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  1. On digital clocks, seconds are counted off in the way of tenths of a mile on the odometer of a car.
  2. On digital clocks, seconds are counted off like tenths of a mile on the odometer of a car.

Are these sentences different in meaning?

  • At least here in NAmE, the first would be awkward or archaic. The usage would be: "seconds are counted off the way tenths of a mile are on the odometer of a car." This fortunately reveals one of the main differences between that expression and "like". "The way" must make an adverbial comparison and hence repeat the verb, but "like" doesn't have to. – Luke Sawczak Jul 4 '17 at 11:00
  • Incidentally, if in some other dialect your first example is possible and not archaic, the same distinction applies: "the way" makes reference to how a verb is done. – Luke Sawczak Jul 4 '17 at 11:03
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When you use the phrase "the way", you're comparing something based on how it is done. You are comparing verbs based on the adverb you could apply to them.

Have you noticed that he chops onions the way they do it on TV?

She always proofreads with an eye for removing unnecessary words, the way a gardener cuts off the unproductive branches of a tomato plant.

Hence, you must compare a verb to a verb ("do" and "cuts") above.

"Like" also does this, and could replace "the way" in both of the above sentences. However, "like" can also be used to compare a noun to a noun, based on the adjectives you could apply to them.

Green onions are like leeks, but less sweet.

He reads the dictionary like a novel.

Notice how after the word "like" there is no other verb in these sentences.

So "like" can do both jobs, but "the way" can only compare verbs. In your examples, then, you must either use "like" or insert a verb after "the way".

The seconds are counted off like tenths of a mile on an odometer.

The seconds are counted off the way tenths of a mile are on an odometer.


P.S. There is also a more archaic expression "in the way of", which is used with a noun but has a somewhat vaguer meaning (cf. the Biblical expression "in the way of women"). And there is the unrelated expression "in the way of" meaning "obstructing the path of"!

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