It’s “Like”, You Know

Analogies. They’re like a plague upon the English language. See what I did there; I analogised analogies. That’s like sending coals to Manchester. Or tea to China. Taking the Piss out of Newcastle (points to the person who actually knows what that means)…

I could go on, but I’ll stop now.

Analogies are a plague in a lot of comtemporary writing. Our descriptive powers have seemingly waned over the last century. Whereupon we once described sunsets as a conflagration, a fire from the gods settling upon the far horizon yet burning away without damage we now say that a sunset is like a conflagration, a fire from the gods settling upon the far horizon yet burning away without damage.

Fiction rests upon analogy; genre fiction such as fantasy and science fiction live upon such literary comparisons. If you following the “genre as contemporary commentary” angle then analogies abound because the salient points of the novel, short story, film or episode are meant to be ported back to actuality. The zombies in Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” are analogous to seemingly brainless activities of shoppers in malls. The political machinations of the Clarke regime in “Babylon 5” were meant to be analogous to the USA historically, although it turns out that it was more in the line of prophecy than anything else. Thus, we can say, that analogies are an important aspect of genre writing.

However, not all analogies, however, are successful. Analogies should not be things that we hit readers over the head with. I’m really talking here about descriptive analogies such as “He was like a fish without a bicycle” or “Her hair was like a running stream of coal and tar.” Heavy duty, obvious analogies. Sentences with the word “like.” These are the blights upon our literary landscape. Such sentences fail to do real work; by making the analogy explicit, “X is like Y,” the sentence lets down the reader and belittles the writer. In part this is due to the easy, short-cutting nature, of analogies; “His face was like that of a Faustian devil.” Now, we all know (I presume) what a Faustian devil looks like; red-skinned, high-browed, pointed goatee and eye-brows that slant upwards. So, if this is the case, why not describe your character and let the reader, after they have processed the description, think for themselves “Aha, he looks like a Faustian devil.” Do not rob the reader of their intellectual satisfaction. Obvious analogies reduce the need for the audience to interact with the text. Interaction is good; this much, at least, was the worth of that whole ‘post-modern’ project.

(Here, if I was to be predictable, would be an analogy, and there would have been one if I was clever enough to think up of one…)


  1. Well, they are ‘illustrative analogies’ rather than ‘arguments from analogy;’ technically, yes, I probably should have spoken about similies but for the purposes of teaching I’ve become acustomed to using the term analogy and then disambiguating it. Which, admittedly, I didn’t do here, but that’s because most analogies are illustrative rather than argumentative (thus I can cite common practice as a defence).

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