Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Similes on the Internet Have Explanations

Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Similes on the Internet Have Explanations

Article excerpt

We searched the Internet for expressions linking topics, such as crime, and vehicles, such as disease, as similes (crime is like a disease) and as metaphors (crime is a disease). We counted the number of times the expressions were accompanied by explanations (crime is like a disease because it spreads by direct personal influence). Similes were more likely than metaphors to be accompanied by explanations. Similes may be preferred if a writer wants to express an out-of-the-ordinary relation between the topic and the vehicle.

Here, we will test a hypothesis about metaphors, similes, and explanations, using sentences on the Internet.

A simile is a figurative comparison that includes the word like (or as), such as highways are like snakes. A metaphor is a figurative comparison without the term like, as in crime is a disease. Similes imitate literal comparisons, such as Fords are like Chryslers. Metaphors make claims about a category, as in Fords are cars (Centner & Bowdle, 2001; Glucksberg, 2001). Comparisons and categorization are vital to human cognition, so figurative expressions of them could be present in all cultures, but although it has been studied for millennia, the connection between similes and metaphors is still much debated (Chiappe & Kennedy, 1999).

A figurative relation usually can be expressed as either a metaphor or a simile using the same word pairs. Crime is like a disease, without the word like, has the same sense as crime is a disease. Literal comparisons cannot drop or add like with impunity. Fords are like cars is incorrect.

Chiappe, Kennedy, and Smykowski (2003) have argued that metaphors are preferred when the relationship being expressed is quite apt, as in cigarettes are time bombs, but that similes are preferred if not, as in trees are like straws. Aptness is high if the vehicle (time bombs) points out what the reader takes to be significant features of the topic (cigarettes).

Of interest for the present purposes, Chiappe, Kennedy, and Chiappe (2003) found that aptness ratings correlated strongly with ease of comprehension. This suggests that metaphors would be used if a statement was easily comprehended, and similes would be used, if not. Similes are more challenging. Here we take up an intriguing implication of this argument. If writers thought comprehension were impeded, what would ensue? In everyday practice, writers might add explanations to their expressions. That is, if a simile did indeed seem unlikely to convey a key idea, the writer should expose its rationale to the light of day, as in trees are like straws in the way they suck up water and nutrients. If they readily bring to mind what the writer wants the expression to specify, metaphors could often occur baldly, totally without explanation, as in life is a journey, as compared with life is like a box of chocolates-you never know what you are going to get.

To check whether, when compared with metaphors, similes are used more often with explanations, we turned to a very large corpus of sentences. We used Google to search the Internet for metaphors and similes. We examined the products for accompanying explanations.



A set of 52 pairs of terms was selected from Chiappe, Kennedy, and Chiappe (2003); for example, rage was paired with volcano, and education with stairway. The pairs were written as sentences in metaphor form (rage is a volcano) and simile form (rage is like a volcano).

Each sentence was entered into a search engine, and an Internet search was undertaken to discover the frequency of each sentence.

The sentences were sought via Google. When a sentence is written in quotation marks in the search box, Google returns a list of Web sites that contain each sentence and shows the linguistic context. When life is a journey was entered into the search box, Google produced a list of Web sites containing life is a journey as well as words adjacent to the sentence at each Web site. …

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