In the sentence

He ran up the stairs

up the stairs is a prepositional phrase functioning as an adverb to modify the verb ran,

But what about the sentence

He flew like the wind?

Is like the wind a prepositional phrase functioning as an adverb to modify the verb flew, or is this a case of misusing a preposition as a conjunction? Should this sentence be changed to:

He flew as the wind?

This sounds completely wrong.

closed as off-topic by FumbleFingers, Mitch, user66974, tchrist, choster May 3 '14 at 14:56

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  • Over 32,000 written instances of flew like the wind in Google Books (plus even more for fly like the wind) suggest to me this is General Reference. I can't actually find any relevant instances of this idiomatic usage with as. – FumbleFingers May 2 '14 at 20:30
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers Aww, give the poster a break. I don't think is question is whether "like" or "as" is, in fact, commonly used, but rather WHY "like" is used rather than "as". – Jay May 2 '14 at 21:42
  • '[He's] crazy like a fox' doesn't sound too wonderful to me, but I won't say it's wrong as it gets 206 000 000 Google hits. 'He flew like the wind' sounds far more acceptable (even though the wind doesn't actually fly, and 'he' may well be running rather than flying. It's idiomatic for 'he raced at top speed'.) – Edwin Ashworth May 2 '14 at 22:53
  • @Jay: The specific usage "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should" has been covered before. Along with this, this, and this, for example, all covering the more general use of as/like. So if it's not GR, I'd say it's a dup of all those and probably several others. – FumbleFingers May 3 '14 at 12:02

Yes, "like the wind" is a prepositional phrase functioning as an adverb, just like "up the stairs". It is describing how he flew, thus it modifies the verb "flew".

"Like" is definitely not being used as a conjunction. What would it be joining? There is only one person doing the flying -- "he" -- and he is doing only one thing -- flying.

As to "as" ... We generally use "like" in such a phrase when we want to say that the action performed is similar to some other action or the person doing it is similar to another person without actually being that other thing. We use "as" when we want to say that this is an example or characteristic.

"As a good citizen, you should vote." You ARE a good citizen, and good citizens vote. Therefore you should vote.

"Like a maniac, Bob ripped open the package." Bob is not actually a maniac, but in this particularly case he acted in a way that resembled the way maniac's behave or we expect maniac's to behave.

That said, "like" is often used in the sense of "as". This is sometimes blamed on one advertising campaign many years ago that used the slogan, "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should." The grammar Nazis of the time howled that it should be, "Winston tastes good AS a cigarette should." Winstons were not "like" cigarettes: they were cigarettes. But the usage caught on, so "as" is in retreat.

  • "Like" is definitely not being used as a conjunction. What would it be joining? – user66965 May 2 '14 at 23:04
  • OK, I get that. I also get why as works in the Winston slogan, as a conjunction between two independent clauses. But as prepositions establish relationships between other words in a sentence, why isn't it possible to consider than a preposition that establishes a relationship between the way Winston tastes and the way any cigarette should taste? Why must the word in that position be a conjunction, even if being a conjunction works? – user66965 May 2 '14 at 23:35

In English dictionaries "like" as in "He looks like his brother" is generally labelled as preposition. As a German with some experience of English dictionaries I can live with such labels and, of course, I understand that in English there are a lot of problems as to the word class of certain words as there are no endings any more.

But sometimes it would be worth having a look at neighbouring languages such as German or Dutch. In German gleich (like) is an adjective with all endings and uses an adjective can have. No one would have the idea to say it is a preposition.

Historically "like" as in "like the wind" is an adjective as in German gleich dem Wind. Dictionaries might add "you can consider "like" today just as a preposition. But to give only the label prep is not the optimal thing because you lose the historical dimension of the word.

That "like" is taking over the function of "as" in its use as a conjunction of comparison is another thing and it is understandable that people don't consider it necessary to have two function words whose meaning is very close. For everyday speaking people show that the differentiation of "like" versus "as" is not practical. Things are different in written English.