24

She dressed like an owl.

She dressed as an owl.

"As" or "like"? Which one is more appropriate? My brother said that the second one is correct. He said that first one means "she dressed like an owl does."

  • 6
    What are you trying to convey? She was wearing an owl costume? If so "dressed up as an owl" would convey this better than "dressed as an owl" IMO, – Martin Smith Aug 3 '16 at 4:46
  • @MartinSmith Yes. – 4-K Aug 3 '16 at 5:28
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    Reading the title on the HNQ, I immediately thought the lady had the lack of fashion sense you'd expect from an owl. – Tobia Tesan Aug 4 '16 at 10:06
  • 3
    @TobiaTesan And then there are those owls that defy all expectations... orig00.deviantart.net/80f2/f/2014/014/a/8/… – Ben Sutton Aug 4 '16 at 15:24
  • @Ben: Coincidentally, I just found out about head-turning owls yesterday. They certainly defy all expectations! I nearly fell off my perch when I realised it wasn't trick photography! – FumbleFingers Aug 5 '16 at 16:23
32

1: She dressed like a child
The way she put her clothes on was child-like (perhaps she struggled with the buttons, etc.).

2: She dressed as a child
The particular clothing she wore was intended to make it seem that she actually was a child.

Note that in practice these are not hard-and-fast distinctions, but if forced to distinguish two different meanings, that's how most native speakers would see things. I don't suppose anyone has any idea how an owl dresses, so in OP's context the intended sense must be as per #2 above (and would normally be expressed using as).


EDIT: P. E. Dant's comment below about the simile/metaphor distinction raises an interesting point. Not that the distinction itself (simile = A is like B; metaphor = A really is B) is very important (grammarians just like it because it seems easy to understand and teach). But consider...

3: She speaks like an old woman
4: She speaks as an old woman

Where #3 looks like a simile (she's not actually an old woman; she just talks like one), but #4 looks more like a metaphor (among other things, she really is an old woman, and on this occasion her speech reflects that aspect of her identity). Also consider 1 Corinthians 13:11...

5: When I was a child ... I thought as a child: but when I became a man [I thought as a man]

...where obviously as reflects the fact that the subject really is a child or a man in each context. Thus it might seem that like = simile, as = metaphor. But that principle certainly doesn't work with the first two examples. In #1, if you saw the way she got dressed, you might (correctly) deduce she was a child, but in #2 that would mean her "disguise" had fooled you into making an incorrect assumption.

I think this is just my way of pointing out that the simile/metaphor distinction is more important to teachers than it is to students (it seems / is unhelpful in OP's context! :), but it's food for thought.

  • 2
    But it's probably worth noting that, particularly since owls don't wear clothes, in general, regardless of whether you said like or as in the OP's case, pretty much everyone would interpret it to mean "She wore an owl costume". – Catija Aug 2 '16 at 15:46
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    But I did! ...so in OP's context the intended sense must be as per #2. Then I made the point that even though there's little scope for ambiguity in OP's specific case, we'd still usually choose to use as rather than like. – FumbleFingers Aug 2 '16 at 16:07
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    @Moos: That's not so much a switch from "present" to "past" - more a switch from "active" to "passive". It's hard to imagine the like version there meaning The way [someone] dressed her was similar to the way an owl would dress someone, but you could perhaps disambiguate She was stoned like an adulteress (stoned in the same way primitives might stone an adulteress) from She was stoned as an adulteress (stoned because she was an adulteress). Semantic distinctions are always possible, and may turn on the exact choice of preposition. – FumbleFingers Aug 2 '16 at 18:04
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    @FumbleFingers Aside from the alarming prospect of a bunch of naked owls fluttering about, there is a deep and interesting question here about the differences in apprehension of like and as that is worthy of more digging. Mrs. Blashfield's stern insistence on the non-congruence of metaphor and simile is in there somewhere. – P. E. Dant Aug 2 '16 at 21:20
  • 1
    I would still see She dressed like a child as a colloquialism of She was dressed like a child, rather than the past tense of to dress. – Matt Fletcher Aug 5 '16 at 7:21
65

She dressed like an owl.

When looking at her (say from a distance) she vaguely resembles an owl. Maybe she is wearing a long brown frumpy gown or over-sized sweater, has very large horn-rimmed glasses, and a hairdo that makes it look like she has owl ears.

As an example of usage, often a person who is wearing a tuxedo will be described as "dressed like a penguin".

She dressed as an owl.

She is wearing an owl costume.

From Macmillan Dictionary: He went to the party dressed as a cowboy.

  • For archival purposes, a previous conversation has been moved to chat. – J.R. Aug 4 '16 at 12:41
7

He dressed like an owl.

He dressed as an owl.

You can use either like or as in your sentence as a preposition; both are correct, though they convey different senses.

You use the like as a preposition followed by a noun to compare somebody or something to another. The first sentence means that he dressed like an owl does.

You cannot use the as here to convey this sense of comparison. You use the as as a preposition followed by a noun to refer to what somebody or something is or what they appear to be. So the second sentence means that he appeared to be an owl when dressed.

However, the like and as are interchangeabke when used as a conjunction to compare one thing to another:

He dresses like an owl does = He dresses as an owl does.

5

"Like" and "as" are much abused words even by native speakers, so no one should think there are exact rules. Usage my vary by region, economic status, or even just the "register" or fancifulness of the result the speaker wants to convey.

In general, "as" should be used when possible to compare full verbal phrases, while "like" should be used to compare noun phrases.

  • She dresses as an owl dresses, wearing nothing at all but the darkness of the night.

    This would mean she is going around in the dark naked.

  • She dresses like an owl.

    This would mean she somehow looks like an owl because of what she is wearing.

  • She dresses as an owl.

    This is a special case where the "as" has a special use meaning "to be seen as," such as "She dressed as an owl at the costume party."

However, and very advanced for English, it could also be the same sense as "She dresses as an owl dresses" but with the last part dropped off for brevity (shortness). For example, "The lady of the house dresses as a servant, all alone, pulling her corset only as tight as she herself can." Notice, she is still dressed as the lady of the house, it is the act of dressing without a servant, thus "as the servants themselves do" that warrants (uses) the "as."

  • I like your "lady of the house" example as a succinct way of forcing the "execution mode" interpretation over the "end result" one. But I think it's primarily the "Victorian" context that makes it seem almost "natural", in that Victorian writers would have been more likely to use as there anyway, whereas most people today would go for like. Still, it's certainly more illuminating than my these are not hard-and-fast distinctions. – FumbleFingers Aug 4 '16 at 12:35
1

In addition, "she dressed as an owl" suggests that it was on a specific occasion that she owled up. On the other hand, "she dressed like an owl" suggests that she commonly appeared in the guise of an owl - it was her habit, you might say. Note that the speaker requires the listener to apply their own world knowledge to eliminate the alternative meaning ie, that she dresses the way an owl dresses, because we know owls don't dress.

For a better illustration, substitute "an owl" with "a lady".

  • I don't disagree exactly, but I think it would be very dependent on context. I wouldn't really notice much difference at all between "I dressed as an owl for Halloween" or "I dressed like an owl for Halloween" if someone said it to me, although I would probably choose "as" over "like" if I were to say it. – ColleenV Aug 4 '16 at 22:03
-1

Owls never wear dress, therefore the sentence "She dressed like an owl" has no meaningful interpretation. On the other hand, the sentence "She dressed [up] as an owl" means that she wore a costume resembling the bird. There is a difference in meaning when using "as" and "like".

  1. as: He flew the airplane as a pilot = He is a pilot.
  2. like: He flew the airplane like a pilot = He is NOT a pilot.
  • Patrick Stewart on Why He Dressed Like a Lobster for Halloween Colloquially, "dressing like a sth" is fine. I think if you want to make your point a little more clear, you might explain what you mean by "owls never wear dress", because it may not be clear that dress isn't a noun to EFL folks who have trouble with articles. I think you're saying "She can't dress in the same manner that an owl dresses because owls don't wear clothes." – ColleenV Aug 4 '16 at 21:57

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