Literary English: Simile vs. Metaphor

High school and university students are often required to analyze literature by explaining the authors’ use of literary elements and techniques. English language learners are often daunted by this task for obvious reasons. How would you like to land in China today and be asked to analyze a work of Chinese literature tomorrow? Don’t laugh, this kind of thing happens several times a year in New York City high schools.

To combat this inequity in the New York State educational system, I would arm my students with a few literary elements and techniques that were sure to apply to whatever passage they might have tackle. Two these weapons are similes and metaphors. Both of these devices are comparisons.

A simile is a comparison that includes the word “as” or the word “like.”

Simile1: “Lenny is as strong as an ox.”

Simile2: “Lenny is like an ox.” or “Lenny is built like an ox.”

A simile usually exaggerates the comparison. A simple comparison like, Debra is as smart as Ray,” is not a simile; it’s a simple comparison. “Debra is as smart as a computer,” is a simile. Debra is not really as smart as a computer. But, before you assume that the computer is smarter, remember there are many things that the human brain does better than the best computer. Learning the grammar of one’s mother tongue is one of them.

A metaphor is a more poetic comparison than a simile. It does not use the word “as” or the word “like.”

Metaphor: “Lenny is an ox.”

Because a metaphor usually does not express the quality being compared, e.g. strong, the reader has to infer the meaning. This metaphor could mean that Lenny is strong, stupid, big, slow, etc. The context of the metaphor is necessary to make the author’s intention clear. For ┬áthe same reason, a simile like “Lenny is like an ox” also needs context.

The best way for an English language learner to remember the difference between a simile and a metaphor is to memorize one of each. The more mnemonic cues in the examples, the easier they will be to remember. For instance, the simile can begin with a word that begins with the letter “S” and the metaphor can begin with the letter “M.”

Simile: “Similes are as simple as Simon Says.”

Metaphor: “Metaphors are monsters.”

The simile speaks for itself. The metaphor, “Metaphors are monsters,” could mean that metaphors are scary or difficult, or both.

by John DePonte

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