Everyday Metaphor: An Argument Against Prescriptivism

Dec 6, 2011 by

BY JULIE JIGOUR (Continuing Studies, “The Glamour of Grammar”)

Language prescriptivists attest that there is a correct way to speak and write, a standard form of language that is inherently better than nonstandard forms. They claim that standard language is clearer, more logical, and more precise than the language of nonstandard dialects (in the case of English, for example, African American vernacular English). Often attaching a sort of sanctity to standard language, they charge that nonstandard forms threaten to sully the standard and that these forms reflect a less intelligent and less articulate populace. The arguments prescriptivists use in favor of standard language, however, are flawed. We can see in English, for example, that the standard form is not clearer, more logical, or more precise. The lack of precision is particularly evident in the degree to which metaphor enters everyday use of Standard English.

Metaphor, a figure of speech in which one concept is applied to another concept in order to indicate a comparison, is inherently imprecise in that it uses comparison rather than direct statement. We expect to encounter metaphor in poetry and other forms of literature, but we fail to recognize the more subtle shades of metaphor that arise in most of what we read, write, and say. Metaphor abounds, for example, in the news and in journalistic publications such as The Economist.

The article “Africa rising” in the December 3, 2011, issue of The Economist exemplifies the pervasiveness of metaphor in Standard English. In this one-page article, we find numerous instances of metaphor, including specific forms of figurative language that can be considered subcategories of metaphor: personification, the attribution of humanlike qualities to the nonhuman or inanimate, and metonymy, the use of one word to refer to something associated with it. It is probably safe to assume that flaunting literary devices is not a primary concern of writers for The Economist as they report on global issues. All the more striking, then, is the frequency with which metaphor appears in the publication; this frequency reflects the degree to which metaphor occupies the everyday language of Standard English speakers, whose use of metaphor is often unconscious.

Early on, the article “Africa rising” states, “Optimism about Africa needs to be taken in fairly small doses”. Optimism is a concept that cannot be measured out as one measures doses of medicine, but by referring to optimism in this way, the writer helps us understand that too much optimism could be dangerous in this context. This metaphor is a common one in everyday language: “I can only take her in small doses”, “I like that band but only in small doses”, and so forth. The meaning of the metaphor is clear to speakers of Standard English, but that clarity does not come from the precision of the language, which if taken on a literal level would be quite confusing. The clarity of the message, in fact, rests on the inexactitude of the language and the associations that inexactitude offers.

Metaphoric language appears again when the author states that Africa is “at last getting a taste of peace and decent government”, that “Western governments should open up to trade rather than just dish out aid”, and that “politicians need to keep their noses out of the trough and to leave power when their voters tell them to”. Obviously, Africa is not a physical body that can taste, and peace and government cannot be tasted. Likewise, Western governments do not comprise a physical body dishing out aid as if it’s food, and the author is not suggesting that politicians are actually face-down, eating from a trough. Readers of Standard English, however, readily understand the meaning these metaphors convey. We often use forms of these metaphors in casual conversation: “I hope he gets a taste of his own medicine, “She can dish it out, but she can’t take it”, and “Keep your nose out of my business”.

It is interesting to note that all of the previously mentioned metaphors make reference to taking something into the body or to the physical activity of eating or providing food. Many of the metaphors we use are based on our experiences as physical beings. We often try to understand and explain concepts by means of relating them to the immediacy and concreteness of our physical lives. In fact, as Ghomeshi writes, “Given that metaphors map one domain of experience onto another, we might ask where the starting point is. Researchers in this field claim that the ‘basic’ or non-metaphoric concepts are not ‘literal’ but rather concepts that are grounded in our physical experience” (62).

There are yet more subtle uses of metaphor that not only pervade our language but also reveal how much we conceptualize the world around us based on our physical experience in space. In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson categorize this sort of metaphor as orientational metaphor. These metaphors deal with spatial orientation—”up-down, in-out, front-back, on-off, deep-shallow, central-peripheral”—and are based on our experiences as physical bodies (14). In our culture, for example, happiness is “up”, and sadness is “down”. We can see this in such expressions as “I’m feeling up” and “I’m feeling down“. According to Lakoff and Johnson, the physical basis for this could be that we tend to exhibit a more erect posture when we are happy, while we may droop and appear physically weighed down when we are sad. In terms of up-down spatial orientation, our metaphors also indicate that conscious is “up” and unconscious is “down” (“I am an early riser” and “I fell asleep”), health is “up” and sickness is “down” (“I am at the peak of my health” and “I came down with a terrible cold”), more is “up” and less is “down” (“The amount of money I made went up that year” and “The time it takes me to run a mile keeps going down“), good is “up” and bad is “down” (“Things are looking up” and “Things have been going downhill“), virtue is “up” and depravity is “down” (“I am an upright citizen” and “I wouldn’t stoop to that level”), having control is “up” and being controlled is “down” (“I have the upper hand in the situation” and “I am under your control”), and high status is “up” and low status is “down” (“I will climb the social ladder” and “That is lowbrow entertainment”) (15).

The title of the article from The Economist—”Africa rising”—uses an orientational metaphor. The title is not meant to indicate that Africa is physically levitating. The metaphor in “Africa rising” is based on how we spatially orient the relationship between having power and being controlled and between having a high status and having a low status. Having power and a high status is “up”, while being controlled and having a low status is “down”. As the economic and political state of Africa improves and Africa thereby gains more power and status, we see the continent as moving from “down” to “up”. Thus, we understand the figure of speech used in “Africa rising”.

The article also exhibits more-less orientational metaphors. The author writes, “Food production per person has slumped since independence in the 1960s”. There is less food production per person, and less is “down”. Accordingly, readers understand what it means for food production per person to have “slumped”. The physical basis of this orientational metaphor is especially clear as “slumping” is generally something we associate with a human body. More-less spatial orientation appears again when the author discusses the state of cross-border commerce “as tariffs fall”. Here, the orientational metaphor “tariffs fall” communicates the idea that tariffs are lessening, not that tariffs are actually falling to the ground as leaves fall from a tree.

Another specific form of figurative language that can be considered under the umbrella of metaphor is personification, or the attribution of humanlike qualities to the nonhuman or inanimate. The heading beneath the title “Africa rising” exhibits personification: “After decades of slow growth, Africa has a real chance to follow in the footsteps of Asia”. Here, Africa is endowed with humanlike qualities—it is given a physical body to follow in the footsteps of Asia, which is also personified as having created footsteps. We know that Africa is not a physical human body and that it therefore cannot physically follow the footsteps of Asia, but personification allows us “to make sense of phenomena in the world in human terms—terms that we can understand on the basis of our own motivations, goals, actions, and characteristics” (Johnson and Lakoff 34).

We see a similar use of personification within the article when the author writes, “The climate is worsening, with deforestation and desertification still on the march”. Just as Africa cannot actually follow footsteps, deforestation and desertification are incapable of physically marching. The personification tells us, rather, that deforestation and desertification are significant problems without an immediate solution. Later, the author writes that “African countries threw off their colonial shackles”. A clear example of personification, this figurative language conjures an image of slavery and describes African countries as slaves setting themselves free from the shackles that have bound their bodies. Read figuratively, this language enhances our understanding of the relationship between Africa and colonial powers.

We employ metonymy, another form of metaphor, when we use one word to refer to something associated with it. In “Africa rising”, the author states that “Zimbabwe is a scar on the conscience of the rest of southern Africa”. Not only is it metaphoric to call Zimbabwe a “scar” and to personify southern Africa by giving it a “conscience”; it is also metaphoric to use “Zimbabwe” as the subject of the statement. The place “Zimbabwe” has not created the “scarring” effect to which the author refers. Here, we have a case of what Lakoff and Johnson call “place for the institution” metonymy (38). The name of a place is used to refer to the institution within it that is responsible for the action described in the sentence. Lakoff and Johnson provide such examples as “The White House isn’t saying anything”, “Paris is introducing longer skirts this season”, and “Hollywood isn’t what it used to be” (38). As Ghomeshi writes in Grammar Matters, “We use metonymy because it provides a kind of shorthand” (64). It would take too long and yield far less manageable sentences to refer always to the specific subject. In the absence of metonymy and in an effort toward greater precision, we could rewrite the sentence from “Africa rising” to refer not to “Zimbabwe” but to “the institution at work in Zimbabwe that has yielded negative results” or something similarly clunky. The shorthand of metonymy enables us to communicate more easily, but it relies on imprecision: It allows us to convey meaning by freeing us of the burden of being completely exact and specific with our words.

The metaphoric language in “Africa rising” exemplifies the imprecision of Standard English. Thus, prescriptivists’ argument that Standard English is precise fails, shall we use a metaphor, to hold water. According to Ghomeshi, “Precision, like many other concepts, can only be assessed in terms of how accurately a message has been conveyed, not in terms of the form the message has taken” (62). The prescriptivist’s argument is one of form, not of content. The form of Standard English is not precise because it is a form full of metaphor and metaphor is imprecise by nature. Nonstandard forms of English, like African American vernacular English, succeed in conveying clear messages because the language of these forms, and of the metaphors within the forms, have meaning in the cultural context of their speakers. We could easily find evidence of ambiguity in nonstandard forms, but as Ghomeshi states, to the chagrin of prescriptivists, “There is no such thing as ambiguity-free language” (65).


Ghomeshi, Jila. Grammar Matters: The Social Significance of How We Use Language. Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2010. Print.
Johnson, Mark, and George Lakoff. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980. Print.

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  • Anthony

    "It is probably safe to assume that flaunting literary devices is not a primary concern of writers for The Economist as they report on global issues."

    Having been a reader of The Economist for a couple of decades, I can assure you that flaunting literary devices *is* a significant, if not a primary, concern of their writers.

  • Miguel

    I found the article fascinating and enlightening.

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @Anthony: I have to agree with you — the Economist's writers do seem quite keen on metaphorical use of language, not to mention British slang… See here: http://geocurrents.info/site-news/geocurrents-advertising-policy-and-british-slang-in-the-economist