What is the Difference Between Metaphor and Simile?

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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.”

Summing Up

  • “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.

  • 1. Her smile was like the first drop of rain after a drought.

  • 2. When you quit a job, it’s best not to burn your bridges.


  • 3. That’s the sort of blue sky thinking I like to see.

  • 4. He was a snake in the grass.


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23 thoughts on “What is the Difference Between Metaphor and Simile?”

  1. Any thoughts on “allegory” (since it was used in the post)? Seems to me (perhaps incorrectly) to be part of the same kettle of fish.

  2. I don’t know about this. Without metaphors, cliches, appositions, and tropes, reading blogs will not be as much fun.

    My thinking is best to strike a balance. A little sprinkling may do the body (content) good.

  3. I’m fairly sure that the simile “My love is like a red, red rose” is not describing a woman with a ruddy complexion who smells nice. Burns says in the next line that the aspect of the rose he is referring to is that it’s newly sprung in June. Thats it’s brand new and vibrant. Also, it’s not clear from the poem whether he is comparing a red rose to a woman or to the love he feels for the woman.

  4. Lisa,
    One aspect of poetic expression is ambiguity. Metaphors and symbols can be what’s called “multivalent.” That is, they can have more than one meaning. The dagger in the air that Macbeth sees before he kills Duncan is several things at once–his guilty conscience, his guilty purpose, and a hallucination. A metaphor is like a pebble dropped in water. It sends out circles of suggested meanings that stop only when the reader stops responding to them. The love the poet feels and the woman who is the object of it mingle. To see the image as applying to both the woman and the love she engenders in the poet is a valid interpretation.

  5. Maeve,

    Yes, the ambiguity is what is most fun about poetry. Whether Burns is talking about his love for the woman or the woman herself is indeed ambiguous and makes for an interesting poem. However, I still think you’re taking the poem too literally in saying the red rose refers to the way the woman looks. Any more than the next line, “My Luve’s like a melodie/that’s sweetly play’d in tune” refers literally to the sounds the woman makes. I think if you look at the first stanza as a whole, it conjures up the image of a woman who is young and vibrant and who makes the man feel transcendent, like music can. Not a red-faced woman who’s wearing perfume and walking around humming to herself.

  6. A good piece. One caveat: the act of “naming”, the association of a sound to an object, is not metaphor. Perhaps a “sound map” would be a better description. No one would assert that the word table has legs 🙂
    No one takes a word for the object. Thus, language is not “all metaphor”. A metaphor occurs when we take a word for another word—a literary device—, not a word for an object. Taking a word for an object is a form of magic, or literary realism; a delusion.

  7. How would you categorize “The lunatics are running the asylum” ?

    Especially when characterizing the absurd policies in a modern office.

  8. Note to Ploppy: don’t be mislead by the examples: « hungry as a horse, as big as a house, hard as nails, as good as gold … » these are similes, explicit comparisons, not metaphors. A metaphor avoids using the words ‘as’ and ‘like’. For example: “Tell colossus over there to stop showing off” or “She is the whore of Babylon.” are metaphors.
    Saying « he is like a colossus » isn’t a metaphor because of the explicit comparison made by using ‘like’. To turn a simile into a metaphor, get rid of ‘like’: “He is a colossus among men”. Hope this helps. If you need a “heavy” reference for figures of speech, please see Richard A Lanham’s _A handlist of Rhetorical Terms_, University of California Press, 1991.

  9. The way to remember which is which is by memorizing what you need in a metaphor. In a metaphor you’re either using like or as to compare something. In a simile you’re doing the same thing but taking out the like and/or as in the sentence.

  10. Gwen,
    Way to confuse the aspiring grammarian. The proper use of metaphor and simile is the opposite. Simile uses term for comparison “like’ or “as”, metaphor draws upon the comparison implicitly.

  11. Unfortunately, this information you post here about a simile being a metaphor is incorrect. A metaphor is not the broader term. The broader term for both of these words is “figure of speech”–also, “figurative language.”

    The function of both a metaphor and a simile is to express a comparison between two dissimilar things. We do not mean the comparison literally at all. Such comparison–or transfers of meaning from one word or entity to another–communicates a figurative truth rather than a literal one. You erroneously identify simile as a specific form or metaphor when the accurate explanation is that both a simile and a metaphor are two distinctly different forms of Figurative Language.

    Their disctintive differences are determined by how close the comparison is between the words. (Again, note that the broader concept for both these devices is “comparison,” which in this case is referring to the figurative relationship.)

    A simile makes this comparison using “like,” “as,” “than,” or “resembles” to link the two nouns.

    A metaphor makes this comparison by using the verb in the sentence to link the two nouns. There are, in fact, two different kinds of metaphors–a direct metaphor and an implied metaphor. A direct metaphor uses a “to be” verb to link the nouns; an implied metaphor uses an action verb to link the nouns.


    Simile — “Mt. Rainier is LIKE a sleeping giant.”
    The word “like” links Rainier and giant.

    Direct Metaphor — “Mt. Rainier IS a sleeping giant.”
    The word “is” links Rainier and giant.

    Implied Metaphor — “Mt. Rainier SLEEPS dormantly.”
    The word “sleeps” links Rainier to the implied human form not specifically mentioned.

    All three are very different rhetorical forms of a broader concept–figurative language. They differ in the imaginitive distance the author chooses to employ when making the comparison (a simile communicating the most distance between the two items being compared and an implied metaphor communicating the least distance).

    Therefore, a person would be incorrect in saying, “All similes are metaphors, but not all metaphors are similes.” This is simply not true because a metaphor is not a broader term that contains the simile form. The correct way to form this sentence is as follows: “All similes are figures of speech, but not all figures of speech are similes.”

    Thank you.

  12. “Life is like a simile, but it’s actually a mixed metaphor where people count on burning their bridges before they hatch.” -me

  13. Meave,

    I totally agree with Lisa. When I read that, I thought, “Isn’t he talking about how he feels about the woman not what he thinks she looks like? ” I think it is possible, that he is referring to her physical appearance but more likely he is describing his love for her and how it (his love) grows in comparison to a red rose.

    That’s the beauty of poetry, writing and the use of metaphors and similes. It’s alittle different to every reader but only the author knows his/her true intention.

    That’s my two cents.

  14. I agree with Lisa. I think it’s unlikely that the poet is comparing her (physically) to a red rose, ‘ruddy-faced’ and ‘fragrant scent.’ But poetry is different to everyone; so I could be wrong.

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