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English 370, Winter 2020


See also: Assignments and Updates

This is the Blackboard Page. All supplemental materials for English 370 will be posted below.

1. Ye Newe Mini-Grammar

2. The Speaker in the Text

3. Writing About Style

4a. Two Passages for Analysis

4b. MORE Passages for Analysis

5. Linguistic Self-Profile

6a. Morphology: Once More From the Top

6b. Phonological Rules

7. What Grammar is and What Grammar Isn't

8a. Literary Metaphor

8b. Conceptual Metaphor

8c. Shakespeare's Sonnet 95

9. The English 370 Course Portfolio

English 370


The NEW All Ye Know About Syntax,

and All Ye Need to Know


I. Phrase Structure Rules (to get to basic/deep/logical structures)

S —› NP VP
S —› S (c S)*
NP —› (det) (ADV)* (ADJ)* N (S)
NP —› S
ADV —› adv
ADV —› subconj S
ADJ —› (ADV) adj
PP —› prep NP
VP —› V (NP) (ADV)*
VP —› Vc (ADV) (ADJ) (NP)
V —› T (aux) Vb
Vc —› T (aux) Vb

II. Transformational Rules (or, Changes you can make in basic structures to generate revised/surface structures)

1. Embedding Rules:

a) Nominalization (To use an entire sentence as a noun phrase insert one of the nominalizers: <that>, <for-to>, or <poss-, -ing>).

b) NP deletions with <for-to> nominalizations: We almost always delete the NP of a "for-to" nominalization functioning as a direct object of the verb as long as 1) the S can be understood without repeating the NP when it is spoken or read, and 2) when the embedded NP is the same as the subject NP in the main clause. Thus "I want for me to go" —›"I want to go."

Contrariwise, if in similar conditions the two NPs are not the same, then we cannot delete the NP, but we can still  delete the "for." So "I want for Sally to go" is almost always shortened to "I want Sally to go."

c) We can also delete the nominalizer <that> for a S that is the direct object of a verb. Thus I know that he lies—›I know he lies.

2. Relative Clause formation (I know a man + the man is tall —› I know a man who is tall.) Step 1: NP-fronting if necessary; Step 2: NP-by-Relative Pronoun replacement; Step 3: If NP-fronting has occurred, Optional RP deletion.

3. Rearrangement Rules:

a) Passive formation (Bill loves Jill —› Jill is loved by Bill.) Steps of the Passive transformation:     

1) Insert passive auxiliary <be, -en>,
2) Insert agent marker “by” to the Subject NP;
3) Invert the Subject and Object NPs.

b) Question formation (Bill loves Jill —› Does Jill love Bill?)
c) Command formation (You leave the room—› Leave the room!)
d) Adverb movement (I left the room slowly—› Slowly, I left the room.)

4. Miscellaneous: Compound reduction: (Paul has eaten roses, and Bill has eaten roses—›Paul and Bill have eaten roses.) (This is essentially how all parallel constructions are created: I ate eggs and I ate bacon—›I ate eggs and bacon.)


Speaker in the Text: Two Practice Passages--

Using the Speaker in the Text to guide your work write out a description of each of these speakers as you "hear" them, and then note as many characteristics of the language in first one passage and then the other as you can.

1. Ecclesiastes, from the Bible, King James Version

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth forever. The sun also riseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again to his circuits. All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again. All things are full of labor; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. The thing which hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

2. Ernest Hemingway, from “Big Two-Hearted River”

Nick looked at the burned-over stretch of hillside, where he had expected to find the scattered houses of the town and then walked down the railroad track to the bridge over the river. The river was there. It swirled against the log piles of the bridge. Nick looked down into the clear, brown water, colored from the pebbly bottom, and watched the trout keeping themselves steady in the current with wavering fins. As he watched them they changed their positions by quick angles, only to hold steady in the fast water again. Nick watched them a long time.

He watched them holding themselves with their noses into the current, many trout in deep, fast moving water, slightly distorted as he watched far down through the glassy convex surface of the pool, its surface pushing and swelling smooth against the resistance of the log-driven piles of the bridge. At the bottom of the pool were the big trout. Nick did not see them at first. Then he saw them at the bottom of the pool, big trout looking to hold themselves on the gravel bottom in a varying mist of gravel and sand, raised in spurts by the current.


More Speaker passages—more practice

3. Jayne Anne Phillips, from “Home”

I’m afraid Walter Cronkite has had it, says Mom. Roger Mudd always does the news now—how would you like to have a name like that? Walter used to do the conventions and a football game now and then. I mean he would sort of appear, on the sidelines. Didn’t he? But you never see him anymore. Lord. Something is going on.

Mom, I say. Maybe he’s just resting. He must have made a lot of money by now. Maybe he’s tired of talking about elections and mine disasters and the collapse of the franc. Maybe he’s in love with a young girl.

He’s not the type, says my mother. You can tell THAT much. No, she says, I’m afraid it’s cancer.

My mother has her suspicions. She ponders. I have been home with her for two months. I ran out of money and I wasn’t in love, so I have come home to my mother. She is an educational administrator. All winter long after work she watches television and knits afghans.

Come home, she said. Save money.

I can’t possibly do it, I said. Jesus, I’m twenty-three years old.

Don’t be silly, she said. And don’t use profanity.

4. Margaret Atwood, from Surfacing

I can’t believe I’m on this road again, twisting along past the lake where the white birches are dying, the disease is spreading up from the south, and I notice they now have seaplanes for hire. But this is still near the city limits; we didn’t go through, it’s swelled enough to have a bypass, that’s success.

I never thought of it as a city but as the last or first outpost depending on which way we were going, an accumulation of sheds and boxes and one main street with a movie theater, the itz, the oyal, red R burned out, and two restaurants which served identical gray hamburger steaks plastered with mud gravy and canned peas, watery and pallid as fisheyes, and French fries bleary with lard. Order a poached egg, my mother said, you can tell if it’s fresh by the edges.

5. Dickens, David Copperfield

    Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.  To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night.  It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously. 

     In consideration of the day and hour of my birth, it was declared by the nurse, and by some sage women in the neighborhood, who had taken a lively interest in me several months before there was any possibility of our becoming personally acquainted, first, that I was destined to be unlucky in life; and secondly, that I was privileged to see ghosts and spirits—both these gifts inevitably attaching, as they believed, to all unlucky infants, of either gender, born towards the small hours on a Friday night.

6. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

   If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.  In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them.  They’re quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father.  They’re nice and all—I’m not saying that—but they’re also touchy as hell.  Besides, I’m not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything.

Your Language Self-Profile, Step 1

LSP Step 1: Background

You will be working over the next 10 weeks through a series of ways of thinking about how people use the English language. Technically, we’ll survey phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics, and then we’ll go on to look at pragmatics, or, language in use—particularly the ways in which utterances can be meaningful in extra-literal ways.

Through all of this I hope it becomes very clear that being a speaker of a language is always a balancing act between what “the language speaking community” defines as appropriate sounds/words/modes of expression (the constraints on us as speakers), on one hand, and what any given individual’s own language experience and/or creativity enables them to bring to a given speech situation (the variation or diversity or creativity we display as speakers), on the other. Your job in this assignment is to create a profile of yourself as a speaker that describes both the ways in which your idiolect (a word that means "the version of English that is distinctive to you") is like and is unlike that of other speakers. As much uniformity as there is among speakers of any language, there is also a huge range of differences. You will be relating your idiolect to general American Northwest English—the basic dialect of English we will be using in this classroom.

In all that you write, please believe that I’m really interested in what you actually do when you speak English. I don’t care whether the differences you find between the way you speak and others speak are huge or small, but I do want you to sort through what you do as a speaker and writer of English and locate a set of identifying characteristics of YOUR idiolect.

The Writing

Step one of the Language Self-Profile asks you to write a 2-3 page description of yourself as a user of English. This will be the first step towards making yourself a “case study” for this project. You won't yet know a lot about linguistics, but you are nevertheless already the best authority there is (although an unconscious one!) on your particular idiolect. You are thus the insider here, and your job is to give me a verbal snapshot of your linguistic self as best you can.

So describe your language use now as best you can—i.e., do you always speak English? or do you speak another language in your daily life? If you are a native speaker what do you see as your strengths? or your challenges as a user of English? How would you describe your language use? What "accent" do you think you have? What are your favorite words? Why? If you are an English language learner, think about your strengths, and about what you want to do better. What problems crop up in your efforts to speak with or write to others? like classmates or professors? Can you tell a story that illustrates these issues?

Other questions you might address: What is the richest part of your vocabulary? What kind of writer are you? What are your strengths? What are your challenges?

In Short: Think of yourself in your role as user of English, and describe and illustrate as best you can your own particular idiolect.

Ordinarily, a good essay in this class would be well-focused, equipped with well-selected detail/example, as complete as the assigned length would allow, and written in an engaging, colloquial English. But since you only have a couple days to do this, and most of you don't yet know a lot about how linguists describe the ways we use language, the criterion for this first effort is simply ECI: Engaged Critical Intelligence.

(This assignment is based on an assignment first designed by Professor Colette Moore.)


Linguistic Self-Profile Part II: Background

You’ve been working over the course of this quarter through a series of ways of thinking about how people use the English language. Technically, we’ve surveyed phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics, and then we’ve gone on to look at language in use—particularly the ways in which utterances can be meaningful in extra-literal ways. For this assignment, I want you to use as much of this as you can on a language-based case study—on yourself. You wrote part one of this assignment as the quarter began; think of that as a starting point—what do you know now that can develop, clarify, or make more specific what you wrote then? Remember that I will not remember very clearly what you said then—it is more of an early experimental draft of what you now should be able to do with more linguistic precision and detail. So feel free about using that material again, but now upgraded and expanded to include ways of thinking about and being precise about language that you didn't have way back then.

So now that the quarter is ending, what, you may ask, do you have to say?

The Linguistic Self-Profile Assignment Part II

Part II of the Linguistic Self-Profile project asks you to reflect again upon your experience as a user of the English language and this time to construct a 4-6 page essay presenting several of the larger insights that you have gained over the course of the quarter. Your first step in this project came in week 1 of the quarter.  There I asked you for an introductory view of yourself as language user—knowing that few of you would have a lot of knowledge about the different dimensions of language study that linguistics offers you.  I really liked what you all wrote—your essays showed a laudable, often remarkable, self-awareness about yourselves as language users. 

Now, however, having over the past weeks surveyed with varying levels of attention a wide range of ways in which linguists and language philosophers understand how we use language, I’m asking you to rethink, extend, and develop (where appropriate) what you came up with for Part I. 

I want to be clear: I’m not asking for a rewrite of Part I. Indeed, Part I might now best be titled:  “My pre-370 Understanding of How I Use English,” and I want you to turn in Part I along with Part II at (or before) the date and time of the final exam

Coming as it does as the all-but-last piece of the course, you will in effect in this paper have the opportunity to demonstrate to me as well as to yourself a good chunk of how much you have learned in this course.

In researching your own language, be sure to begin by reviewing all that we’ve been reading and talking about for the past several weeks: your phonology and dialect status, your vocabulary, your ways with morphology, your style registers and anything else that has come up; think too about your own kinds of indirect speech, about your politeness profile, your own characteristic ways of participating in various sorts of conversational exchanges.  Or do you uptalk?  Always? If not when?  Why do you suppose you do? (To use your new understandings of phonetics to expand your analysis of your Northwestern idiolect, go to:  and )

Taking a page from the Speaker in the Text, you can also consult your writing as evidence of your language knowledge. Are there in the sorts of things you write particular variations that characterize your idiolect?

In Short:  Describe yourself as an English language user in terms as informed as possible by your work this quarter and documented with illustrations from your own particular idiolect.  

You can earn up to 100 points for the total project, Parts I and II combined (22.5% of your course grade). 

Grading Criteria

  • Extent of your survey: you can't talk about everything, but I would expect to see particular focus on three to four areas.
  • Accuracy and sufficiency of Documentation: i.e., clear and well-chosen examples that can document your claims.
  • Linguistic sophistication (within expectations set by this course): you have learned various modes of linguistic description—like phonemic transcription—and I will expect you to use it appropriately.
  • Effective presentation skills. Readable, reasonably grammatical, well-organized, coherent.

(This assignment is based on an assignment designed by Professor Colette Moore.)


Morphology: Once More from the Top


What it is: Morphology is the study of the permissible forms words can take in a given language. It is the least “regular” of the formal elements that make up the grammar of a language, but just as with phonetics and (as we’ll see shortly) syntax, there are nevertheless a number of basic rules that govern the forms words take in English.

The rules for creating new words in English (a new word is often called a “neologism”) are set out pretty well in your book. We will continue to use that chapter’s explanation of our ways of creating new words in English.

But I want to review and make a couple of additions to what you have read in the text in order to clarify the different kinds of morphemes I'd like you to know about.

So that’s what I’m going to do here—offer you a treatment of some key morphological concepts that will replace/supplement the treatment the text gives you.

(In any conflict between what this essay says and what your text says, THIS account is the one we will be working with.)

What do I want you to know about English morphemes?

Words in English are made up of one or more basic elements. Each of these elements is called a morpheme. The study of morphology is the study of what sorts of combinations of elements exist in English, and, insofar as we can deduce them, the rules English follows for the combination and use of those elements. Even though a lot of what happens with words depends on language history and on oddities of use and the absorption of neologisms into the larger frame of English as a whole, there are still rules and regularities in morphology as well as in phonology and (as we will see next) syntax.

First we need some technical terms to identify different morphemes in English.

The basic terms we will need are stem (or root) or affix (including “prefix, infix, suffix”), free or bound, derivational or inflectional, lexical or grammatical, productive or non-productive.

A free morpheme is an irreducible unit of meaning that can occur either by itself (and therefore free from combination with any other morpheme) or, sometimes, in combination with other morphemes. When a free morpheme occurs by itself, it is identical to its corresponding word. Thus the word “word” is a free morpheme, as are “free” and “cool” and “talk.”

A bound morpheme is an irreducible unit of meaning that can occur ONLY in combination with one or more other morphemes. The morpheme “-dom” which occurs in words like “freedom” and “kingdom” is a bound morpheme, since it does not occur on its own as the word *“dom.”

Thus the word “freedom” is made up of two morphemes, the free morpheme <free> and the bound morpheme <-dom> (from now on I will use the pointed brackets to signify a morpheme—just as we used square brackets to identify phones and forward slashes to identify phonemes). The word "chalkboard" is a little different; it is also made up of two morphemes, <chalk> and <board>, but each of these is a free morpheme. Words made up of two (or more!) free morphemes are called compound words.

Stems and affixes:

We can also talk about words made up of more than one morpheme like “freedom” by determining which of its morphemes is the basic root of the meaning, and which is an attachment whose role is to modify the basic meaning in one way or another. We call the basic element the "root" or “stem,” and those morphemes which are attachments to the stem that modify, alter or adjust the stem’s basic meaning we call “affixes.” English has three kinds of affix: the prefix, suffix, and infix. The first two occur very, very frequently, and most students learn about them in grade school. The third, the infix, is rare in English, though very common in certain other languages. (There may be a few English infixes that are not slangily vulgar [though I can't think of one!], but the only two examples I can think of are in fact <blooming> as in "absobloominglutely"--which is the sanitized British version of the other infix: “absofuckinglutely” or "fanfuckingtastic." This may be in your idiolect, but it is also perhaps why students are not taught about infixes in grade school.)

Affixes are either inflectional or derivational:

Inflectional affixes are additions we make to a stem that adjust for person, number, tense, or comparative relationships. Some languages have a great number of these (Russian, Latin, Spanish), while others have none at all (Chinese, Vietnamese). We have just 8 in English: those which attach to verbs (<-s>, <–ing>, <-ed>, <–en>), those which attach to nouns ( <-’s>, <-s>), and those that attach to adjectives (<-er>, <-est>). English used to have a much larger number of inflectional morphemes, but most of them have disappeared over the past 800 years. (In fact, there is one more that is still used by some people, but has gradually disappeared from most English, whether written or spoken. It has been said that at this point in the history of English this inflectional affix is never learned naturally but only through schooling. Very few speakers know how to use it, or even try. Can you guess what it is?)

Derivational affixes change either the meaning or the function of the word to which they attach. There are lots of derivational affixes. One of the most common is the <-er> suffix attached to verbs that means “one who does the action of,” as in helper (one who helps). Other common derivational affixes include <able>, a suffix that means “capable of being” (e.g., helpable means “capable of being helped”), the <-ly> suffix that turns an adjective into an adverb (e.g., “quick” to “quickly”), the <un-> prefix that negates the meaning of whatever it attaches to (e.g., undo, unable, uncool, unendingly) and the <re-> prefix that means “do over” (e.g., replant, replace, remember). Most affixes are bound morphemes (like <-er, -dom, re->), but there are still a few, like <able> or <full>, that are free (the double "l" in "full" is often written as a single "l" in its combined forms: e.g., <helpful>).

Lexical and Grammatical morphemes:

The whole set of English morphemes can be divided into two classes. One, the class of grammatical morphemes, is made up of all the words and affixes that a language can't function without. These include the prepositions, conjunctions, articles, pronouns, and the inflectional affixes of English. The number of such words in English changes very rarely. They are used very, very frequently. We call this class of morphemes "grammatical" because their meaning/use is more a matter of specifying relations between words than referring to things or particular actions. The class of grammatical morphemes almost never adds new members and it very rarely loses any of those that it already has. In theory we could add a new preposition or conjuction to English, but in fact we don't. We can't usually even think of candidates for such new words. What new conjunction, say, would we ever need? Currently, of course, we have "and," "or," "but," and a goodly number of others—but we probably don't even have a way to think of any new members to this class.

The rest of the language's morphemes belong to the class of lexical morphemes—a class that can, and quite often does, either add new members or drop others (when we just stop using them). In this class are verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs. We sometimes also say of them that they belong to the open class because its membership can change when we add new ones (two new members of the class of open morphemes in English are "email" and "blog," for example), or when we drop old ones ("eft"—a morpheme that meant "lizard"). The grammatical morphemes described above, by contrast, belong to the closed class of morphemes, since we almost never add them to or delete them from our word stock.

To use a metaphor, if we think of a sentence as a set of tiles, grammatical morphemes are the grout—the stuff that holds the other words together—and the lexical morphemes are the tiles themselves.

Finally, a word about productive and unproductive morphemes.

This is about how we make, or produce, new words. We use these terms generally about stems and affixes. A productive morpheme is one we can use to produce a new word. Thus the morpheme <-er> in the word "player" is a productive morpheme. We have hundreds of words in English that use this suffix, but we can always add more to the list of English words with the <-er> suffix because it is a productive morpheme. Suppose we take the noun “word” and use it as a verb. We can do this without actually changing its form at all (as Shakespeare does when he has Cleopatra say of Octavius Caesar late in Antony and Cleopatra “He words me!”—meaning that she thinks Caesar is speaking sweet words to her, but doesn’t mean anything he says.)

We could say then that one (like Caesar) who "words" another (like Cleopatra) is a “worder” of people—he uses words without committing himself to their actual meaning. Were we to use “worder” in a sentence, it might be the first time anyone had ever done so—but even though no one had ever heard it before, any hearer, in the right context, would understand what we were saying (though we might have to give them a bit of help!) because we are following a standard morphological rule of English, and thus part of the things competent speakers of English know, even when they don't know that they know them, is that we can attach the morpheme <-er> to a verb and be understood as meaning "one who does the action the verb describes."

The same kind of productivity applies to the morphemes <–able> and <–full> (the second usually spelled with just one “l” when used as a derivational morpheme) and to many another morpheme as well. We even occasionally have strange new productive morphemes, like the ending syllables of “chocoholic” or “shopoholic.” The morpheme <-oholic>, derived from a clipped form of the word “alcoholic,” is relatively new to English as a productive morpheme, but has nevertheless become relatively common. If someone is a great reader, for example, we can call them a "bookoholic"—and because that neologism follows the rules of English morphology for the creation of new words, all speakers of English will understand what we mean. In fact, someone has probably already used that word! [note: I just now did a Google search for “bookoholic” and it turned up 14,700 entries!]

(I know I’m a golfoholic. What do you do to excess that is really fun, that you would have trouble giving up, and that might not finally be all that good for you [a definition which someone might give of the bound, open, productive, derivational morpheme <-oholic>]?)

Two last words on words:

1. An Example of a Successful Neologism. One word new to English is a word coined by linguists themselves: “uptalk.” It’s a verb that means to pronounce sentences in such a way as to make them rise in tone at the end. This tendency came into English a decade or so ago, and has become quite common among some speakers. (Some of you in this class may uptalk on occasion!) The word “uptalk” itself is an example of a neologism that has been formed by combining two free morphemes, “up” and “talk” into a verb, “to uptalk.” But like any other word in English, we can derive new words on the fly, as it were, by adding appropriate affixes. Thus we can speak of one who “uptalks,” or “is uptalking,” or we can speak of an “uptalker.” Anyone who knows the base word “uptalk” will also be able to recognize, understand, and use each of these other forms. (Curzan and Adams, How English Works, 2nd ed., 110). Uptalking has not yet been completely normalized; it still can bring with it an implication that the speaker is asking the listener for some kind of affirmation. That, in turn, can be read as a kind of self-subordination. That implication can be appropriate in certain situations, but in others it can seem apologetic or a conferring of authority to one's listeners. So uptalkers might want to be aware of how they implicitly position themselves in terms of gaining or maintaining their desired level of authority.

2. A Digression on Gender and Pronouns: Over the past few decades English has experimented with a new pronoun: "she/he" (pronouned [šɪhi']), invented to work around the problem of the English language's historically-based gendered pronouns. This began in the 1960's and 1970's in response to the English-speaking culture's shifting view of women. English traditionally treated the masculine pronoun "he" as the default form of address in impersonal contexts—as in "The modern thinker will do what he wants"— and women (and many men, as well, of course) saw that as a sexist mode of reference—privileging males over females.

But what was going to replace the traditional "he"? "It" didn't seem a good candidate, and though one solution was to alternate "he" and "she," that was awkward. So some speakers and writers adopted "she/he" (or "he/she"—but that was rhythmically less attractive!) as a less complicated alternative. In the long run, however, while the alternating "she" and "he" never succeeded, "she/he" hasn't worked well either.

Moreover, the whole pronoun problem has become more complicated as the last two or three decades have seen the emergence of demands for pronoun usage that don't exclude gay/lesbian or transexual persons—or those people who would like to transcend the matter of gender altogether. Why, they would ask, do we require that gender be a basic category of perception throughout the culture? Why can't someone decide to be identified as neither male nor female, nor even male and female?

We'll see over the next decade or so how this will work out, but at this point we seem to be moving towards broadening the meaning of the non-gendered plural morpheme "they" [ðe] to include a singular meaning as well as a plural meaning. This is not entirely new. In the sentence "Someone wanted to leave so they got up and went to the door" <they> is used as a singular form. That was long thought of as "ungrammatical," but of late many speakers have largely accepted it. And part of the reason for the increasing acceptability of this usage is a desire to accommodate those individuals who feel restricted by the traditional "he" and "she" pronouns—or even any reference to sexual gender at all. For all those reasons, some have adopted "they" as their preferred morpheme of self-reference.

Will this become a part of standard English? No way to predict, but we certainly seem as a culture to be looking for new ways to indicate "gender." With these pressures on traditional ways of representing gender, we seem at this point not to add a new word but to be extending, or broadening, the semantic meaning of our traditional pronomial forms—particularly "they."

In this, by the way, we are making English more similar to those languages (like Mandarin Chinese) that use a single morpheme (in Mandarin pronounced [tʰa]) to represent he, she, and it—avoiding gender issues but not creating new difficulties with number/plurals)]


Phonological Rules for English 370

There are quite a number of phonological rules in English—rules which specify the requisite conditions for modifying phonemic structures.

Some are obligatory, like that of substituting allophones for the relevant phoneme in appropriate places—like the replacing of /t/ with [tʰ] at the beginning of words or stressed syllables, or with [t] in unstressed locations, or [ɾ] when located between a preceding stressed vowel and a following unstressed vowel (thus /lɪ'tɅl/ becomes [lɪ'ɾǝl]).

We have used the aspirated stops and the alveolar flap as our examples here, but there are many others. In this class we will limit ourselves to those I have just described and the following:

1. Nasalization: vowels that precede nasal consonants are themselves nasalized. Thus /ænd/ becomes [æ͂nd].

2. Assimilation: given any two sounds in sequence, the first may be modified such that it is more similar to the second. Thus /hæv tu/ can become [hæf 'tʰǝ]. (This is not required, but we very often do it anyway.)

3. Deletion: phonemes that speakers deem redundant can be dropped altogether. Thus /want tu/ can become [wa͂'nǝ], deleting both the final /t/ of "want" and the initial /t/ of "to." (This sort of deletion, too, is not always required, but we very often do it anyway.)

4. The last rule we discussed was what we called the "destressing rule," or "vowel reduction rule": any unstressed vowels that are not required for phonemic clarity will tend to move towards schwa. Thus "accommodate," or /ækam'odet/ becomes [ǝka͂m'ǝdet], where the first and third vowels are in unstressed syllables, and thus both are replaced in pronunciation by schwas. At the same time, you can also see that the second vowel [a] remains unchanged because it is in a stressed syllable, and the final vowel remains the same, too, even though it is unstressed, because it is in a word-final syllable [det], where we need to preserve the full vowel for morphemic clarity.

Other words where the final vowel retains its full vowel value are "reality" and "finally." In these two it is again the need to preserve our understanding that "ity" is a derivational affix, turning a stem like "real" into a new noun: real-ity, or, as in "finally," where "-ly" is a derivational affix that turns the adjective "final" into an adverb. In both cases it is important for clarity of understanding that the listener hear that final affix.

Finally, it is interesting to note that it is precisely this "destressing rule" (aka "vowel-reduction rule") that makes so many polysyllabic words in English so hard to spell. For when syllables are unstressed and become schwas, they all sound alike, and thus it is hard to know from the pronunication of the word whether the underlying phonemic vowel is spelled a, i, e, o, u, or even y. In this the English language is unusual—continental languages like German, Spanish and Italian have much more accurate spelling systems; even French, which has a number of spellings which surprise ([o], for example, can be spelled in French either with "o," "au," or "eau"!), still has a more predictable relationship between spelling and pronunciation than does English.

7. What Grammar Is and What Grammar Isn't—

1. That blue car just hit my car, and I don’t have any insurance!

2. That there blue car just done hit my car, and I ain’t got no insurance!

3. Blue just there car car hit done that my got no and ain’t I insurance.

4. I scratch myself when I itch.

5. She scratches herself when she itches.

6. He scratches hisself when he itches.

7. He scratches himself when he itches. (They scratch themselves....)

8. Eating hamburgers can be dangerous.

9. Speeding objects can be dangerous.

10. Flying airplanes can be dangerous.

11. Bill expected the crook to rob the teller.

12. Bill expected the teller to be robbed by the crook.

13. The crook robbed the teller.

14. The teller was robbed by the crook.

15. Bill persuaded the crook to rob the teller.

16. Bill persuaded the teller to be robbed by the crook.


8. Metaphor: the Jewel of any Language

Part 1: Literary Metaphor

Traditionally, metaphor is a use of language which offers a comparison asserting a similarity between two apparently dissimilar things.  Sometimes these comparisons are made explicit by the use of “like” or “as” (“my love is like a rose”); sometimes they are implicit because just asserted directly without either “like” or “as” (“the old man’s heirs were wolves”); and sometimes they are submerged—which means that they are more or less buried within language (to say “Hermione attacked her sandwich” is to compare eating with warfare, though only in an indirect, half-hidden way). Explicit comparisons with “like” or “as” are usually called “similes;” many people use the word “metaphor” only for implicit comparisons.  What’s important here is to see that similes and metaphors work by the same basic mechanism, though implicit comparisons can be harder to notice than are explicit comparisons. 

All languages use metaphor, and of necessity, and this is because metaphorical comparisons are the natural consequence of the limitations of our vocabularies.  Many world languages have immense numbers of words in them—in 2010 English was estimated to have over a million words.  But even with that many words, we English speakers don’t have nearly enough vocabulary for all the things we would like to say, and wouldn’t even if we knew all of those one million words—which no one actually does (the average speaker of English knows anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 words—English majors might know as many as 30,000-40,000!).  Our ordinary language for feelings, intuitions, or new ideas often seems either inexact or lacking in emotional power or non-existent, so we constantly use comparisons to adjust our ordinary speech.  “That cat took off fast!” thus becomes “That cat took off like his tail was on fire (or like a rocket, or like a bat out of hell)!”   Those would each be explicit comparisons; alternatively we might have said:  “That cat was a rocket!” (an implicit comparison) or “That cat rocketed out the door!”—where the metaphor would be submerged, but no less a comparison. 

Using a metaphor about metaphor, then, we could call metaphor the “crescent wrench of language,” in that it allows us to adjust our ordinary and literal language to situations for which we may not think we have just the right “normal” words.  So while used most obviously in poems and stories (as Shakespeare does in his well-known sonnet beginning: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely, and more temperate”), they actually also occur very frequently in ordinary speech.  Indeed, they are so ordinary that we very often use them without even realizing we’re doing so (He’s as cute as a bug! She definitely hit the wall).  But because metaphors are among a language’s most frequently used tools, they present a number of complicated issues, the first of which concerns how they actually work. 

To see how metaphors work, first think of them in terms of what we can call “the semantic logic of comparison.”  Whenever you say A is like B, you ought also to be able—provided it is a well-formed comparison—to add some sort of adverbial expression (often termed the “grounds” of the comparison) that would specify the way you think they are alike. Thus, “My love is like a rose” is a comparison of the speaker's love to a rose (obviously!), and you could add something like “in that s/he is sweet, soft, and beautiful” in order to specify the grounds upon which your comparison is based.

What makes metaphors powerful is that while the logic of comparison demands that we understand the expression by figuring out some way in which a likeness exists between the thing talked about (in this case “my love”—traditionally called the metaphor’s “tenor” but now more frequently called "the target") and the thing the tenor is compared to (in this case “a rose”—traditionally called the “vehicle” but now more frequently called "the source"), very often, especially in literary contexts, the adverbial "in-that"phrase that would define the way in which a source is like its target is omitted. Instead, the expression’s interpretation is left up to its readers/hearers to supply on their own. To be sure, as speakers of a language we are usually capable of doing just that—we supply our best interpretive hypothesis/claim as to what the likely grounds for comparison would be. But when we first see the comparison, it comes in a condensed form that needs to be unpacked if it is to be fully understood. 

Consider the comparison that opens Shakespeare’s 73rd sonnet:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang
Upon those boughs that shake against the cold….

Here Shakespeare’s speaker compares his aging self (the metaphor’s target) to the autumn of the year (the metaphor’s source). But while the speaker gives his reader details about autumn, he doesn’t actually explain how they are like him. That doesn’t, however, mean we can’t understand his thought. For he has given us details that suggest things we know about how old age is like autumn:

if trees lose leaves as the year grows old, so human beings lose hair, and if trees begin to look thin and bare as their leaves fall, so, too, do older people begin to look gaunt and less full. And if wind can cause bare limbs to shake, so, too, can the weaknesses and palsies of old age.

So we could rephrase the condensed form in which Shakespeare writes by expanding his metaphor with one or more “in that”-clause(s) that fill out the metaphor’s comparison by providing the grounds by means of which it could be understood.  Thus in this metaphor we could fill in what is missing with something like:  “you may see me as someone whose age is like autumn in that my signs of age are like a tree's signs of going dormant:

  • its leaves are like my hair in that they are falling off,
  • its boughs are like my loss of strength and beauty in that both look less full and less attractive than they did in summer,
  • its limbs are like me in that they shake just as I do with the palsy age has brought me.

When we expand a condensed metaphor in this way we can say that we are "interpreting" the metaphor by supplying what we think has been left out.  But because we are in effect proposing an interpretation for these lines that Shakespeare himself does not articulate directly, we are also participating in a kind of "argument."  By this we mean that when we add explanation for a metaphor, we are actually making an interpretive claim with which a different reader might not agree. And in fact, the most powerful of poetic images are very often on this sort: the make comparisons but leave them unexplained, creating for their readers opportunities to work out for themselves the meanings might have been left unsaid. Not every reader is trained enough to know how to do this, but it's central to most forms of literary intepretation.

But it's not just poets who use metaphors. Consider the simple metaphors of name-calling.  Kid 1 says to kid 2, “You’re such a dodo,” where “dodo” is the name of an extinct bird proverbially believed to have been stupid and incompetent (and, indeed, extinct for that very reason!). Often a comparison like that (“The person opposite me is like that extinct bird that was stupid and incompetent”) can indicate anger or scorn and function as an insult.  But between very good friends, the same expression can actually mean the opposite:  "I like you, and I like you enough that I can playfully insult you, so that my insult functions more as a form of praise than as a putdown." 

Similarly, lover’s terms are often potentially ambiguous. “You are my baby” is metaphorical because such a phrase (when spoken to someone over the age of 3 or 4) means in one sense I love you as I would love a baby: completely, unconditionally, and intimately.  But in other circumstances, it could mean: You are a baby in that I feel as though I have to mother you all the time! You are unable to take care of yourself and you drive me nuts!   You may be something I married, but it’s sure a lot of work and aggravation to live with your irresponsibility!  Why can’t you just grow up?! 

(For a deeper look at some of the complex uses of the semantic profiles of words a literary critic might think about, see the short Vimeo film that explains William Empson's famous Seven Types of Ambiguity, a book about the ways words can be interpreted in more ways than one: Empson:


We’ve now talked about different forms of metaphor and of how they tend to be understood, and of how they can be ambiguous enough to cause strife. These last might be examples of metaphors that (said with the wrong tone or in the wrong circumstances) fail.  But metaphors can also fail for other reasons.  Let’s go back to “My love is a rose.”  That is a pretty easy metaphor, mainly because we have seen it so many times that it is a thought that anyone can understand.  

But now consider the very similar looking metaphor “My cat is a dog.” Not everyone will find the meaning of this obvious.  Indeed, it seems a pretty unclear way of saying something, since without any other help, hearers of “My cat is a dog” are unlikely to know how to proceed in understanding the proposed comparison at all!  Since the comparison is implicit (there is no “like” used), we may not even think it IS a comparison! Does the speaker mean she actually has no cat, but a dog instead? Or does she simply mean she does have a cat but that it is a terrible cat? (as in the expression “that was a real dog of a meal” [See AH Dictionary, def. 6!]).

In such cases of indecision a hearer may ask the speaker for the relevant grounds for comparison: “I don’t get it—how is your cat like a dog?” At which point the speaker might add an explicit in that-clause: well, she’s like a dog in that she waits at the window for me to come home in the evening.  Or the speaker might even clarify her comparison by rephrasing the sentence to explain more fully:  “My cat sits in the window at night, dog-like, patiently waiting the sound of my car in the drive.” There she would have given you both target and source, along with the grounds that explain how, exactly, the comparison is to be taken. (You may still think it is not a very good comparison—or at least, not good enough to qualify as successful in the form “My cat is a dog.”) 

Summary: So. Metaphors are comparisons in which two dissimilar things are compared in order to focus on one or more ways in which they are alike in spite of their overall difference. Sometimes the ways in which they are alike is fully spelled out, but very often the way in which the two things are alike is not articulated. This creates what is in effect a compression or condensation of meaning—which in the hands of a skilled poet offers readers an opportunity to explore the semantic logic of that poet’s language in an effort to find satisfying significations. But while such comparisons are often effective modes of communicating, they are also sometimes ambiguous and potentially confusing.

Now all we have to do is explain what linguistics can tell us about how words mean and how we can find difference in similarity, and similarity in difference.  This takes us to “Semantics,” or the study of how words mean. 

The Semantics of Metaphor

Linguists have often talked about metaphor in terms of semantic features. You can read in the semantics chapter of any introduction to Linguistics about "lexical fields" as a way of grouping various words in terms of the similarities of the entities they refer to. Thus dogs, cats, elephants, human beings, and ducks are all members of the lexical field of "animals," while broccoli, mustard, grapes and lettuce are all members of the lexical field of "edible things."

To organize the relations between the lexical fields of reference of different words linguists have often resorted to what they have called "semantic" features. This is a way to categorize any given word in terms of the kinds of things it can refer to, and it includes such things as human and non-human, animate and non-animate, concrete (as in something actually visible, even touchable) and abstract (or, "not-concrete").

These are binary categories, which means they demarcate exactly the class of those things that have the named quality, and exclude everything else. Thus, you and I are members of the [+human] class; we are also [+concrete] and [+animate] (where the brackets indicate we are using these words to designate semantic features). And we can distinguish ourselves from our pets by noting that while our pet dogs and cats and fish are like us in being marked [+animate], we are differentiated from them in that they are not human—which makes them [-human].  (The joke of a “pet rock” is precisely that the word “pet” entails [+animate] while a “rock” would be marked as [-animate].  The contradiction thus creates a semantic joke—and a marketing success!)

Linguists have proposed lots of semantic features, some with very large classes like [+/- human], [+/- animate], [+/- female], and these can be hierarchically arranged. Thus anything that is [+human] is necessarily [+animate], too. Similarly, anything that is [+female] is necessarily [+animate], but not necessarily [+human] (though many obviously are!).

The sorts of semantic features like these that govern large classes of entities can be called primary features, and they give a way to understand (among other things) certain sorts of syntactic constraints language users must follow when they string words together to make sense. Thus one can say: “The woman wrote an essay” or one can say “The elephant wrote an essay,” and both are syntactically correct. But the first of those two makes an easy sense, while the second requires some special maneuvering. Elephants can do many wonderful things, but writing isn’t among them, and that, in fact, is true for all the animals in the universe except human beings. Thus we can say that while “write” is itself neither animal, vegetable nor mineral, still, because it can be used only in combination with entities that are marked [+human], it is also marked for [+human agent], meaning that semantically the word can only be used when the subject of the verb—the agent—is human.

That said, some of you will say that “The elephant wrote an essay” might actually be useable in a conversation, and you’d be right. It might be about Babar, the elephant character in the French children’s stories who did all sorts of human things, or it might be about real elephants but saying something about their acting in a way that wouldn’t literally be writing, but could still be called that because it bears a certain likeness to it. Maybe the elephant was using her trunk to push around the sand in front of her, and the result was such that you might say: “That elephant’s trunk has moved so much sand that she’s written an epic with it!” In that case, though, you have actually clarified the sentence to show that you are speaking metaphorically, not literally. As explained above, you could then make your metaphor fully explicit with an in that-clause: What the elephant has done in the sand is like writing in that she has used her trunk like a pen to make designs in the sand that bear some resemblance to a series of words or hieroglyphs.

And as for the Babar example, the real solution to that quandary is to notice that Babar may “be” an elephant, but he is also a character in a story, and in that fiction he is marked [+human-like], and thus, pretending as we read that Babar can talk and write and wear suits, we understand easily whatever he does, whether it is marked [+human agent] or not. Babar isn’t, after all, a story about elephants in the wild, it’s a fantasy about elephants who are pretty much like humans, except with very big noses. In short, we are not to understand Babar as a "real" elephant, but as an elephant who is very like a human in terms of what he can and does do. So there is a mode of comparison going on: Babar is like a Human, in that he can talk, write, and live in houses.

So what? The thing that makes a reader of Babar go into metaphor-reading mode is an automatic unconscious perception on that reader's part of a mismatch of primary features. Elephants are marked [–human], but the verb “write” (or "talk") is marked [+human agent]. So when we read the sentence and notice the mismatch we either instantly think that the sentence makes no sense at all (a literal reading), or we go into our metaphorical reading mode—something all speakers of human languages learn to do—and read the story as based upon an implicit comparison (what we call a figurative, or metaphoric, reading).

For a quite different example, think of what happens in Shakespeare’s King Lear when Gloucester remarks early in Act 4 that before he jumped off the cliff in an effort to kill himself he had been in such despair as to “think a man a worm.” With this phrase Gloucester makes a comparison between human beings and worms, but his expression is condensed because he doesn’t explain anything about the ways in which he thinks these two entities are alike. He assumes his listeners will fill in that missing part, expanding the bare terms of the metaphor to include the ways in which the likeness makes sense. As we noted in Section 1, this constitutes a condensation of meaning by leaving out the in that-clauses that would justify the comparison. 

But what is interesting about the metaphor is that leaving those details out does not cause the comparison to become un-understandable. Instead it becomes dependent on an audience member's capacity to “read into” what Gloucester says by searching out from what we know of worms the semantic features that could apply to human beings so as to justify such a comparison—"low," "cold-blooded," "fish bait," "slimy"—all features that give voice to the despair into which he has fallen about the vile and evil things that human beings (including, in particular, he himself [he thinks at this point that he has caused the death of his son Edgar]) will do to each other.

The power of literary condensations of this sort is that the expanding we must do if the metaphor is to be understood is left to our linguistic imaginations, and often, by searching our minds for possible features that could supply in that-clauses we can expand metaphorical expressions in provocative ways. Here Gloucester says only that he used to think man was worm-like, and might mean only that humanity is worm-like in that it is morally low, mindless or crawling. But maybe human beings are also to be understood as worm-like in a visceral way: they are repulsive to the touch, things no one would want to handle, and thus things no sane person could possible love.

The general point here isn’t simply that every literary metaphor has a multiplicity of meanings, but rather that many such metaphors have a wide range of potential implication, much or all of it condensed so as to be unspoken and functioning only by the kind of interpretive indirection I have described here. As a result, once we’ve noticed a metaphor (“man is a worm”), as readers we have an opportunity to explore the logic of how the source and target of the metaphor are, and are not, like each other, and to ask about the paradoxical ways in which the comparison’s incompleteness offers perspectives of one kind or another on the speaker's situation.

But let’s return to the way linguists would use semantic feature analysis to clarify just HOW it is that we construct these meanings. Man is but a lowly worm, Gloucester says, but that is physically impossible and semantically impossible, too, at least as a literal expression, since “man” is marked [+human], and “worm” is marked [–human]. But the fact of this “literally” impossible mismatch is exactly what sends our minds into automatic search routines.

The Upshot

So what does all that mean? It means that when we cannot interpret something literally, we search our internal semantic inventory for ways in which the expression in question could make sense as a comparison. So although the verb in a comparison is often “is,” and thus suggests identity, it can only make sense if we read it as “is like.” That leads us to search our semantic knowledge of (say) “worm” and “man,” and look for features of the source term (“worm”) that can be used as what might be called “semantic filters” for our understanding of the target term (“man”).  We find “lowly,” “slimy,” and “cold” among the features of the target term’s semantic profile, and since they seem appropriate as ways of understanding Gloucester’s meaning, our unconscious knowledge of the rules of metaphorical interpretation enables us to assert those features as the ones that should guide our  understanding of what would otherwise be a meaningless contradiction.   

Understanding metaphors, then, requires that we learn to bring to consciousness what our minds know about semantic features. So let's consider what we human beings know about the way the semantics of words works.

We can actually think of three different kinds of semantic features: primary, secondary, and tertiary.

Primary features (like [+/-abstract (vs concrete), +/-living, +/-human, +/-animal, +/-vegetable, +/-female, +/-locomote, +/-cause, +/-growing/inchoative and quite a few others]) govern large classes of words. Thus the word cat is marked for: [+animal], [-human], [+/-female]—which means cats are animals, but not human, and can be either male or female. In this they are unlike stones, which though [-abstract] like cats and all other objects in the world, are also [-animal]. Stones are also [-capable of life] and therefore also neither [+female] or [-female].

Primary features give a fairly general way of seeing similarities and differences across large classes of words and are often linked to syntactic function as well.  Thus the verb “to write” is marked [+human agent] because only human beings can write—at least in a literal sense.  Similarly, walk would be marked [+animal agent], even if someone could say an unmoored washing machine “walked” across the garage floor (as mine has done). That, however, would be a metaphorical use of the word “walk” and would be a kind of witty comparison of a washer (which is [-animate]) would normally never move) to a different washer that, unmoored from its fasteners, did the surprising thing of acting like an animate object and (seemed) to move itself across the room.

Secondary features: Less general than primary features, secondary features then extend a word's basic meaning skeleton by adding all the things we know more specific to given entities. In the case of cats we could add several secondary characteristics: four-legged, whiskered, long-tailed, purring and meowing, pointy ears, domesticatable, capable of hunting small animals and insects, more or less omnivorous, and having sharp, retractile claws. (You can, no doubt think of other features—e.g., has fur, is a big self-groomer, normally lives to 15 or so). Those necessary secondary features would hold for all cats generally (the Manx would need to be dealt with as an exception to the [+tail] feature), but (as I say above) with significantly less general scope with respect to all the other concepts and objects in the world than primary features have.  [These features, too, can be linked to syntactic function, but in far fewer constructions.  “The dog meowed” is a category contradiction, since “meow” is marked [+feline], and a dog would not be marked with that feature.]    

Tertiary features are those significances that come along with a word like cat but which are not necessarily true of any or of all cats, but are nevertheless contained in our cultural knowledges about them. Thus it is said often that cats can see in the dark, although that is actually not true. They can indeed see in lower light than we can, but not in the dark. Still, because it has been said a lot, it has become part of what we “know” (or think we know!) about cats. Similarly it is said of cats that they always land on their feet. This, too, is not actually true (I have paid vet bills for a cat who did not land on his feet when he fell from a height of some ten feet), though they are on the whole pretty agile. Other tertiary features of cats include stand-offishness, nap-happy-ness, silent or sneaky walker, sexual profligacy, is easily scared, is a creature of the night, hangs out with witches, and may be unlucky. Many of these features MAY be true of any given cat, but none are necessary to cats as a whole. (Most of my cats, for example, have gone to sleep early and not gotten up before morning.)

So, to illustrate now with an actual metaphor, when someone says “I think there is a new cat-burglar in the neighborhood,” we first recognize that “cat-burglar” is an implicit and condensed comparison (this particular burglar is like a cat somehow, but how is unspecified) and we then go on to construct an understanding of how that comparison makes sense by searching through our mental inventory of things-we-know-about-cats that would fit this conversational context. In this case, especially when we explore those tertiary features we’ve been learning all our lives long, we can expand this metaphor by proposing that this is a burglar who, like a cat (according to our culture’s general semantic store of information about cats), works stealthily and by night.

What we would not expect is that the cat-burglar in question had retractile claws or fur. Indeed, we'd be pretty surprised if the burglar showed up with either of those features. (Note, again, that the two features of stealthily and by night are both tertiary features; neither is necessary to being a cat, but both are associated with cats and certainly work well here to explain the grounds that support the implicit comparison of a burglar to a cat.)

Concepts to know from all of this: metaphor, simile, source, target, grounds (which can be made explicit in "that-clauses"), semantic features (primary, secondary, tertiary), condensation/compression.

Part 2: Conceptual Metaphor

Literary metaphors are not the only metaphors in language, even though that has been the traditional understanding of them. In fact, metaphor is a very common occurrence in speech and writing of all sorts. Indeed, we live in a world thick with figurative comparisons, and most of them pass us by without our even noticing that they are metaphors. Consider the way we talk about arguments. Here is a paragraph about argument:

The best way to win an argument is to be well prepared. You need to know your opponents, and understand their weaknesses and strengths. You'll need arguments of your own strong enough to prevail against theirs. You'll need to know when to attack, and what to defend. In the end, the winner will likely be the one who had the most argumentative firepower, and who had the strength to outlast an opponent's early attacks.

The language of that paragraph is not unusual, but it is pretty much all based on a single metaphor: engaging in arguments is like engaging in war.

Commenting on the way we talk about arguments as if they were wars, George Lakoff writes:

The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another. It is not that arguments are a subspecies of war. Arguments and wars are different kinds of things—verbal discourse and armed conflict—and the actions performed are different kinds of actions.

But ARGUMENT is partially structured, understood, performed, and talked about in terms of WAR. The concept is metaphorically structured, the activity is metaphorically structured, and, consequently, the language is metaphorically structured.

He then goes on to explain:

It is important to see that we don’t just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments. We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his positions and we defend our own. We gain and lose ground. We plan and use strategies. If we find a position indefensible, we can abandon it and take a new line of attack. Many of the things we do in arguing are partially structured by the concept of war. Though there is no physical battle, there is a verbal battle, and the structure of an argument—attack, defense, counterattack, etc.—reflects this.

(George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By [1980], p.124)

Now, the interesting question here is not whether this “understanding and experiencing one thing in terms of another” happens at all (it obviously does); rather, it is whether the use of war as metaphor in cases like this changes or limits or controls what we actually do when we argue. Lakoff, perhaps the inventor of the field of metaphor study in linguistics, thinks the answer to that question is unequivocally YES.

We could think about this better, perhaps, with a contrastive example. Suppose we changed the metaphor of argument from war to, say, conversation. Here instead of talking about “winning” or “losing” an argument you might instead look to “understanding” and “agreeing.” In that metaphorical context, instead of attacking or undermining your opponent’s arguments, you’d be offering ideas, explaining why you believe something, giving support to your explanations, engaging with others in dialogue about whether and how they might not agree, looking to find ways to bridge differences. This kind of argument, you might think, would be a whole lot less stressful than an argument whose participants worked within the language of war.

Can we define the difference that shift of metaphor makes? Those who think about conceptual metaphor would suggest it makes a huge difference. Thinking of argument as war reinforces notions of force and winning at any cost; it promotes an ethos of competition, winning and losing, a kind of verbal violence which may actually lead a lot of people to avoid engaging in it altogether. Argument as conversation, by contrast, is far less threatening either physically or emotionally to its participants. In conversation one can in fact (though in reality we don’t always manage this) agree or disagree without recrimination or a sense of loss or self-endangerment. Preferring the metaphor of argument as conversation would also allow “face” (or personal pride) to be handled differently. As in normal life, conversational argument would allow for conventions of mutual respect and face-saving as part of what makes the process work, and not as a sign of weakness.

If any of that is true, it leads to another question: if argument as conversation can in fact take place, and if most of us would prefer that form of argument to a more agonistic mode, why is argument so often NOT like a conversation? Why does argument so often turn into ego vs. ego? Is it the nature of argument itself, or is it the metaphorical frame within which it is set?

These considerations seem fairly uncontroversial. Others are not. Thus the government declares a war on drugs, and we may not notice that that declaration, too, is a metaphor. For what it has us really saying is that we will treat drugs as if they were an enemy to be resisted by all extraordinary means (as we do enemies in a war), and we will attack drug runners and peddlers as if they were soldiers in the druggy army. To use "the war on drugs" instead of something more literal—like "we are going to enforce our drug laws fully and effectively"—seems to many to make us sound more serious, more forceful, and perhaps even, since Americans don’t like to think we ever have or ever could lose a war, already half successful just for having declared one!

So from a president’s point of view to use the war metaphor here makes sense. But does it also make sense in terms of what we actually do? Or in terms of what our actual goals for a national policy with respect to drugs might be? Some would argue that to use a metaphor like war restricts our vision and our realm of possible actions, and converts ordinary human beings (some of whom you may know—indeed, one of whom might be someone in this very class) into “enemies.” In fighting "the War on Drugs," such critics would argue, we are thus short on treatment, long on imprisonment, short on clarity about what elements of drug use are abhorrent and socially destructive and long on general and blanket condemnations that many think sweep away the good along with the bad.

We have as a nation similarly declared a “War on Terror.” Maybe that is just the right metaphor—certainly the Bush administration liked it, the Obama administration downplayed it, but was reluctant to abandon it, and the Trump administration has reemphasized it.

But there are again those who say that the war metaphor here, too, obscures our full vision and, in consequence, our very conceptualization of appropriate ways to respond. If it’s a war, it makes sense to use bombs and drones and so on. And indeed, maybe it makes sense to do that whether we call it a “War on Terror” or not. But, as we noted above with the "War on Drugs," the semantic features of "war" tend to license all sorts of actions that civilized nations reject during peacetime, and this in turn has given rise to the notion that conducting a "war" on terror all around the globe has in fact been a way of authorizing actions that Americans, and American law, would normally reject, while at the same time screening out, as inappropriate to war, other actions which might (critics would maintain) result in better outcomes than the dropping of bombs. Critics would say that calling this a "war" helps mask what is an extraordinarily expensive enterprise that wreaks death and destruction even when carried out as humanely as possible: "collateral damage" in war happens all the time, but in peace would not be tolerated. Critics might add as well that if you are at war you are not working as effectively as you might for political solutions, or for winning hearts and minds with well- targeted foreign aid, infrastructure projects and the like.

Please understand. I’m not here taking a side in this conversation. Rather, I only point out that we deploy thought-structuring metaphors in many very important contexts, and I thus suggest that you as citizens as well as students will be better served in the long run if you can come to see how these hidden conceptual metaphors can structure thinking. When the metaphors around us do impose ways of thinking about many things, wouldn’t we all want to be able to free ourselves from their over-all conceptual power?

Examples of other common conceptual metaphors:

Ideas as commodities: (I don't know if the public'll buy that; can we package it differently?)

Life is a journey: We see ourselves as headed somewhere, looking for the right path and for the right destination. This is connected to life as a search—again presupposing things that may or may not be true.

Love is Madness: I'm mad about you! I'm just wild about her. (And as a wildman, I may do wild things—it is my nature!)

Love is magic: That old black magic has me in its spell; Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I (as in the Cole Porter song). (So am I really responsible for my actions?)

Love is war: After a year-long siege he won her hand in marriage. He made an ally of her mother. Theirs is a misalliance if I’ve ever seen one. (Again, will the war metaphor invoke schemes of justified violence, even if we don't act upon them? Does that matter?)

Change is directional, as is mood: The stock market is up; economic indicators are rising, or are down. (is the stock market mounted on a huge elevator that moves up and down? if not, why do we talk of it as if it were?), and if we get good news it cheers us up, and bad news brings us down—as in "What a downer!!"

(adapted from George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (1980), pp.124-34)

In all of this the problem is not so much with the language as it is with the human mind and the way it processes language. For the most part our word choices on one hand and our responses to language we hear on the other are in important respects unconscious. One of the miracles of our existence is the smooth and automated ways in which our brains' select and execute speech sounds and semantic units. Phonetically we make dozens of muscle movements each second without thinking about how we move our tongue, glottis, jaw or lungs, and at the same time semantically we select words with which to express thoughts with a similar automaticity—sometimes to our great embarassment when we either weirdly select a word whose appropriateness to a given situation is either questionable or just plain wrong (sometimes called Freudian slips), or just pick what is logically or metaphorically quite antithetical to what we will have wished we had said.

Does this mean we are condemned to using language that can insult or injure others or bring ridicule to our own selves? Well, to a certain extent, yes. We do indeed mis-speak from time to time, and when we do we can be extraordinarily embarrassed—only realizing what we've said—IF we actually do indeed recognize what we've said!—after we have had our say. What do we do then? (We actually have conventions for that situation—what do YOU do?)

But the larger point is that our control over our speakings is really only semi-conscious, and things we say can have effects we do not mean, and we will only gain better control of those effects by becoming more fully aware of the logical/semantic implications of the metaphors we live by.

So next time you see a beer ad, recognize that it is filled with metaphor, and you might just think about its semantic implications....

Conceptual Metaphor Exercises

A. Identify and explain the conceptual metaphors in the following sentences—what is the target and what is the source? what is borrowed?

1. You can't get your concept across to the class that way.

2. His deepest emotions went right over her head.

3. The entire paragraph was full of emotion.

4. They have been under a lot of stress lately.

5. He had been successful for years but stumbled when things got complicated.

Here is a link to a metaphor that has gone off the tracks—can you explain the conceptual basis for the metaphor and why people have objected?


Two Cartoons What are the metaphors in each that enable the joke?

William Shakespeare and Poetic Metaphor

Sonnet 95

How sweet and lovely dost thou make the shame
Which, like a canker° in the fragrant rose,    caterpillar
Doth spot° the beauty of thy budding name!     mar
O, in what sweets dost thou thy sins enclose!
That tongue that tells the story of thy days,
Making lascivious comments on thy sport,
Cannot dispraise, but in a kind of praise;
Naming thy name blesses an ill report.
O, what a mansion have those vices got
Which for their habitation chose out thee,
Where beauty’s veil doth cover every blot,
And all things turns to fair that eyes can see!
  Take heed, dear heart, of this large privilege;°  license
  The hardest knife ill-used doth lose his edge.

9. The English 370 Portfolio

The portfolio for this class is like many other portfolios: it is a collection and display of the work you have done, together with a reflective essay describing your experience in the course. This project thus offers you a chance to review your quarter's work, as well as to put that work into some kind of narrative perspective. Your portfolio should include:

1) A detailed listing of the contents of the Portfolio.

2) All of the exercises/writing you have done for this class over the course of the quarter. (Photocopies of exercises you've done in notebooks are ok.)

3) A two to three page Self-Reflective Essay.

The Self-Reflective essay should be about your experience in this class. You should prepare for it by reviewing your work for the quarter, but the actual essay may take a number of forms. It may, for example, discuss the nature of the learning you have done this quarter, describing what you take to be your work's strengths, how those strengths may have changed over the course of the term, and anything you think you still might be able to improve. Or it may be a narrative of your experience in this course: why you took it, what problems it presented to you as it progressed, and what you did to address them. Or it may discuss how your attitudes about language have developed, changed, or not changed during the quarter: what were you thinking when you came in, and how has that changed in the ten weeks since?

However you choose to set it out, the object of the exercise is to have you review your experience in the course, to think about that experience, and to do something towards evaluating and making sense of it.

The portfolio counts for 60 points of the course grade; I will evaluate the daily assignments included in the Portfolio on the basis of completeness and quality of involvement (30 points total). The essay I'll evaluate on the basis of responsiveness and thoughtfulness as follows (30 points total):

Fully responsive and thoughtfully undertaken = 30
Responsive but less completely thought through = 20
Marginally responsive, or not well thought through = 10
Unresponsive = 0

The Portfolio should be submitted in a large mailing envelope. Its presentation should be neat, ordered, and careful. To have it returned, be sure to address it and to provide postage sufficient for the thirty pages or so you will have submitted.