Metaphor, the Magic Modifier

MaryAnn Duffy

My favorite part of the semester is about halfway through when the students can identify the elements of a sentence and start focusing on their own writing style and its rhetorical effects. Students first complete a tally of their sentence patterns. Many discover they favor longer sentences laden with wordy modifiers, particularly dependent clauses. I then ask them to generate a list of the types of modifiers from the longest to the shortest.  As we generate examples, we talk about the rhetorical implications of the modifiers.

Our list usually ends up with the dependent clause as the potentially longest (e.g., wordiest) modifier followed by verbal, absolute and prepositional, adjective and appositive phrases.  The least wordy, of course, are the single word adjective and adverb.

This is when I introduce the metaphor, our language’s most powerful and concise modifying element whose structural simplicity is in inverse proportion to the punch it packs. Metaphor is technically a figure of speech used to describe something. With its simple construction – x is y – (e.g., man is a machine), a metaphor does much more than just describe. It has the power to define the heretofore undefinable and change cultural perceptions and ways of thinking in a linguistic community.  As such, no other grammatical construction has the potential to make writing sparkle as powerfully as metaphor.  When explained theoretically, we find that the anatomy of the metaphor is the keyhole through which we see the magic of language itself.

Linguistic Theory of Metaphor

In 1975, the philosopher Paul Ricoeur published The Rule of Metaphor, where he explores the theories of metaphor in his quest to define evil. Out of this study was born his concept of the novel metaphor.

The novel metaphor opens up the function of language from a closed system to a means by which we can expand our understanding of the world, shift our ways of thinking, create new paradigms. Metaphor, then, is not just another means of modifying, but a way of creating new ways of understanding.

Ricoeur takes us from Aristotle’s definition of metaphor–substitution of one word for another–to the philosopher Max Black’s semantic theory.  For Black, metaphor is part of a system where the focus is on the sentence as the first unit of meaning, not the word. Ricoeur explains: “Any linguistic unit whatsoever can be accepted as such only if one can identify it within some higher-level unit, the phoneme in the word, the word in the sentence” (The Rule 67). Therefore, the single word used metaphorically in a sentence only has meaning with reference to its relationship to the sentence as a whole.

In a metaphor, that interrelationship is built on tension. Man is a machine is really saying man is and is not a machine. The greater the tension in the metaphor between the is and the is not, the more novel the metaphor.  It is because linguistic communities share common cultural conceptions that we are able to understand that x is y in some way, though not in every way.

Black called these shared conceptions a linguistic community’s “system of associated commonplaces.” These are our common conceptions and thinking patterns.  We are only able to understand unique comparisons “by virtue of the opinions and preconceptions to which a reader in a linguistic community, by the very fact that he speaks, finds himself committed” (The Rule 87).

If the focus (the metaphorical word) creates too much tension with its frame (the sentence), and thus is too outside of the associative commonplaces, then the metaphor will not make sense. However, if it is just within our shared cultural understandings, the metaphor will resonate.

Lakoff and Turner put it best:

General conceptual metaphors are thus not the unique creation of individual poets but are rather part of the way embers of a culture have a conceptualizing their experience.  Poets, as members of their cultures, naturally make use of these basic conceptual metaphors to communicate with other members, their audience.

Ricoeur states that associated commonplaces “enlarge the meaning of our words, adding cultural and emotional dimensions to the literal values codified by our dictionaries” (“Creativity” 109).

When we use new comparisons – unique metaphors – we are able to create new perceptions within a culture. Ricoeur called these types of metaphors “living metaphors.” They, still, however operate within the accepted cultural associations and so, are trivial, “because they do not enable one to see a new reality, but only an old concept in a new way” (“Creativity” 107).

Ricoeur describes the trivial metaphor created within a system of associative commonplaces as such: “The art of metaphor is to apply a part of this treasure to new subjects, to use it as a screen which not only selects, but which brings forth new aspects in principal subject.  In this way, even trivial metaphors have an informative value” (“Creativity” 107).

Too much is makes the metaphor cliche, or at best trivial. Too much is not and the metaphor is beyond comprehension and collapses under its own structure. The living metaphor forces the string nearly to its snapping point, but its tension is what reverberates and makes the writing resonate.  The tautness of the string determines the clarity of the note.

The Real Magic of Metaphor is in the Novel Metaphor

A novel metaphor doesn’t just rearrange our system of associated common places, it adds to it. When the is not dominates, one is required to stretch the boundaries of one’s conceptions. The novel metaphor “blurs the conceptual boundaries of the terms considered. . . for with it, associations shared by a linguistic community no longer serve to explain what the metaphor connotes” (“Creativity” 108).

With the novel metaphor, the string snaps, in a sense, and the reader is forced outside her system of associated commonplaces. This involves a shedding of old assumptions and an adoption of new ones. In this way, the novel metaphor goes beyond modifying; it is at the essence of defining the newly discovered and therefore can move a culture forward in its perceptions and understandings of the universe.

Nowhere is this more evident in science. In fact, metaphor is often the only way to define new scientific discoveries. In “The Function of Scientific Metaphors: An Example of the Creative Power of Metaphors in Biological Theories,” Rodriguez and Arroyo-Santos explain:

Our main conclusion in relation to scientific creativity will be that scientific metaphors are central to the construction of models and to the constitution of new scientific theories and that, specially when they are at the beginning of their formulation, theories should resort to metaphors in order to provide understanding and to allow to extract inferences by using knowledge available from other domains. Without the help of metaphors, these conditions could not be met. On the second hand, metaphors are related to creativity as they have a characteristic inferential and heuristic power allowing for construing new scientific hypotheses and providing the basis.

Ricoeur states that the novel metaphor “we create a new framework of connotation which exists only in the actual act of predication” (“Creativity” 107). Metaphor is like language, itself.  Everything we write is to assert an is while simultaneously acknowledging a host of is nots.  If we can condense all of that into a three word construction, it can be explosive.

Living metaphors make writing sparkle and resonate, but novel metaphors can change the world.

Implications for Teaching Writing

In my writing class, I require a concentration on global issues where delving into other religions and cultures is part of students’ research. Research assignments involving other countries demand students to step inside another’s system of associated common places. We also discuss how people from different cultures may not understand our metaphors, even the cliche ones, because they don’t always share our system of associative common places.

Next, I challenge students to come up with their own metaphors about their research topics. They search for metaphors for world hunger, child soldiers, corporate exploitation, etc. With the to be verb and two nominatives, (x is y) , they are forced to zero in on their topic with precision and originality.  Through this exercise, students come to understand how the magic of metaphor goes to the heart of language itself.  How do we describe, and is our description adding something new, describing something we already know, or repeating a cliche that adds nothing to the issue? It is a tool that forces students to probe their assumptions, go beyond description and articulate a unique angle on any given topic.

Finally, I recap with the students how modifying elements, specifically metaphor, can help a writer tap back into the emotional, moral and non-tangibles of their topic. Describing something depends on intuition sparked by an emotional response to something we try to make logical sense out of through writing. Though modifiers require knowledge of grammar and its rhetorical effects, ultimately the types and arrangement of modifiers one uses to write is intuitive.

Joan Didion said it best in her essay, “Why I Write.”  She talks about how grammar creates the “shimmer” in writing:

Just as I meant “shimmer” literally I mean “grammar” literally. . . .  All I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed. Many people know about camera angles now, but not so many know about sentences. The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind. The picture dictates the arrangement. The picture dictates whether this will be a sentence with or without clauses, a sentence that ends hard or a dying-fall sentence, long or short, active or passive. The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture. Nota bene.

It tells you.

You don’t tell it.

Ah, grammar!

Works Cited

Didion, Joan. “Why I Write.”

Lakoff, George and Mark Turner. More than a Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press., 1989.

Ricoeur, Paul. “Creativity in Language.” Philosophy Today 17 Summer 1973: 107.

Ricoeur, Paul. The Rule of Metaphor. Toronto: University of Toronto, 1975. Print.

Rodriguez, Xavier Dedonato and Alfonso Arroyo-Santos. “The Function of Scientific Metaphors: An Example of the Creative Power of Metaphors in Biological Theories.”

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4 Responses to Metaphor, the Magic Modifier

  1. Shyam Sharma says:

    Thank you for sharing a wonderful post, MaryAnn.
    Like all the posts we’ve read so far, this one also gives us the opportunity to learn one good pedagogical idea from a colleague. Moreover, you have also added some great references for readers who may be interested in learning more about the topic. To borrow the metaphors of “keyhole” that you’ve used–“the anatomy of the metaphor is the keyhole through which we see the magic of language itself”–you’ve provided not just a snapshot of a particular teaching practice in your classroom but also a view of some relevant scholarship on the topic.
    I really enjoyed reading this post.

  2. carolynsofia says:

    MaryAnn,
    Let me echo Shyam’s comment. I thoroughly enjoyed this post, both the description of your own experiences in the classroom and the cited articles. Didion had a marvelous passage that I will share with my own students:

    “Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed. Many people know about camera angles now, but not so many know about sentences. The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind. The picture dictates the arrangement. The picture dictates whether this will be a sentence with or without clauses, a sentence that ends hard or a dying-fall sentence, long or short, active or passive. The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture. Nota bene.

    It tells you.

    You don’t tell it.’

    Best,
    Carolyn Sofia

    • MaryAnn Duffy says:

      I love that quote and wanted to include it, though I struggled to make it fit this blog. It doesn’t really fit, but I couldn’t resist. Glad you liked it! Grammar is so tricky because when we grow up in standard English-speaking households, we have the luxury of being intuitive with our sentence constructions, but for non-standard English speakers, it is not quite the same as it is for Didion, though we strive to get our students to that point of comfort with the language.

  3. Patrizia C. Benolich says:

    Wow! MaryAnne! My sincerest compliments, with many, many thanks! I am undone by the sentence that reads “Living metaphors make writing sparkle and resonate, but novel metaphors can change the world”. Re the role of science in the creation of metaphor, I was quite reminded, of Henry Adam’s iconic metaphor for Centripetal and Centrifugal force: “The Dynamo and the Virgin”. Soooo much food for thought in this article, not to mention ideas for lessons…. my sincerest thanks again!

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