BlogLet's Get Technical

Let’s Get Technical: Metaphors and Similes

Let's Get Technical

Metaphor and simile: What is the difference?

Technically speaking, the most common difference between metaphors and similes are described as this: metaphors state that an object is something it is not (i.e. the man was a ferocious tiger) while similes state that an object is similar to or like an object it is not (i.e. the man was like a ferocious tiger). With this simple explanation it seems apparent that metaphors are the more powerful descriptive tools. So why do authors need to use similes?

Stever Robbins writes the following about metaphors and similes:

“The difference between metaphors and similes is that similes hit you over the head with the comparison by using explicit words such as ‘like’ or ‘as,’ — When Jon Bon Jovi sings ‘My heart is like an open highway,’ that’s a simile because he used the word ‘like’ to directly make the comparison. Metaphors, on the other hand, don’t use direct comparison words. When Tom Cochrane sings ‘Life is a Highway,’ that’s a metaphor because there’s no word such as ‘like’ or ‘as.'” – Get-It-Done Guy

The Power of Metaphors and Similes

Look at the following two quotes. One is an example of the use of a simile regarding a correlation between the soul and books. The other is metaphorical.

“A room without books is like a body without a soul.”
― Marcus Tullius Cicero

“Books are the mirrors of the soul.”
― Virginia Woolf

Using this as an example, the power of metaphors versus the power of similes is a more interesting technical question than first appears. Both quotes here utilise the power of description. However the description of books as the mirrors of the soul, compared to suggesting a lack of books is like the absence of a soul, indicates the direct nature of metaphors when compared to similes.

Therein lies the technical power of using similes or metaphors – it depends upon the aim of the writer. If the writer is aiming for a direct correlation between two dissimilar objects, then they would use metaphors. In some regards, metaphors could appear to be used more bluntly than similes. However, in other regards metaphors may be more appropriate to use when the writer is aiming to convey a direct image to the reader, rather than subtly prompt them.

Examples of the use of these ideas

Observe the following two images briefly:

A dark black curtain

A night decorate curtain representing the metaphor of 'the curtain of night'


Each image follows the idea of a particular idea a writer might aim to convey via a simile or metaphor. The first represents the simile of: The curtain was as black as the night. While the second represents the metaphorical image: The dark curtain of the night. 

The implications of this are as follows: metaphors and similes convey similar but slightly differing implications. Metaphors are highly useful to convey poetry and direct correlation. However, sometimes authors may need to utilise a simile to convey the appropriate mental image. For example consider the difference between describing an individual as ‘lion hearted’ versus ‘with a heart like a lion.’ Or compare ‘his serpentine eyes gazed around’ to ‘he looked around with eyes squinting like a snake.’ It becomes your role as a writer to choose descriptive ideas which best convey your chosen image.

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