The metaphor and simile are types of figurative language. There are many types of figurative language such as alliteration, personification, hyperbole, onomatopoeia, etc. Using figurative language makes your writing more lively and descriptive. Although used more in creative writing or fiction works, they are also suitable for academic writing when used appropriately.
What is the difference between a metaphor and a simile? Admittedly, they are easy to confuse because they both make comparisons between two apparently different things.
The difference is that a simile uses the word “like” or “as” to make these comparisons whereas a metaphor talks about one of the items as if it were the other without using “like” or “as.”
Let’s look at a couple of famous examples that help distinguish these two types of figurative language. The Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote a song entitled Red Red Rose. Here is the first verse.
O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve is like the melodie
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.
In the first line, there is a simile comparing love to a red rose. We know this is a simile because of the use of the word “like” to compare.
One could just as easily turn this into a metaphor by writing, “Love is a red, red rose.”
The following is an example metaphor from Shakespeare’s play As You Like It.
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances.
Shakespeare is comparing the world to a stage, but he does not say it is “like” a stage. He says that it is a stage.
In basic terms, a simile or metaphor has a tenor and a vehicle. The tenor is the subject of the comparison, and the vehicle provides the attribute to the subject.
In the Burn’s simile, the tenor is “love,” and the vehicle is “red, red rose.”
Looking at Shakespeare’s metaphor, the tenor is “the world”, and the vehicle is “a stage.” The world is not literally a stage.
There is a second metaphor in the second line with the tenor as “men and women,” and the vehicle as “players.” Most men and women are not actually actors on a stage.
Figurative language such as metaphors and similes are used to make writing come alive for the reader. A well-constructed comparison helps the reader picture what you are describing.
Try to make connections that would appeal to your audience. Readers must be able to experience the relationship for themselves. The tenor and vehicle you use should be items they can imagine and sense the comparison you are making. Remember, you want to help your reader understand the concept or image in your article. If the metaphor or simile does not add to the text, then eliminate it, or find a better one.
Saying that love is beautiful does not make the same specific impression as saying that love is like a red, red rose.
Comparing the world and everyone in it to a stage with actors (players) invites us to think about things in a very different way.
Don’t be afraid to incorporate the occasional metaphor or simile into your writing, especially any creative projects. When writing academic papers, there are fewer opportunities for flights of fancy; however, many metaphors (and similes) are so common that they do work in these contexts. You might not immediately recognize them as metaphors. Here are a few examples:
Canada is a melting pot of cultures.
Hard work is the key to success.
Their anxiety is a prison.
If you want to have a little fun, try some close reading on the next magazine article, news item, or blog that you read to see if you can find any metaphors or similes. You might be surprised.
Above all, keep writing and exploring your thoughts!