‘Similar to’ in starting a sentence

Over the last 10 years or so, I have seen more and more sentences starting with the phrase Similar to. These sentences often say something like: Similar to A, B does X. Here is a slightly abbreviated version of a recent example I saw in The Times [of London].

Similar to much of myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), long Covid is post-viral and has many identical symptoms.

When people use Similar to in this way, they typically mean something like:

B does X in a way similar to the way A does X

Using Similar to in this way at the start of a sentence is concise. That is probably why it is becoming so common. But it does cause some problems, discussed below.

This construction is not ideal

Unfortunately, this construction can cause 2 problems:

  • using an adjective (similar) when an adverb is needed.
  • vagueness—using Similar to in this way often leaves it very unclear what the similarity is. 

An adjective when an adverb is needed

On the 1st problem, this construction uses an adjective (similar). Read literally, this conveys the idea that A is similar in nature to B. But, in fact, what the sentence needs is an adverb (or adverbial phrase) of manner, expressing both:

  • how B does something; and
  • the fact that A does that thing in a similar way.

Vagueness

The 2nd problem is more serious. Because this construction is so concise, writers often don’t stop to ask themselves exactly how (in which respect) the two nouns mentioned behave in the same way. That may not matter if the precise nature of the similarity is either clear from the context or unimportant. But in other cases, it might be more important to be precise.

A look at the example

The above example is one of those cases where being precise could make the text clearer. Let’s look more closely at what it says:

Text as writtenLiteral meaningIntended meaning
(1) Similar to much of myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME),Long Covid is similar to much of ME
Long Covid is similar to much of ME
(2) long Covid is post-viraland long Covid is post-viralin being post-viral
(3) and has many identical symptoms.


and long Covid has many symptoms identical to those of (much of) ME.
and in having many symptoms identical to symptoms of (much of) ME.

This examination reveals flaws in how the sentence is written:

  • the text as written does not say explicitly where the similarity between much of ME and long Covid lies. They are similar in both being post-viral and in having many of the same symptoms.
    The text leaves the reader to deduce this relationship.
  • one possible literal reading of the lead-in Similar to is that it expresses a proposition unconnected with what follows:
    B (long Covid) does X (is post-viral and has many identical symptoms) and A also does X (is post-viral and has many identical symptoms).
    Although that literal reading is possible, I don’t think people ever intend that reading when they use this construction. For instance, in the above example, the writer doesn’t intend clauses (1), (2) and (3) to express 3 separate statements unconnected with each other.
  • the intended reading is that the entire sentence is within the scope of the lead-in phrase Similar to. Unfortunately, poor wording in the final clause (3) makes that clause incoherent with the lead-in. We can see that by deleting clause (2), so that the sentence reads Similar to much of ME, long Covid has many identical symptoms. The meaning is roughly clear, but the wording is incoherent. Taken literally, it says that much of ME has symptoms identical to much of ME.

Causes of poor wording in the example

I suspect the poor wording in clause (3) has 2 causes:

  • because the similar to wording is so vague, the writer did not pin down exactly which similarity to express between long Covid and ME; and
  • because clause (2) separates clause (1) from clause (3), the writer lost track of how clause (1) leads in to clause (3).

The full example

The example above is only a condensed version of the example I saw. In the full example, the above sentence was a parenthetical comment inside a longer sentence. The points made above for the condensed version are equally valid for the full version, and the extra complexity in the long version exacerbates the effects of the vagueness discussed above. The full version follows. 

Attitudes have been changing and the emergence of long Covid—similar to much of ME, it is post-viral and has many identical symptoms—has driven a wave of research into both conditions around the world.
ME isn’t just in the mind, accepts Javid as he pledges new approach, The Times 13 May 2020

Closing comments

This post discuses a construction using Similar to at the start of a sentence. Writers intend this construction to connect the subject of the following sentence concisely to some other noun. That other noun might be a noun already discussed in the same text or a noun identifiable from the context.

I agree that creating such a connection is sometimes important. The Similar to construction often creates such a connection more concisely than other constructions that use more precise wording. Nevertheless, I can’t bring myself to use this construction. It is often too vague and—for my taste as a linguistic dinosaur—always too inelegant.

The Similar to construction is concise. I value conciseness highly. So, when alternatives are cumbersome, I understand why some writers feel that the Similar to construction is the best option. But, in my experience as a reviewer, writers often pick this option out of laziness, without realising that it is not always clear enough. So, if you must use this construction, please:

  • work out first precisely what meaning you intend; and
  • check whether this construction will make that meaning clear to your

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