Prof. Brooks Landon, U. Iowa, Ph.D. U. Texas at Austin. Building Great Sentences: How to Write the Kinds of Sentences You Love to Read (Great Courses) (2013). p. 121.

        First, prompts of comparison—figurative language. Remember the basic distinction between a simile and a metaphor is that a simile explicitly compares two things of different kinds or quality, usually introducing the comparison with like or as, while a metaphor offers a comparison of two things of different kinds or quality, but does not introduce it explicitly with words such as like or as. Thus, “She ran like a gazelle” is a simile, comparing a girl to a famously fast and graceful animal, and introducing the comparison with like. But “She gazelled her way across the field” would be a metaphor, the comparison implicit in a verb that suggests her movement had qualities that might be associated with a gazelle.
        Not every simile is a metaphor, since some similes simply make comparisons and do not ask us to think of one situation or thing as being something else, but every metaphor inherently implies the comparison we find in a simile. Both similes and metaphors make our writing more interesting and more effective. Both quickly and powerfully suggest comparisons that might be impossible to explain in any literal way. Years ago, S. I. Hayakawa noted in his classic textbook Language in Thought and Action that similes don’t actually compare two apparently dissimilar things or situations as much as they compare our feelings toward those two things or situations, thus offering a window into the way we feel, as well as the way we think.
        As Hayakawa puts it: “The simile . . . is something of a compromise stage between the direct, unreflective expression of feeling and the report, but of course closer to the former than the latter.” He goes on to suggest that “[t]he imaginative process by which phrases such as these [similes] are coined is the same as that by which poets arrive at poetry. In poetry, there is the same love of seeing things in scientifically outrageous but emotionally expressive language.”

  1. How can 'some similes simply make comparisons', if they 'do not ask us to think of one situation or thing as being something else'?

  2. Doesn't the former (comparisons) imply the latter (“think[ing] of one situation or thing as being something else”)?

  3. Please help me distinguish 'some similes simply make comparisons' vs. 'think[ing] of one situation or thing as being something else'?

1 Answer 1


Compare the two sentences:

  • Dolphins are humans of the sea
  • Dolphins are like humans, but they live in the sea

The former is a metaphor, the latter is a simile.

If you look at the former sentence closely and think of its actual meaning, you can see it's technically a lie. Dolphins do live in the sea, but they are not humans.

The second sentence is true: dolphins do share some qualities of humans, however they are not humans. This is what "being like" means.

By convention, we are trained not to notice small lies like this, we subconsciously parse the metaphors as if they were similes. However, this requires some brain power. We have to spend a tiny moment actually thinking whether to take a statement at its face value, or treat it as a literary device. We come to the conclusion that dolphins are not real people really fast, but we still have to do that thinking, and that's what the author is referring to in your excerpt.

This tiny moment of thinking is exactly what gives the metaphors (and some other literary devices too) their expressive power.

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