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From https://www.imabi.net/theparticleto.htm,

と may mark a subject being compared. As for 似る, ~に似る and ~と似る are possible but slightly different. と in this case marks one side of a mutual relation(ship) whereas に only shows the standard of comparison. They both, though, make the second person the basis of comparison when the pattern is XはY{に・と}似ている. Consider the following:

31a その父と子は似ている。〇

31b.その子はお父さんと似ている。 〇

31c. その子はお父さんに似ている。 〇

31d. その父は息子と似ている。 〇

31e. その父は息子に似ている。  X

The child resembles his father.

I don't understand why 31e is incorrect. It seems like it is wrong only because of the relationship between 父 and 息子 but wouldn't that also make 31c wrong?

To be honest, I still don't understand the distinction between the two particle uses (bolded sentence in the quoted section). When you compare X and Y, doesn't Y naturally become a "standard of comparison""? Does に also work with asymmetrical relationships? When you say X is similar to Y, aren't you also saying that Y is like X.

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Sentence 31e is not wrong at all, but we do say (子が)親に似る much more often than (親が)子に似る. This is because we all know inheritance and parents are usually considered as "base" or "reference" in the parent-child relationship. However, when you've met the father of your old friend for the first time, it's perfectly natural to say 君のお父さんは君似ているね, adopting your friend as the reference.

To take a simpler example, we say この偽札は本物にとても似ている ("This counterfeit bill looks very much like a genuine one"), but we do not usually say the opposite, この本物のお金は偽札に似ている.

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  • In that case, are there any circumstances in which it would be incorrect to use と instead of に for the verb 似る? Or are they interchangeable, grammatically speaking? – kandyman Jun 10 '20 at 18:14
  • @kandyman TBH I see almost no difference between 31d and 31e, but I may be missing something. – naruto Jun 10 '20 at 20:05
  • I meant in a wider context, not limited to those sentences. In other words, any time that に似ている works, should と似ている also work? ie 僕の弟は安倍晋三に/と似ている。Or in your sentence, would この偽札は本物ととても似ている be acceptable? – kandyman Jun 10 '20 at 20:27
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    @kandyman I mean I cannot think of an example sentence where に and と are not interchangeable. この偽札は本物ととても似ている is perfectly fine. I can vaguely agree that に is "directional" and thus preferred in a sentence like 人に似せてロボットを作る, but 人と似せてロボットを作る is still perfectly fine. – naruto Jun 10 '20 at 20:40
  • Fair point, I guess they are likely interchangeable. I somehow 'feel' that に is more natural in all cases, but I'm not a native speaker. I always use に. At least it's good to know that I'm not misusing it. – kandyman Jun 10 '20 at 20:45

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