Literary Stylistics:
Workshop Notes no. 21

Metaphor

What's on this page:

General Ideas
        Metaphor and Simile
        I.A. Richards
        Dead Metaphors
        Other Figures of Speech
Halliday's Approach

        Metaphors of Transitivity
        Lexical Density
        Interpersonal Metaphors
        Interpersonal Metaphors: Speech Acts
Some Cyberlinks

General Ideas

Metaphor and Simile

Students of literature should be quite familiar with what a metaphor is. In traditional literary criticism, metaphors are distinguished from similes:

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I. A. Richards

I. A. Richards has analysed metaphors in terms of tenor, vehicle and ground:

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Dead Metaphors

Metaphors are not only found in literary works, but are actually quite common in language in general. However, many metaphors in everyday use are described as dead metaphors, as they have been used so frequently that their metaphorical character has become less apparent. When one describes one's feelings as 'up' or 'down' or when one describes oneself as 'fuming mad' or as 'bubbling with enthusiasm', one is using dead metaphors.

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Other Figures of Speech

As you may know, a metaphor is a figure of speech or what is also known as a trope and more occasionally, as examples of imagery. There are other figures of speech associated with metaphors that we may want to consider here, such as metonymy and synecdoche. Almost as much as the distinction between metaphor and simile, metaphor is quite often distinguished from metonymy (for an explanation, see the section under 'Rhetorical Tropes' in  Daniel Chandler's Semiotics for Beginners, which was mentioned in your first workshop; this is a rather slow link, so perhaps you may want to read the rest of the workshop notes before clicking on the link, if you have not already downloaded it).

Metonymy

A metonymy involves the association of one thing with another which often occurs with or near it, or in some ways related to it. For example, when one says that one wants to be away from one's books for a while, it may indicate that one wants to keep away from one's studies for a while.

Synecdoche

Synecdoche, which is occasionally regarded as a sub-set of metonymy. A synecdoche involves the substitution of a part for the whole, or the whole for a part, or, it may refer to the logic of sets, where a member represents the whole set or vice versa. As such, it has a connection to both meronymy and hyponymy (which are dealt with in the 18th workshop notes). For example, in the following, which is taken from the Graham Greene story 'The Basement Room', we have an example of synecdoche when we see the character Philip Lane viewing 'the legs going up and down beyond the railings', which indicates that he sees people rather than disembodied legs moving up and down beyond the railings, although the description here also indicates that his vision is limited to their legs rather than their whole bodies.

For other definitions of the above terms, see metaphor, metonymy and synecdoche from the Summer Institute's Linguistic Glossary, and (from a visual arts perspective), metaphor, metonymy and synecdoche from the Department of Fine Arts of Okanagan University College.

Further Figures of Speech

More figures of speech are briefly defined in my Brief List of Some Key Terms in Literature:

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Halliday's Approach

Halliday's approach to grammatical metaphor does help to highlight the fact that metaphors are more prevalent in language than is often assumed. As you may know, the term that Halliday uses in relation to grammatical constructions that are not metaphorical is congruence. Halliday assumes, in his discussion of grammatical metaphor, that some constructions which are now congruent or apparently congruent were metaphorical at one time in the history of the language. Although this may create the difficulty of demarcating what is and what is not metaphorical at which particular point in the history of English, it does indicate that in the English language, there is a consistent movement towards metaphorization for some grammatical constructions, and a concomitant counter-movement against metaphorization for others which were once regarded as metaphorical in the history of the language. In the former, the reference of some grammatical constructions is extended beyond what it congruently refers to, whereas in the latter, some of these grammatical constructions are no longer regarded as metaphorical by users of the language.

I will be selective in my discussion of Halliday's grammatical metaphors below, concentrating only on features of grammatical metaphor which may be useful in stylistic analysis, or those which may present problems in analysis.

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Ideational Metaphors

Transitivity

Halliday discusses metaphors of transitivity on pp. 322-329, 343-350, 637-54 of his Introduction. They are quite productive in stylistic analysis, and might have already cropped up in your tutorial discussions or in one of the essays you did. One of the best ways to understand this concept is by way of example.

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Lexical Density

Another category of ideational metaphors is lexical density. Lexical density is usually productive in one's interpretation in stylistic analysis when it touches on the broad distinction between written and spoken language, where written language is usually more lexically dense than spoken language. Lexical density involves the number of lexical words [as opposed to function words] per ranking clause (i.e. clauses that have not been downranked); the more lexically dense a text is, the more lexical words there are in each clause.

You may find lexical density even more useful in your interpretation if it is considered together with nominalisation (the conversion  of another lexical category into a noun, or, the combination of words, which were not originally assembled together as a noun group, into a noun group). In this way, a lexically dense text is metaphorical because it appears to be concretised, where processes and movements appear as things, or at least appear to be more static. In fact, nominalisation is a good way to increase the number of words per clause. For example, the spoken text,

I considered the option. I didn't take it; I was uncertain if it would benefit me.
is converted to the following more lexically dense written version:
The option was a consideration that was not taken by me because of the uncertainty of its benefit .
Notice that there are more words per clause in the second text than the first. We can also notice that the verb 'consider' and the adjective 'uncertain' have become nominalised together with other words (i.e. have become noun groups): 'a consideration that was not taken by me' (which also includes a downranked clause), and 'the uncertainty of its benefit'. Also, the word 'benefit' -- which is used as a verb in the first text -- is used as a noun in the second, and included as part of a larger noun group.

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Interpersonal Metaphors

Projection

Interpersonal metaphors may present a problem to some students.

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Speech Acts

Another interpersonal metaphor that we may want to note in relation to stylistic analysis, is that associated with what is known elsewhere as speech acts (pp. 342-5, 363-7, 631-4).

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Cyberlinks

Metaphor is one of those multi-disciplinary topics which are very well served on the internet. There are many electronic documents on metaphor which can be accessed via the links provided by The Conceptual Metaphor Home Page. The site also has an Index of Metaphors which shows how widespread metaphors are in everyday language.

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Texts to Analyse

Shakespeare's Sonnet 56
Extract from Charles Dickens's Our Mutual Friend


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Last revised: 11 May 2017
Ismail S. Talib 1996-2017.