Parts of a Metaphor: Tenor & Vehicle

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  • 0:05 Metaphor and Its Parts Defined
  • 1:38 Examples of Tenor and Vehicle
  • 4:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

'Tenor' and 'vehicle' have nothing to do with a mid-range male singer and his transportation, but they're important in getting the message of a metaphor where it's going. Learn more about them in this lesson and find them in some famous metaphors!

Metaphor and Its Parts Defined

You most likely remember learning about metaphors at some point in your academic career, but let's make sure our memories are refreshed. A metaphor is a figure of speech that describes one person, place, or thing in terms of another.

People have been using and critiquing metaphors since antiquity, but it wasn't until the mid-1930s that I.A. Richards named the parts to this figure of speech and published them in his book, The Philosophy of Rhetoric. Richards determined that each metaphor consists of two parts: the tenor and the vehicle. Richards used the word tenor (Latin for 'connection') to refer to the person, place, or thing being represented in a metaphor, while the metaphor's vehicle is what is representing the tenor.

Let's look at a couple examples, starting with the metaphor, 'my St. Bernard's a bottomless pit'. Here, the tenor (thing being represented) is the hungry dog. We're figuratively connecting the dog to its characteristic of being a ravenous eater. So in this case, the vehicle, or representative image, is that of a hole with no volumetric limits that 'carries' the implied comparison to the St. Bernard's appetite.

The tenor of the phrase 'old age is life's twilight' is the state of advanced age. The vehicle being used to represent senility is that of twilight, comparing this time toward the end of our lives to the close of the day.

Examples of Tenor and Vehicle

Now that we've seen briefly how these parts of a metaphor interact, let's take a closer look to see how they work in some famous literary metaphors!

Tenor and vehicle should be easy to find in a parable, since it's a narrative metaphor typically used to illustrate a moral concept. Many of us are probably most familiar with these brief narratives from the teachings of Jesus, particularly the one concerning the lost sheep. Jesus asks the question, 'What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?. . . I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.'

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