The Grammarphobia Blog

Metaphors be with you

Q: My question is about metaphors/similes. When someone says, “He’s strong as an ox,” it’s a simile. When someone says, “He’s an ox,” it’s a metaphor. When my teenage cousin says, “He’s, like, an ox,” which is it?

A: It’s correct that “He’s an ox” is a metaphor. A metaphor is a figure of speech in which something that normally designates one thing is used to designate another.

It’s also correct that “He’s as strong as an ox” (or “He’s like an ox”) is a simile. A simile is a figure of speech in which “like” or “as” is used to compare dissimilar things.

Your teenage cousin’s sentence, “He’s, like, an ox,” is a metaphor. Here, the word “like” isn’t used as a preposition for purposes of comparison, so we don’t have a simile. Critics see this form of “like” as merely a verbal tic, but linguists argue that it serves a purpose.

As I once wrote in an article for The New York Times Magazine, this “like” is used “to emphasize something (‘I was, like, exhausted!’) or to hedge a statement (‘We had, like, six hours of homework!’).”

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) categorize “like” as an adverb when used in this way. AH calls the usage “nonstandard,” but M-W notes that it’s “used interjectionally in informal speech.”

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