I just got back some feedback on a piece of work of mine from a proofreader. One of his comments is that I use like in similes a lot, and I shouldn't do that --- I should be using as if instead; he says that like most accurately means is similar to. For example, in this phrase I used:

It accelerated away like a bullet down the barrel of a gun.

I've never come across this before. I know that my proofreader speaks fairly old-fashioned British English, and I speak fairly modern British English, and as far as I'm aware, like is perfectly acceptable here. But I'm not aware that it was ever not acceptable (in relatively recent times).

Can anyone find my a reference for what he's talking about here? Some basic searching doesn't come up with anything, but like is practically ungoogleable.

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    Your proofreader is a bit "overopinionated". Or perhaps you misunderstood him - he might have simply meant that if you replaced some instances of like with as if this could help introduce some variety in what might otherwise have been an intrusively noticeable [over-]usage. But in your specific example I think as if would appear antiquated and stilted, so if that was one he suggested changing, get a different proofreader. – FumbleFingers May 15 '15 at 21:02
  • Oh, we're both well aware that this is opinion, and I'm totally not going to change this because I like it the way it is. I'm just curious as to where his opinion's coming from. – David Given May 15 '15 at 21:03
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    O, it came o'er my ear like the sweet sound,. That breathes upon a bank of violets. If it was good enough for Shakespeare, it's good enough for me. Again, as if would be a bit "weird" there. But as you say, it's all just a matter of opinion (apart from the request to establish whether anyone with any credibility has ever put forward such an extreme position as your proofreader). – FumbleFingers May 15 '15 at 21:06
  • I have seen this advice before. I think it's one of these zombie rules, like "never split an infinitive" or "don't use got", although there are obviously some cases where "as if" is an improvement over "like". – Peter Shor May 15 '15 at 21:32
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    There's some zombie somewhere whose job is making all these rules? – Peter Shor May 15 '15 at 21:35

You can find this advice at Grammar Girl, and probably many other places on the internet. The rule (which seems to have been generally followed before the 20th century) is: use as if when it introduces a clause containing a verb, and like when it introduces a noun phrase.

Consider one of Grammar Girl's examples. The first two are both correct, while the third is supposedly wrong:

He throws like a raccoon.

He throws as if he were a raccoon.

*He throws like he was a raccoon.

In the 19th century, Google Ngrams shows that people never (or very rarely) used like for clauses containing verbs. So this was good advice in the early part of the 20th century, when this use of like was grammatically new, and would have been considered out of place if used in formal writing.

Now, the grammar has changed, and like sounds perfectly fine in these sentences to me. However, you still get people promulgating this rule. And it looks like some of them (like your proofreader), for whom this rule is not part of their natural grammar, have overgeneralized it to never use like in similes. This was never a rule of English grammar.

  • Thanks for the source --- but that looks like American English, which has different rules, so it may not be strictly applicable to British English. – David Given May 15 '15 at 22:06
  • It does look very like what he was talking about, though. – David Given May 15 '15 at 22:22
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    Here's the same advice from Cambridge Dictionaries Online (toned down—don't use like in formal contexts). I don't think AmE/BrE are very different here. – Peter Shor May 15 '15 at 22:42
  • Peter has utterly explained the situation. All that remains to be said the proofreader is a bit naive. – Fattie May 16 '15 at 3:35

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