Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Bringing Lively Similes Into Student Writing

By the time they enter high school, most students know that a simile is a literary device used to show a similarity between two dissimilar things, and that the words "like" or "as" link the dissimilar things, as in "busy as a bee," "like a fish out of water," "as big as a house," and "fits like a glove." They know, too, that similes differ from metaphors in that metaphors dispense with "like" or "as" and get right to the point: "He's a rat." "Life is but a walking shadow." (Not all similes employ "as" or "like," as here: "On a normal day, Jennifer Capriati tends to rush through games with the haste of a short-order cook, moving from point to point without a pause.")

Students generally learn about similes as they encounter them in poetry, plays and novels assigned in school, especially in poetry, where they abound. William Wordsworth "wandered lonely as a cloud." Robert Burns's love was "like a red, red rose." Edmund Spenser's bride had "cheekes lyke apples which the sun hath rudded" and "lips lyke cherrys charming men to byte." Shakespeare's Caesar bestrode "the narrow world like a Colossus," and, in As You Like It, Rosalind learns that the boy she loves was seen sleeping "under a tree, like a dropped acorn."

So confined do most students imagine similes are to the work of accomplished poets and writers, that most of them unfortunately do not realize that they can create similes themselves, not only in their own short stories and poetry, but in their book reports, essays, student newspaper writing, and in their everyday composition work And do you know what? Creating similes is easy. Students just need to know that they're capable of creating them, and they will.

Similes add vividness to writing; they clarify and make more forceful what things look, smell, sound, taste and feel like; they make the unfamiliar familiar. They can add humor, too. And they're just plain stimulating: To me, encountering a simile (or any other literary device) in one's reading is like coming upon a flower in a green meadow. No matter how lovely the verdant meadow, the flower brightens and delights.

Student-created similes are just one argument to make to those who think creativity can't be taught. It certainly can. Examining similes others have created and asking students to create their own also raises intellect by teaching them to think and express themselves metaphorically.

And where can students best find similes of the kind to emulate in their own writing? In my opinion, in newspapers. Because most newspaper reading is rapid and utilitarian and not leisurely and pleasurable, most readers, I think, take little note of the similes they encounter. But they're there, and I have found The New York Times is rich with them. In fact, similes are a major way that New York Times writers make their descriptions more vivid, add impact to their stories, and delight readers. (You'll see, below.)

Although journalists use similes for a variety of reasons, almost all similes in newspapers share two characteristics that you will be able to identify from the New York Times selection here: The simile is not a cliché, and the comparison is with something almost any reader can picture or identify with. Treating those characteristics as guidelines will help students to bring similes into their own newspaper writing.

A selection of similes from The New York Times. What a great time students and teacher can have in class discussing what makes each of them effective, enjoyable, clever, vivid, witty, funny, original, surprising and newsy, and then trying to create similes in their own writing. (At www.nytimes.com you can retrieve, without charge, the articles these similes appeared in.)

  1. Each slice was perched on a round of Italian bread, but most of the men ate only the meat and stacked the bread slices in front of them, tallying their gluttony like poker players amassing chips. (Paul Lukas, 1/30/08)
  2. The tiny Ms. Dundas, her mud-brown hair in an unflattering mop, scampers around the kitchen like a frenzied squirrel as Lenny tries to attend to all the pressing tasks at hand. (Charles Isherwood, from a review of a revival of the play Crimes of the Heart, 2/15/08)
  3. Like rival warships pulling into the same small harbor, Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton held rallies hours apart and exchanged oratorical barrages here Sunday. (Michael Powell, 3/3/08)
  4. Like a stray strand of spaghetti just outside of the dinner plate, the route of the G subway line runs, for the most part, from Brooklyn to Queens ? but decidedly not into Manhattan. (Anthony Ramirez,  4/9/08)
  5. Mr. Gibson, who sat back in his chair and wriggled his foot impatiently, had the skeptical, annoyed tone of a university president who agrees to interview the daughter of a trustee, but doesn't believe she merits admission.  (Alessandra Stanley, about ABC-TV anchor Charles Gibson's pre-election interview with Sarah Palin, 9/12/08)
  6. As thin as an iPod Nano, as full of adolescent self-display as a Facebook page, "Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist" strives to capture, in meticulous detail, what it's like to be young right now. (A.O. Scott, 10/3/08)
  7. Like water rushing over a river's banks, the federal government's rapidly mounting expenses are overwhelming the federal budget and increasing an already swollen deficit. (Louis Uchitelle and Robert Pear, 10/20/08)
  8. They sprinted through the tunnel toward the victorious visitors' locker room. Quarterback Brett Favre and cornerback Ty Law, two of the oldest players on the Jets, bounded up the ramp like children in a footrace instead of golden oldies with 32 years of combined N.F.L. experience. (Greg Bishop, 11/24/08)
  9. Getting between a broker and his bonus is like getting between a schnauzer and his lunch bowl. He may not bite you, but you are going to smell his breath. (Alan Feuer and Karen Zraick, 1/31/09)
  10. Last October, fighting at 5 feet 11 inches and 200 pounds, Shawn won the United States Boxing Organization cruiserweight title with a second-round knockout. He hit his opponent, Josh Green, with a right-handed punch of such accuracy and power that Green's neck wobbled and he seemed to grow invertebrate for a moment, sagging down the ropes like a Dali clock. (Jeré Longman, 2/9/09)
  11. So much, yet so little, is known about Dorothy Wordsworth that she is impossibly attractive to biographers and scholars, who glide down her empty expanses like skiers, some of them leaping from helicopters to explore the stranger, more forbidding peaks. (Dwight Garner 2/25/09)
  12. As for the veal, it was pounded so thin when I had it that I could have read a Bumble Bee label through it, and it adhered like wet tissue paper to the plate. Its texture was off-putting; its taste, sadly muted. (Frank Bruni, 3/4/09)
  13. When Jimmy Fallon showed up on NBC's "Late Night" last week without a sidekick, it looked like yet another sign that the Ed McMahon era is over; so many talk show hosts work solo that the second-banana position seems almost as obsolete as the foretopman or the Linotype operator. Even the word sounds antiquated: current parlance favors the more "Top Gun"-ian term, wingman. (Alessandra Stanley, 3/8/09)
  14. Pithy little life lessons keep coming at you in Michael Jacobs's "Impressionism," as if off a conveyor belt in a greeting card factory. But the one most immediately relevant to this undernourished play, which stars an ill-used Jeremy Irons and Joan Allen, has to do with looking at life as if it were an Impressionist painting. (Ben Brantley, 3/25/09)
  15. The slim red envelopes [of Netflix] are everywhere these days, each packed with a single DVD, pumping like platelets through the nation's mail system. (Michael Wilson, 3/29/09)
  16. Indeed, goats have long held a lowly reputation. Scavengers, they are falsely accused of eating tin cans. Their unappetizing visage is simultaneously dopey and satanic, like a Disney character with a terrible secret. (Henry Alford, 4/1/09)
  17. Watching "The Philanthropist," a moribund revival of a 1969 play by Christopher Hampton that opened Sunday night at the American Airlines Theater, is like being stuck in a stuffy room with a bunch of pompous, malicious or dreary writers and academics. (Charles Isherwood, 4/27/09)
  18. Above the cobblestone streets, in her Balinese-inspired living room-cum-office, Diane von Furstenberg is stretched like a cat on the couch, coolly gazing beyond the Buddha statues and glass terrace doors at the rain. (Stephanie Rosenbloom, 7/18/09)
  19. The "garden platter" consists of whatever was picked fresh that morning. On a recent visit, the greens, snap peas, tomatoes and squash tossed in a white wine vinaigrette tasted like summer in a bowl. (Emily Denitto, 8/14/09)
  20. Water levels have dropped more than three feet in the last 10 years and explosive algae blooms, which cover the lake's surface like a coat of thick green paint, are choking off the fish. (Jeffrey Gettleman, 8/16/09)

Please add to this selection of similes by sending one or two that you encounter in your daily newspaper! Leave the similes you find in the comments below or submit them here, and Bob Greenman will feature them in a forthcoming column.

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Bob Greenman is the author of Words That Make a Difference; and, with his wife, Carol, More Words That Make a Difference, vocabulary enrichment books based on words and passages from The New York Times and The Atlantic Monthly. Bob taught English and journalism at James Madison and Edward R. Murrow High Schools, and at Kingsborough Community College, all in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is a newspaper in education consultant for The New York Times, and his website has a section devoted to journalism education. Click here to read more articles by Bob Greenman.

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Comments from our users:

Monday August 31st 2009, 6:08 AM
Comment by: Bruce (Florence, SC)
Bob: I liked your piece on similes. Good work! Here's a thought. A teenager says "... I was ... like ... freaked out" or " ... it was ... like ... I didn't care". Similes or not? I don't think so.
Monday August 31st 2009, 8:35 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Enjoyable and useful piece, Bob. I wonder if you're familiar with the Blackadder TV series starring Rowan Atkinson? I mention it because the scripts are famous for their outrageous similes, always pronounced by Rowan's character and delivered with a panache that marks them out as highlights of the verbal wit that the series is famous for.

Besides the outlandish nature of the images conjured up in the similes, what makes them special is their length. They usually have a couple of relative clauses in there, so the picture being painted gets richer by the second, building up to a climax that is rational only within the context of the absurd simile.

Sadly, I can't remember any, but if you can get hold of an episode or a script, a study of its similes would reap a rich reward - and you'd have a laugh to boot!
Monday August 31st 2009, 8:39 AM
Comment by: Layton M.
I really like your writings. Keep it up
Saturday January 14th 2012, 9:52 PM
Comment by: Lily T. (Mesilla, NM)
This article was so wonderful! Incredible, original ideas!

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Students can use VocabGrabber to get a fuller understanding of colorful similes.