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Similes and figurative expressions in English


(Pronounced: simi-leez)

English is rich with figurative expressions which add colour, vivid imagery and perhaps emotion to a sentence. Along with metaphors, similes are used to compare the characteristics of a person or thing with someone else or something else.

It may be helpful to think of a simile as a "fully-stated" comparison: someone/something is as ... as someone/something else. A metaphor is a "condensed simile": instead of explicitly comparing the characteristics of one person or thing with another, we say that person/thing IS the other person/animal/thing. With a simile it is always apparent that a comparison is being made. With a metaphor the comparison is not so explicit and can lead to confusion if the comparison is not recognized, and the expression is taken literally instead of figuratively.

These notes on similes should be read in conjunction with the notes on metaphors.

People often confuse metaphors and similes, and this is very understandable because both are figurative expressions concerned with comparison.

The main difference is that with metaphor we use a word or words to express our understanding of a situation. So, for example I could refer to my leaden feet and this would be a metaphor. If I said that my feet feel like lead this would be a simile because I would be directly comparing one thing with another using the word "like". We also regularly use the word "as" in similes. Here are some examples of similes using "like":

  • He looks like a second-hand car salesman.
  • He looked like death when they found him.
  • Float like a butterfly; sting like a bee (Mohammad Ali).
  • She looked like butter wouldn't melt in her mouth.
  • That house looks like a mislaid cake covered in icing.

Here are some similes using "as"; some of them are so regularly used that we describe them as cliches*.

  • as lonely as a cloud
  • as white as snow
  • as black as ink
  • as fit as a fiddle
  • as thick as thieves
  • as sick as a dog

The expression "as lonely as a cloud" would be a simile while "my crying soul" would be a metaphor.

* [A cliche is 'a stereotyped, or hackneyed, or trite phrase or expression' (Jarvie 1993) used so often that its original value as an expression has been lost; for example, in this day and age; when all's said and done; axis of evil; light at the end of the tunnel.]

Practice 1

Choose a suitable word/phrase below to complete the similes that follow.

needle --- fox --- greyhound --- tinderbox --- dew --- grass

  1. That wall is as green as ...................
  2. He ran as fast as a ...................
  3. It was like trying to find a .................. in a haystack.
  4. The tears in her eyes were like drops of ...................
  5. She's as crafty as a ...................
  6. The parched grasslands were like a ...................

Practice 2

Can you use these examples in a sentence of your own?

  1. as thick as thieves
  2. spread like wildfire
  3. as white as paper
  4. like death warmed up

Practice 3

Can you replace these cliches with your own comparisons of similar meaning?

  1. as lonely as a cloud
  2. as white as snow
  3. as black as ink
  4. as fit as a fiddle
  5. as thick as thieves
  6. as sick as a dog


Learning resources, notes and exercises for international students and teachers of English