When is a Raven Not Like a Writing Desk?

A colleague on Grammar Geeks, one of the many LinkedIn groups to which I belong, recently raised an interesting question about metaphors and how they overlap with other analogies such as idioms. So I thought it would be helpful to review some definitions and examples and to hear from you about your experiences with these terms.

Analogies are comparisons and most often include similes, or explicit comparisons, and metaphors, or implicit comparisons. So for example, my love is like a red, red rose is a simile indicated by the word like; whereas my lover’s lips are cherries, sweeter than honey, ripe and delicious is a metaphor. It’s a comparison, but there’s no word – like, as, or so marking the crossover between literal and figurative language.

There are obviously many other types of analogies besides metaphors and similes. For example, personification is a highly specialized type of analogy in which an animal or inanimate object is given the characteristics of a human being. You could make the argument that onomatopoeia is an analogy in which a sound is represented by a series of phonemes. (Jacques Derrida and other deconstructionists took this argument to its extreme, claiming that all language is analogous to other language and is therefore ultimately referential only to itself and by extension nonsensical.)

Extensive analogies can be useful for scientific writers who are trying to clarify a complex system, process, or concept for their readers. When using this tactic remember to provide a full, detailed, and engaging description of the analogous process and then to demonstrate point by point how each part of your description is either like or unlike the more complex process that is your focus.

A question raised in the LinkedIn group was to what extent are idioms analogies, and if they are, what is their relationship, if any, to metaphors? An idiom, according to Webster (1996) is “an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements […] or from the general grammatical rules of a language […] and that is not a constituent of a larger expression of like characteristics.” In other words, it’s not an analogy.

One characteristic of idioms is that they very often don’t make logical sense even in their native language. We see this most clearly in phrasal verbs such as get up, get on, get off, or get out. Those are idiomatic usages. There’s no metaphor behind them, and there’s no logical explanation for them. They are simply syntactic structures that gain their meaning based on conventional usage.

One problem with idioms as well as with analogies is that they don’t translate very well, from language to language as well as from context to context. Those of us who are writing in corporate, business, technical, or academic environments should be wary of idiomatic usages because they can be easily misconstrued.

Particularly if you have a phrasal verb – that is, if you notice a preposition accompanying a verb – try to find an alternative. So instead of saying in case of fire everyone should get out of the building as quickly as possible, try saying in case of fire everyone should leave the building as quickly as possible. That will make your document easier to translate.

A closely related figure of speech is a euphemism. These are figures intended to soften, diminish, or mask an unpleasant truth but that often have the effect of becoming more disagreeable by seeming patronizing, sentimental, or just blatantly ridiculous.

Finally words that we call jargon or colloquial had metaphoric significance at one time and now perhaps retain it within a discipline (jargon) or a region (colloquialism). However, those terms are in the process of being co-opted by other disciplines, diluted by mass usage, or fading into obscurity resulting in a loss of the metaphoric meaning.

As our language evolves, either before these terms become idioms, or instead of these terms ever becoming idiomatic, they become repulsive to a body of writers and editors. It is at this critical point their fate is decided.

We have already forgotten that mob referred to the mobile or transient nature of the poor, common, and vulgar. Will we remember that stakeholders used to pound a bit of wood into the ground and mark out their territory? Will writers consciously use critical mass to describe chain reactions or events on a scale with consequences akin to those of a nuclear reactor, or will we continue to see its proliferation in business documents as a synonym for enough?

This is how language evolves and how we as writers are responsible for its evolution.

Ravens and Writing DesksP.S. For those who are interested, the title of this post refers to a riddle posed to the eponymous character in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Several explanations have been offered for it, the most famous of which being that Poe wrote on both. Carroll maintained that it, like much of the linguistic play in the text, was nonsensical.


  1. Loved reading Carroll (still giggle over “The Hunting Of The Snark”), and one of my sisters used to recite “Jabberwocky” with the most hilarious and captivating drama to her 10-month-old nephew.

    But yes, these different categories of expression will always be around in any language–they change as we do, but language won’t become “nonsensical” anymore than the human race has.

    But language is also there for us–and paid some very interesting visits to Carroll–when we want to creatively lose it, and that’s true in any language, too. I never knew Poe and others attempted to decipher what was clearly a bent-over-backwards performance of linguistic fun. That in itself is funny to me.

  2. Joy Moitra says:

    The article is interesting. It provides deep insight into a lot of fuzzy areas of the English language. It is a great help to editors.

    Thanks and regards
    Joy Moitra

  3. Pieces like this are one example of what I love so much about writing, especially in English! I’m writing a book on how to teach “advanced” writing techniques to children…and adults, in secret! It’s here: http://copypassion.com/?p=219


  1. […] or the plain conditional are interchangeable. That’s why this usage is described as idiomatic. As you’ll recall, idioms are conventional usages of language with little or no logical […]

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