English is a complicated language, even for native English speakers. One of the hardest things to understand is the difference between a simile and a metaphor. Often, even if someone understands the difference, they still have trouble using them appropriately. But don’t worry, I’m here to help.
Simile vs. metaphor: What’s the difference?
A simile provides a direct comparison between different things. It usually uses the words “like” or “as”. Metaphors are subtle. They do not use direct comparisons and do not typically use the words “like” or “as”.
Similes and metaphors are both ways to show how two or more different things are similar. But it’s much more complicated than that. Let’s pick them apart!
Simile vs Metaphor: More Differences & Nuances
Those short articles and videos can be helpful if you already understand similes and metaphors a little.
But what do you do if you don’t know anything about them yet? That’s where I come in! I’ve taught this to a lot of people, and now it’s your turn.
Often, it’s best to look at multiple examples and dissect them, pointing out each part. We’ll do that here, but before we begin, here are a few points to get you started.
Similes are more direct than metaphors. They are usually easier to understand because they’re plainly stated. They’re also much more common than metaphors so you’ll hear them more often.
Similes are often considered “everyday comparisons” because they’re easy to spot, easy to make up, and easier to understand than metaphors.
You may recognize this famous simile: Life is like a box of chocolates. See the word “like” in there? That’s a simile!
Metaphors are more abstract. They’re usually used in songs, poems, and fanciful speeches. They’re complicated and often misunderstood. Most people can’t tell the difference between a metaphor and a simile!
Lovers of poetry and romance novels have probably seen enough metaphors to make their heads spin. While there is nothing wrong with using metaphors, they are easy to overuse and can confuse your audience. It’s best not to use them unless you truly understand how they work.
Similes have the same problem. They aren’t nearly as romantic, but they can still become a crutch when writers or speakers are at a loss for words. It can be tiring as a reader when the writer keeps comparing things directly.
Understanding the differences between similes and metaphors will help you avoid overuse or misuse. The best way to help people understand the difference between similes and metaphors is to show examples.
I’ll cover a lot of examples and show you how to pick similes and metaphors apart to tell the difference. But I have some other tips and tricks for you, too. Let’s dig in!
We’ll start with the harder of the two: metaphors. Don’t worry if you don’t understand them right away. Read the whole article and it will start to make sense. Beginning with metaphors will help you see how much easier similes are.
Metaphors are abstract and are often hard to understand. Metaphors call something (an object or a person) something else entirely (a different object or person). Here’s an example: Laughter is the music of the soul.
Notice the word “is”? That’s calling something (laughter) something else (the music of the soul).
Obviously, laughter isn’t literally your soul making music. The saying simply means that laughter is pure and comes from the soul. It’s made the comparison between laughter and music by actually calling laughter music.
Another way to look at metaphors is using yourself as the subject. Sometimes that helps solidify the idea in your mind. You can better imagine yourself as something else.
Here’s an example: I am the light in the dark.
This is a metaphor because I’m calling something (myself) something else entirely (the light). I’m not actually a light, but I’m calling myself the light to express that I am a positive force in a difficult situation.
In this case, I’m the light in the dark for you when it comes to explaining the difference between similes and metaphors!
And here’s a fun metaphor to get your brain working: Life is a garden and it’s time to do some weeding!
This is a complex metaphor because I’m not only comparing life to something else (a garden) I’m also implying it’s time to get rid of bad people (weeding)!
Okay, how about a simpler one?
I’m on an emotional rollercoaster!
By now you know that even if I say I am something or that I’m on something, I’m not really. So, with this last metaphor, I’m not literally sitting on a rollercoaster. I’m saying that my emotions are going up and down and turning in loops. By saying I’m on an emotional rollercoaster, you can visualize that my emotions are all over the place.
And that’s what metaphors are really about. Helping to paint a mental image of something to help you draw a comparison.
Metaphors are complicated, I know. This is one reason you mostly see metaphors in flowery prose, poems, and love songs. Sometimes they are beautiful and graceful. Other times they’re so abstract and hard to understand they just frustrate readers.
Similes, on the other hand, are fairly easy to understand, especially compared to metaphors.
Similes always directly compare two or more things. Similes will almost always use the word “like” or the word “as”. That makes them much easier to spot.
Our first simile example is a common saying in the United States: It’s as light as a feather.
We know this is a simile because the word “as” is used. We’re comparing the weight of one object (it’s—whatever “it” happens to be) to an object that everyone knows is very light (a feather). By making that comparison, we know the object doesn’t weigh very much. It’s light as a feather.
In the simile tough as nails, we know that whatever we’re comparing is really tough and strong because nails are tough and strong. Same for as cold as ice. Everyone knows ice is cold, so whatever we’re comparing to ice must also be very cold.
So far, we’ve only looked at similes with “as” in them. Let’s take a peek at some with “like”.
They fight like cats and dogs.
Unless cats and dogs are raised in the same household together, they usually fight and chase each other. In this simile, we see that whoever “they” are, they fight pretty viciously.
What about this one?
My headache is pounding like a hammer.
Notice the word “like”? That tells you it’s a simile.
My headache isn’t literally a hammer, but most people understand how hard a hammer can hit. By saying my headache is pounding like a hammer, I’m directly comparing my headache to that hammer. You immediately understand that my head hurts a lot.
Maybe it’s all this talk about similes and metaphors!
How do I tell the difference between a simile and a metaphor?
Hopefully, you’ve got a better idea about similes and metaphors by now. But I’m not done helping you yet! Here are some ways you can try to figure out if something is a simile or a metaphor.
Simile sounds like similar. When two things are similar, they are like each other. Similes often use the word like.
Metaphors are dreamy and whimsical, while similes are directly stated. I am the wind in the trees compared to I am like the wind in the trees.
Metaphors are all about painting a mental picture for your reader or your listeners. Similes can paint a picture, but they give an obvious example, too.
Metaphors are the thing, while similes are like the thing. My kids are rainbows of joy compared to Her voice is like a sweet song.
(More) Simile vs Metaphor: Examples
Here are a few more similes and metaphors to try out. I won’t tell you which one is which; that’s for you to decide. You can scroll to the end of this section for the answers, but try to figure it out first!
My pillow is as soft as a cloud.
He has the heart of a lion.
The dog eats like a pig.
You are my sunshine.
Metaphor vs. Simile: Answers
My pillow is as soft as a cloud. This is a simile because it uses the word “as”.
He has the heart of a lion. This is a metaphor because he doesn’t literally have a lion’s heart beating in his chest.
The dog eats like a pig. This is a simile because we’re directly comparing a dog to a pig. It also uses the word “like”.
You are my sunshine. This is a metaphor because while you’ve definitely brightened up my life by reading this article, you’re not literally a flaming ball of gas floating in space.
What is an idiom?
Is an idiom the same thing as a metaphor or simile? No. Though they are all three parts of speech, they are three different things.
An idiom is a commonly used expression that doesn’t mean exactly what it says. For example, She’s pushing up the daisies means she is dead.
She’s got a bun in the oven means she is pregnant.
That’s it! By now you already know a whole lot about similes and metaphors and got in first contact with idioms. It will take a little practice, but soon you’ll be able to spot the differences right away!