Metaphor vs. Simile vs. Analogy: What’s the Difference?

People sometimes confuse between metaphor, simile, and analogy. After all, all three compare two unlike things and help us see things in new ways. Here is an example:

On the dance floor, he was a popcorn in the machine. [Metaphor]

On the dance floor, he was like a popcorn in the machine. [Simile]

On the dance floor, he was like a popcorn in the machine – his moves were random and awkward. [Analogy]

All three compare two unlike things – a person and popcorn – to convey the message, vividly and interestingly, that he was awkward on the dance floor. Each relies on a well-known or concrete thing (popcorn in the machine) to throw light on a less-known or abstract thing (how he dances). But each has its peculiarities.

Metaphor is a figure of speech of comparison that says one thing is another thing. The two things are more than alike; they’re one and the same. Metaphors are commonly formed by be verbs.

On the dance floor, he was a popcorn in the machine.

He and popcorn in the machine are one and the same thing. However, it shouldn’t be taken literally as it’s just a way of conveying message effectively.

Simile is a figure of speech of comparison that says one thing is like another thing. They’re often accompanied by comparison words such as like and as.

On the dance floor, he was like a popcorn in the machine.

Analogy is a rhetorical device (that’s a broader umbrella than figure of speech) of comparison that says one thing is similar to another (that’s quite like similes), and then goes on to explain it.

On the dance floor, he was like a popcorn in the machine – his moves were random and awkward.

Among the three, most confusion prevails between these two pairs: metaphor vs. simile and analogy vs. simile. Let’s take each pair separately.

More resources:

Metaphor vs. Simile

(Note that metaphor vs. simile has exercises too at the end of the post.)

Both similes and metaphors are figures of speech that compare two unlike things to convey a message. They, however, differ in how they compare two things. Whereas similes say that one thing is like another thing, metaphors say that one thing is another thing. Let’s understand this through an example:

Jack was a cork popped out of champagne bottle at the start of the race. [Metaphor]

Jack was like a cork popped out of champagne bottle at the start of the race. [Simile]

Do you see the difference?

In the first sentence, Jack was a cork popped out of champagne bottle. He was not like cork. He was the cork: one thing is another thing. That’s metaphor. The two sides of metaphor equation are often separated by be verb (was in this example). In other words, metaphors in their simplest and commonest form can be represented by A is B.

In the second sentence, Jack is like a cork popped out of champagne bottle. He is like a cork. He is not the cork. That’s simile. Similes are often accompanied by comparison words such as like and as. In other words, similes in their simplest and commonest form can be represented by A is like B.

Just a word added can change a metaphor into a simile. Yes. Mostly. That’s why there is a joke on the difference between the two, which fittingly is a simile:

A simile is like a metaphor.

What’s the fuss about such a small difference between metaphor and simile?

Few years back, after the dinner at a friend’s place, he asked me how was it. I said, “It was drug.” With quizzical look on his face, he asked what I meant. I then explained that the food was so good that it was habit-forming like drugs are. Once the meaning was clear, the metaphor received some appreciation. (That time I didn’t know what metaphors and similes are. We all create them every day without having studied them formally.)

Now, I’m not saying this was an awesome metaphor, but what I realize now is that a simile would have been less impactful. There is no match for direct comparison (one thing is another). It jolts people.

Let’s look at comparison of Jack with cork once again.

Jack was a cork popped out of champagne bottle at the start of the race. [Metaphor]

Jack was like a cork popped out of champagne bottle at the start of the race. [Simile]

In simile, Jack and cork retain their distinct identities and help us visualize that Jack shot off the blocks as fast as a cork popping out of a champagne bottle. But metaphor elevates it. It merges the two identities and instigates us to imagine Jack shooting off from a champagne bottle. That’s more direct. That’s more impactful.

That’s why writers are fussy about metaphors. Over thousands of years of history of figures of speech, metaphors have been placed at a higher pedestal than similes. They’re glamourous. They’re preferred. Is that the reason why metaphor has even an adjective (metaphorical) and an adverb (metaphorically) form in dictionaries? Simile doesn’t. (Just an observation.)

I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen people, myself included, finding it harder to create metaphors than similes. (Harder the things, more valued they are.) Let’s try to convert these similes to metaphors:

He was welcomed like a long-lost brother.

My shoes smell like garbage.

The first one is challenging without forming a convoluted sentence. The second is relatively easy:

My shoes are garbage.

But, to me, even this looks somewhat forced. Its simile goes more naturally. The other way round – converting metaphors to similes – always works (try it out!), which leads us to: all metaphors are similes but not vice versa.

Writing metaphors isn’t straightforward. Looking from a philosophical level, it’s not easy to substitute one’s identity. Similes, in contrast, are easier: you can liken one thing with many other things within reasonable limit, of course.

Compared to similes, metaphors can be difficult to spot

Similes are easier to spot because of marker words such as like, as, than, resemble, and akin to. For the same reason, they’re relatively straightforward to write. However, metaphors can be challenging because they may not be accompanied by clear marker words. In these examples, similes are easier to spot because of the marker word like:

Susan faced a flood of trolling on Twitter for her latest article. [Metaphor: trolling is flood]

Susan faced trolling on Twitter like a flood for her latest article. [Simile]

The CEO faced a firestorm of criticism for the data breach. [Metaphor: criticism is firestorm]

The CEO faced criticism for the data breach that felt like a firestorm. [Simile]

(Note: There are exercises on metaphor vs. simile at the end of the post.)

Analogy vs. Simile

Metaphor easily stands apart from analogy and simile because of the be verb which says that one thing is another thing. However, both analogy and simile commonly use comparison words such as like and as to compare two unlike things. That’s where confusion between the two arises.

The similarity, however, ends there. Whereas similes are more a stylistic tool, analogies are more an explanatory tool. (That’s why similes often appear as headline in articles. They grab attention.) Unlike similes, which use comparison words and often parallel construction, analogies can be written pretty much in any way. They do less glamourous, and heavy-lifting, work of explaining things. Let’s take the examples we looked earlier:

At the dance floor, he was like a popcorn in the machine. [Simile]

At the dance floor, he was like a popcorn in the machine – his moves were random and awkward. [Analogy]

The analogy in the above example extends the simile to further explain why he is like a popcorn in the machine. Now, this is quite a simplistic example of an analogy, and it looks quite similar to a simile. But analogies can also stretch to several sentences and even paragraphs as they go about their laborious, less-glamourous business of explaining things. They can also be more free-style and hence may come without familiar comparison words such as like and as. Here is an example of somewhat longer analogy used by TCS CEO & MD on career at his company:

Career at TCS is like mutual fund investment. There might be opportunities to trade and make money on the wider market and there will be some people who will get rich very quickly. But there will be a set of people for who the steady compounding of funds will yield better results. [Analogy]

A TCS career is like mutual fund investment. [Simile]

The above simile in fact makes the headline of the article.

When explanation gets elaborate, analogies can easily be seen apart from similes, but when explanation is little, analogies can be easily confused with similes. I’ve, quite fittingly, an analogy to describe this tussle between an analogy and a simile:

Eggs of some birds look similar like an analogy and simile look similar when short. But their hatchlings look very different like an analogy and simile look very different when explanation kicks in.

Dive into examples on each to understand metaphor vs. simile and analogy vs. simile:

Exercises on metaphor vs. simile

Give the exercises a try before looking at the answers.

Exercise 1

Identify each sentence as simile, metaphor, or none of the two.

1. Your 4-year-old daughter is a pistol.

2. Your 4-year-old daughter has a pistol.

3. Your 4-year-old daughter is as explosive as a pistol.

4. Your 4-year-old daughter is no less than a pistol.

Answers to Exercise 1

1. Metaphor 2. None 3. Simile 4. Simile

Exercise 2

Identify each sentence as simile, metaphor, or none of the two.

1. Justice is often delayed.

2. Justice is expensive.

3. Justice is truth in action.

4. Justice is about finding the truth.

Answers to Exercise 2

1. None 2. None 3. Metaphor  4. None

The metaphor is by Benjamin Disraeli.

Exercise 3

Identify each sentence as simile, metaphor, or none of the two.

1. Squash is a game with racquets.

2. Squash is boxing with racquets.

3. Squash is grueling.

4. Squash is like boxing with racquets.

Answers to Exercise 3

1. None 2. Metaphor 3. None 4. Simile

The metaphor is by Jonah Barrington.

Exercise 4

Identify each sentence as simile, metaphor, or none of the two.

1. He is taller than Eiffel tower.

2. He is taller than his father.

3. He is Eiffel tower.

4. He is as tall as Eiffel tower.

Answers to Exercise 4

1. Simile 2. None 3. Metaphor 4. Simile

Exercise 5

Image source

What metaphors and similes would you use to describe the owl in the picture? Write as many as you can.

Answers to Exercise 5

Set 1

1. Moving wings asynchronously, the owl is a magician in the air. [Metaphor]

2. Moving wings asynchronously, the owl is like a magician in the air. [Simile]

3. Moving wings asynchronously, the owl is as skillful as a magician. [Simile]

Set 2

4. The owl is a surveillance drone, scanning the landscape for prey. [Metaphor]

5. The owl is scanning the landscape for prey like a surveillance drone scans for intelligence. [Simile]

Set 3

6. The owl’s eyes are lasers, locked on the prey. [Metaphor]

7. The owl’s eyes are like lasers, locked on the prey. [Simile]

8. The owl’s eyes are as penetrating as lasers. [Simile]

Exercise 6

Image source

What metaphors and similes would you use to describe the bird in the picture? Write as many as you can.

Answers to Exercise 6

Set 1

1. The bird is a rainbow. [Metaphor]

2. The bird is colorful like a rainbow. [Simile]

3. The bird is as colorful as a rainbow. [Simile]

Set 2

4. The bird’s beak is a spear waiting to pierce. [Metaphor]

5. The bird’s beak is like a spear waiting to pierce. [Simile]

6. The bird’s beak is as sharp as a spear. [Simile]

Set 3

7. The bird is a painter’s delight. [Metaphor]

8. The bird is a painter’s color palette. [Metaphor]

One comment

  1. Now, and this is quite a simplistic example of an analogy, and it looks quite similar to a simile

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