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I've seen this phrase in many literary works. Does it have the same purpose as like, as if, and as though (in the context of similes/metaphors)?

For example:

She might as well have been a skinny doll made of reed

Is that the same as:

She looked like skinny doll made of reed

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3 Answers 3

up vote 2 down vote accepted
might as well been

is used to indicate that a situation is the same as if the hypothetical thing stated were true:

E.g. for readers seeking illumination, this book might as well have been written in Serbo-Croatian

so looked like stays close to the meaning indeed.

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-1 That's a fairly good definition of the term, but I disagree that "looked like" is a good approximation. –  augurar May 19 at 23:35

First there are some grammatical mistakes. The expression is 'might as well have been'.

So your sentence should read 'She might as well have been a skinny doll, made of reed'.

Your second sentence means almost the same thing, but needs 'a' (indefinite article) before 'skinny'.

The two do not mean exactly the same thing. The first is not necessarily saying that she 'looked like a skinny doll made of reed', just that she might as well have been one. This is important because the term is often used metaphorically.

I might say, in a moment of exasperation, cleaning up after my kids ' I might as well be a skivvy'. It doesn't mean that my life is necessarily like that of a skivvy. It is just means that it feels like it at that moment.

It is used in many other senses e.g. if I take an umbrella and it doesn't rain, I will say 'I might as well not have brought it'.

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Typo fixed. I see, so "might as well have been" would be more temporary/immediate than "like"? –  janoChen Nov 15 '13 at 11:43
2  
@janoChen Not necessarily. 'Might as well have been' does not mean the same thing as 'like'. Let's say you have a university degree, but the only job you can find is that of a waiter or a cleaner. You could well say 'I might as well not have gone to university!'. In other words 'What was the point of my studying and getting a degree?'. –  WS2 Nov 15 '13 at 11:59

The phrase is really a compound construction: "might as well be" in the present perfect. "Might as well be" is used to indicate similarity between two things, but it has different connotations than a direct comparison. I'd say it falls somewhere between a simile and a metaphor.

The closest approximation of your example I can think of is:

She was as [adjective] as a skinny doll made of reed.

where the adjective might be "flimsy", "frail", "thin", etc. The use of "might as well have been" is a little less specific and allows the reader to determine what exact comparison is being made based on context. For example:

With her long arms dangling limply from her shoulders, she might as well have been a skinny doll made of reed.

The phrase is also sometimes used to emphasize the unlikeliness or extravagance of a comparison:

When I lifted her corpse, it was so light that she might as well have been a skinny doll made of reed.

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