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Do I have to add 'as' in the following sentence?

It was (as) clear as water

I ran a search on ngram and didn't find much difference between the two options.

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Technically yes - you are using a simile, and as you are comparing attributes you really need to say it is "as [x] as [y]". If you are finding examples where it has been omitted, these are probably just examples of colloquial speech where care has not been taken.

Examples of similes:

  • As cute as a kitten
  • As happy as a clam
  • As light as a feather
  • As blind as a bat
  • As bold as brass

You could say instead:

It was clear like water.

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