed forces, carried on between nations, states, or rulers, or between parties in the same nation or state; the employment of armed forces against a foreign power, or against an opposing party in the state.
In a sense, all language is metaphor because words are simply labels for things that exist in the world. We call something “a table” because we have to call it something, but the word is not the thing it names.
A simile is only one of dozens of specific types of metaphor. For a long and entertaining list of them, see the Wikipedia article on “Figure of Speech.”
Are All Cliches Metaphors?
No. Many metaphors (some of which are similes) have become clichés through overuse – think of things like “dead as a doornail”, “blue sky thinking”, “plenty more fish in the sea”, and “he has his tail between his legs”.
So many clichés are metaphors. But there are also some clichéd phrases that aren’t metaphors at all, such as:
- To be honest…
- Let’s face it…
- It goes without saying…
- Been there, done that.
(For a long list of clichés, many of them metaphors, check out 681 Clichés to Avoid in Your Creative Writing).
Should You Use Similes and Metaphors in Your Writing?
All types of metaphor, including similes, can be appropriate in writing.
Even clichés can be used in some circumstances – for instance, you might use them in dialog when writing fiction, either to help give the impression of realistic speech, or to assist in characterisation (perhaps one of your characters has a tendency to speak in clichés).
When you’re using similes and metaphors, you should:
- Pay careful attention to any worn or tired phrasings you use. Phrases like “fishing for compliments” or “bubbly personality” are metaphors that you might barely notice. They’re fine if you’re chatting to a friend, but not necessarily appropriate in formal writing.
- Be careful with extended metaphors. While these can be used to great literary effect, they may come across as overdone or forced in modern writing. (An extended metaphor is one that runs with the comparison over several sentences, e.g. Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages.” From As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII.
- Check you haven’t mixed two different metaphors. Again, this is easy to do with metaphors that have become part of everyday language. However, you’ll want to avoid writing sentences like “We need to think outside the box and sow the seeds to drive us forward” or “It might feel like we’re out of the frying pan and into the fire, but once we’ve crossed the next bridge, we’ll be able to get a bird’s eye view of the situation.”
- “Metaphor” and “simile” don’t mean quite the same thing. A “metaphor” is a rhetorical device that transfers the sense or aspects of one word to another. A “simile” is a type of metaphor that uses “like” or an equivalent word.
- You should avoid mixing metaphors (unless you’re intentionally striving for a humorous effect).
- You should also avoid using clichés, except in dialog. In some cases, dead metaphors (such as “war on…”) will be appropriate shorthand – particularly in journalism or in informal writing.
Metaphors and Similes Quiz
Each of these sentences contains either a metaphor or a simile (which is a type of metaphor). Select the correct one for each.