Metaphors and similes are two different types of figurative language, meaning that they are phrases writers use to emphasize points without speaking directly about the facts. Figurative language is not literal and is used to demonstrate or emphasize a writer’s point. Similes are very different from metaphors, but the two are often grouped together because they both accomplish the same purpose, which is making a comparison between two unrelated subjects in order to illustrate the writer’s point.
What is a simile?
A simile is an explicit comparison between two unlike subjects. This means that the comparison is directly stated, rather than making an implied connection between the subjects. A simile uses specific words to illustrate the comparison usually indicated by the words “like” and “as.” For example, a writer may say that an airplane is like a bird in order to illustrate the similarities between the two objects. This example would by meant to indicate that both objects fly. A writer might say that a certain bird is as big as an airplane. This, while an exaggeration, is also a simile because it makes a direct comparison between the bird and plane in order to better illustrate the size of the bird.
What is a metaphor?
A metaphor differs from a simile because it is an implicit, or implied, comparison. This means that the author calls attention to the comparison between two subjects without using key words that point out the comparison. Instead of saying something is “like” something else, a metaphor usually says that one subject “is” something else. For example, a student might say, “My school is a prison.” While readers understand that the student feels trapped, confined, or lacks freedoms in school, the comparison is made without explicitly stating the connection.
How do I use them?
Similes and metaphors are best used to illustrate a point, such as the size of a bird in comparison to an airplane, or add emphasis to a point, such as how a school feels like a prison. These types of figurative language are generally understood not to be literal, and can be factual or absurd in nature as long as the comparison is clear.
Ineffective similes and metaphors are unclear due to readers not understanding how two objects are related. For example, “This napkin is like my backpack,” doesn’t really make sense to readers, because it is not easy to determine what comparison the writer is trying to make.
Many experts consider the effective use of figurative language to be an art form that is praised in literary circles, but they are often used in every day communication, too. The most effective figurative language emphasizes a point through emotional connections. For example, the example comparing a school to a prison is effective because most people have strong feelings about prisons. By adding an emotional factor to your figurative language, readers have a stronger connection to your writing, and it better emphasizes points.
- There are many common similes and metaphors that have become so popular that they are accepted parts of our language. For example, “to lend a hand,” has been so widely that it is a common comparison and most people don’t even notice that it is a metaphor. While this means that they will be easily understood, it also means that people pay less attention to how a writer is trying to use the metaphor and the emphasis is lost. Most of these phrases have become clichés and should be avoided in good writing.
- “Mixed metaphors” occur when a writer confuses two common metaphors and ends up making an inaccurate comparison, or a writer uses two unrelated metaphors to describe the same subject. If you use metaphors, try to keep a common theme. If you use football as a comparison point, stick to football or sports metaphors, rather than talking about banking.