Metaphors and Imagery

What is a metaphor?

A metaphor is figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable. They can be useful when explaining abstract or unfamiliar ideas or concepts , as they enable the writer to utilise imagery that may be more familiar to the reader. For example, “love is a fruit in season at all times and in reach of every hand” is a metaphor used by Mother Theresa to explain an abstract concept (love) using a universally-understood image (fruit).

Metaphors are generally considered to be a literary technique and confined to use in creative writing, but they can also be seen in marketing and advertising texts as a way of communicating a brand’s message to its audience using ideas and images with which they are familiar.

What is imagery?

Imagery is the image that words and phrases conjure in the mind of the reader. This can have a powerful impact on the way meaning is understood. For example, describing an argument as ‘an angry discussion’ suggests to the reader that an argument is a purely aggressive activity. However, describing an argument as ‘a lively debate’ conjures a much more positive image in the reader’s mind and suggests that it is something that both parties engage in for the purpose of achieving a mutually-beneficial outcome.

Imagery may be chosen as a way of linking an idea to the particular qualities of the image being invoked, for example describing a deceitful or untrustworthy person as a ‘sly fox’ draws upon the widely-understood notion of the fox being a clever and cunning animal.

Choosing your words carefully

As we have seen, the words and phrases we choose to use can greatly impact the impression we make on readers. In some cases, using powerful imagery and metaphors may be help to achieve a desired outcome, for example an advert that needs to draw attention and be memorable. However, in business or academic writing, clarity and professionalism are likely to be more important concerns. Text that is clear and to-the-point is the primary aim of writing in professional environments, so literary techniques, such as metaphors and imagery, are generally not appreciated. However, the one exception is when it is necessary to express unfortunate or uncomfortable ideas. In such cases, a less direct approach may be more appropriate.

In English-speaking countries, diplomacy and politeness are highly-valued, especially in professional environments, so you will often find that negative or uncomfortable messages will be communicated through metaphors or imagery intended to make the point more delicately than expressing it in literal terms. For example, the concept of heat is often used to allude to aggression. An argument might be described as a ‘heated exchange’, while the act of calming a situation is often referred to as ‘taking the heat out of the situation’. The metaphor of heat is widely understood to mean aggression or conflict, so the message is clearly understood without the writer having to resort to using more blunt terms to express it.

Spoken Language Mistakes and Errors

In linguistics, a distinction is made between errors and mistakes. Errors are defined as occurring because of a lack of correct grammatical knowledge, while mistakes are a failure to utilise grammar correctly. In other words, errors are the result of ignorance, and mistakes are the result of carelessness. Mistakes include slips of the tongue and random ungrammatical formations, which are usually quickly corrected by the speaker. However, errors are fundamental to the user’s speech and are not recognised as being wrong unless they are corrected.


A malapropism is essentially a vocabulary mistake. It is defined as the mistaken use of an incorrect word in place of a word with a similar sound. The result is a nonsensical and often humorous statement. Malapropisms are common in English because of the large number of words which sound similar, although not exactly the same, for example ‘electrical’ and ‘electoral’. These words are distinct from homophones (words that sound the same but are spelt differently and have a different meaning) because a malapropism is a phenomenon of speech, not writing.

Common malapropisms include:

He was wondering around (He was wandering around)

She is the escape goat (She is the scape goat)

Can you be more pacific? (Can you be more specific?)

I am on tenderhooks (I am on tenterhooks)

Precede with caution (Proceed with caution)


Mispronunciation is the incorrect pronunciation of a word. It is distinct from regional variations in pronunciation (for example, the variation between British and American pronunciation). Many native English speakers will mispronounce words beginning with the ‘th’ sound, for example ‘think’, ‘through’, ‘three’. They will pronounce these words ‘fink’, ‘frough’ and ‘free’, even though they may be aware that this pronunciation is incorrect. This type of mispronunciation is therefore not really a mistake, as the speaker is aware that they are pronouncing words incorrectly but continue to do so. Rather, we can consider this as lazy speech.

Genuine mistakes in mispronunciation often occur with multi-syllable words whose spellings do not conform to standard rules. They will usually be pronounced as they are spelt. This may result in a pronunciation that is similar to the correct pronunciation or one that is considerably different.

Commonly mispronounced words include:

Hyperbole (correct pronunciation: hy-per-bo-lee)

Anemone (correct pronunciation: uh-nem-uh-nee)

Mischievous (correct pronunciation: mis-chuv-us)

Quay (correct pronunciation: key)

Prestigious (correct pronunciation: pre-sti-jus)