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A simile is a figure of speech that indirectly compares two different things by employing the words "like", "as", or "than".[1] Even though similes and metaphors are both forms of comparison, similes indirectly compare the two ideas and allow them to remain distinct in spite of their similarities, whereas metaphors compare two things directly. For instance, a simile that compares a person with a bullet would go as follows: "Chris was a record-setting runner and as fast as a speeding bullet." A metaphor might read something like, "When Chris ran, he was a speeding bullet racing along the track."

A mnemonic for a simile is that "a simile is similar or alike."

Similes have been widely used in literature for their expressiveness as a figure of speech:

  • Curley was flopping like a fish on a line.[2]
  • The very mist on the Essex marshes was like a gauzy and radiant fabric.[3]
  • Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus.[4]

Dickens, in the opening to "A Christmas Carol," says "But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile."


Explicit similes

A simile can explicitly provide the basis of a comparison or leave this basis implicit. For instance, the following similes are implicit, leaving an audience to determine for themselves which features are being predicated of a target:

More detail is present in the following similes, but it is still a matter of inference as to what features are actually predicated of the target:

  • He fights like a lion.
  • She swims like a dolphin.
  • He slithers like a snake.
  • He runs like a cheetah.
  • She kicks like a mule.
  • He flopped like a fish out of water.

In contrast, the following similes explicitly state the features that are predicated of each target:

  • When he got the tools out, he was as precise and thorough as a surgeon.
  • He drinks copiously like a fish.
  • She walks as gracefully and elegantly as a cat.
  • He was as brave as a lion in the fight.
  • He was as tough as a bull

Unlike a metaphor, a simile can be as precise as the user needs it to be, to explicitly predicate a single feature of a target or to vaguely predicate an under-determined and open-ended body of features. Empirical research supports the observation that similes are more likely to be used with explicit explanations of their intended meaning;[5] this offers some support to the claim that similes are preferred if a user wants to associate an unusual or out-of-the-ordinary property with a target.

Without 'like' or 'as'

Similes are sometimes made without using the words "like" or "as." This often occurs when making comparisons of differing values.[6]

  • "Norman was more anxious to leave the area than Herman Milquetoast after seeing ten abominable snowmen charging his way with hunger in their eyes."
  • "But this truth is more obvious than the sun--here it is; look at it; its brightness blinds you."
  • "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate:" - William Shakespeare, Sonnet 18
  • "I'm happier than a tornado in a trailer park." - Mater, Cars

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