Bad Advice Wednesday: The Thisness of a That

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


My mind at work


Metaphor is the elemental condition of language.  English teachers forever have been saying, “A simile is a comparison using like or as, and a metaphor is a comparison not using like or as.” That’s simple and plain, but it’s not quite right. I’ll buy the old definition for a simile, but a metaphor—wow!—a metaphor is something enormously greater than allowed for by Mr. Bottomlifter back in ninth grade. First of all, a simile is just a kind of metaphor. A symbol is a kind of metaphor (and curiously, something more as well: the thing itself). An analogy is a kind of metaphor.

Metaphor is big, and gets bigger the more you think about it. Metaphor, in fact, is the source of all meaning.

Yes, metaphor is a comparison. But that’s saying a lot, given that comparison is the basic gesture of the human mind: closer, farther; lighter, darker; bigger, smaller; safe, dangerous; then, now. The extension of such elemental, dichotomous comparisons is the foundation of language, which in turn is the foundation of thought.

And the soul of clichés.

A steel trap is one of those devices used in cartoons to capture Elmer Fudd and in life to capture fur-bearing animals. A steel trap is a pair of tempered-steel crescents joined by a powerful spring triggered by a round plate of steel. When an animal steps on this plate—wham—his leg is caught, often broken, awful. The trap is staked to the ground at the end of a stout chain so a captured animal can’t wander off.

Okay. A mind like a steel trap. What’s the metaphor here? Let’s see. You’re so smart you hold on to an idea while it thrashes around and finally chews its leg off to escape, leaving you with only the leg of an idea and a bloody legacy of brutality? Or, as the comedian Steven Wright says, “I’ve got a mind like a steel trap: rusty and illegal in thirty-seven states.”

It’s fun to extend the comparison—the metaphor—as far as you can, to the very absurd edges of correlation. If your mind is like a steel trap, what is the spring? What is the steel plate that triggers the release mechanism? If animals are ideas and minds are traps, do minds destroy ideas? Do ideas have lives separate from minds? Do ideas roam the wilderness? What are the furs of ideas? And tell me this: Who is the trapper running the trap line? What’s the chain? What’s the stake?

Here’s a little Wallace Stevens.

I was of three minds

Like a tree

In which there are three blackbirds.


Consider those troublesome analogies on the SAT test. You know, x is to y as xx is to yy. Here, let’s do one. Fill in the blank: train is to track as airplane is to _____.

Most would say sky.

Each element of an analogy is called an analog. In the above example, train is the analog for airplane, track is the analog for sky. All are comparisons not using like or as, by the way, and certainly metaphorical. And in this example (as in most), seriously magical. Think of it: our minds easily and completely accept the idea that dense, heavy bars of extruded steel manufactured by humans are similar to—analogous to—the sky. Which is air.

Kenneth Burke, in his challenging book A Grammar of Motives, says that metaphor “brings out the thisness of a that.” Aristotle speaks of the way metaphor helps us understand the unknown or slightly known by comparing it to what’s known.

Stop signs are metaphors in that they are symbols. Symbols are objects, generally, and are themselves, but also stand in for something, mean something else, something greater than themselves and not always inherent in themselves. We’ve come to agree that a red octagon (my father claims they used to be yellow) with the following white shapes on it—S, T, O, P—will mean something particular. In practical terms, it means law-abiding types will put right feet on brake pedals till the motion of their vehicles is entirely arrested. The sign is a command to make your vehicle’s status an analog for a word meaning, a meaning that is itself an analog for a condition in nature—stoppedness. But the sign is also something real: a piece of metal or wood on a stick or on the wall in a college dorm room. (Put it back, dudes!) It’s a non-literary symbol in that it is precise, stands for one thing only: stop.

The Nike swoosh is a symbol in the same way. The swoosh isn’t the company. The swoosh isn’t a sneaker. The swoosh merely invites us to consider the company, to compare the swoosh to what we know of the company. Swoosh does not equal Nike; swoosh only represents Nike, and this representation is a form of metaphorical comparison. But the swoosh is not as much of a thing as a stop sign or a duck is. I mean, yes, it does have reality in that sometimes it’s a grouping of threads, or a thin layer of ink, or a gathering of pixels on TV. But that’s not much reality, less than you and I have even on our worst days. Still, it’s a symbol, moving toward the literary, as it can mean more than Nike, can stand for a life devoted to sport, for example, or for the money exchanged in an endorsement deal.

Most words are symbols, most language metaphorical. (Or, actually, if you believe Jacques Derrida, all words are metaphorical. It would take a PhD in English to explain, and I happen to have one right here—Jennifer Cognard-Black, who was a graduate student at Ohio State when I was there, and is now an assistant professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland: “Give me an instance of language that isn’t a representation. Even articles are metaphorical—although they don’t stand in for a real-world thing or action, they do stand in for an idea or concept; a, an, the, and conjunctions—and, but, for—have no meaning in and of themselves”)

These letters—T, R, E, E—aren’t a tree, though they make me think of one. And my thinking of a tree (I can see one clearly in my head, right now) isn’t a tree, either (Buddhists would say that even the tree isn’t a tree, that it is an illusion). I’ve a conception in my mind that I compare to the great plants outside my window and both of which I compare to those four letters above and to a sound I can make with my lips. The sound isn’t the plant or the letters or the conception, but yet another point along the tree continuum. When I use the word to invoke a particular oak tree in, say, in a scene that includes the tree, a scene that is about my father’s strength, as well, the word means both the tree itself, but also refers to my father, and to his strength, but not in a precise way: some readers may think of the rigidity of oak wood, its tendency to break in high wind, others may think of the way dead oak leaves hang on through whole winters before letting go, giving way to the new. This oak tree is a fully literary symbol.

If, while writing, I point to the comparison, saying, “My dad is like that oak tree,” I’m making our symbol into a simile, not quite trusting the reader to make the leap himself. And while readers should always get your trust, writers, they do seem to need help here and there, and if the comparison is important to your purposes, it’s often best to make it overt. Subtlety isn’t overrated, but it can leave certain readers behind. How many do you want to keep? Not all readers are metaphorical thinkers, not at all.

And literal thinkers can drive you crazy.

If I say, “That oak tree is my dad,” a literalist could put me on the stand, point a finger, and accurately accuse me of lying.

But your honor! I didn’t mean it literally! I’m making a simple metaphor, the boldest kind of comparison. And metaphor is a figurative kind of honesty. And it’s what we mean when we talk about emotional honesty, isn’t it? That by making associations, comparison, contrasts, I am explaining how I feel about a person, place, or thing.

I’m not lying after all.

How complicated is the truth!

My father is a tree.

The sky is steel.


[If you like this, Like it above: that’s the best way for us to get around this electronic universe.  And if you haven’t already, Like Bill and Dave’s.  We do.]

[Adapted from Writing Life Stories (Tenth Anniversary Edition): Story Press, 2008]


  1. malcolm writes:

    Hey Bill,

    My 8th grade Language Arts colleague, Paige, and I have used your advice to expand our students conception of metaphor beyond its narrow poetic confines. They begin to see how integral metaphor is to making sense of the world, that they are engaged in metaphor not only in the classroom, but also the cafeteria, the skate park, and, well, everywhere. They become aware of language and its mysterious power. They begin to realize that there is a wonderful alchemy at work when we play with words and play we do.

    • Bill writes:

      Okay, eighth graders, fill in the blank: The cafeteria food tastes like ____. I notice I’m always asking for metaphor, too: What’s that hotel like?

  2. John Jack writes:

    Train is to track as airplane is to runway. Both can fly off: in one case disastrously, one purposely; neither without defying gravity for their eventual or immediate outcomes. Which, thinking about gravity, is the challenge and the risk of tropes. Does any given trope signify what’s intended?

    Lest metonymy and synecdoche feel left out, nickname-like abstraction or representation of a whole. Delight when a trope is metaphor, simile, and metonymy or synecdoche, and recipients get the meanings full bore. And irony verbal, situational, dramatic, comic, Socratic. and litotes. Intents and actuals at poetic-conceit odds with their superficialities. Extended tropes or situational, long or short. A trope can fly off its tracks or runway, and crash or soar.

    I don’t do as well on those trope tests as the literal-minded thinkers who put them together think they test. Rosarch inkblot tests, that’s what they are. I see stronger connections than the “right” answers that are unitended but calculated to dumbfound figurative thinkers. Can’t have any free thinkers loose from the monkey house. But I did well enough on the GREs to meet minimum expectations of mediocrity.

    I thought, at first, this Bad Advice Wednesday topic was about grammatical vice and virtue uses of the proximity pronouns this and that and these and those. This is what I thought: That will be cool. But these thisses and thats weren’t those.

    • Bill writes:

      That’s a fine and nuanced view–the runway! Of course it’s the runway… But you’re right, that kind of thinking doesn’t make it onto the SAT’s, which tend to measure conformity. I was very good at such tests, by the way. I’m a fan of metonymy: hand me the milk. You know not to hand me the milk but the bottle it’s in. The container for the thing contained. It’s associative rather than comparative. Synecdoche is sweet, too: nice wheels. A part for the whole. And so forth. Do you know that Fowler in Modern English Usage (1926, the year during which both my parents were born) has twelve pages on this uses of and differences between that and which?

      • John Jack writes:

        I cut my editorial eyeteeth on distinguishing which from that. When it came time to bite into the reference book budget, I compared Fowler’s to Webster’s English usage. I had an either-or purchaisng budget choice. Webster’s won. Pages and pages of distinguishing seemingly subtle grammatical nuances. Not a single entry dictating you must do as I say. Rather a subtext running throughout saying think for yourself. Funny too. Motherloving usage dictionaries couldn’t make up their minds about anything. They’re both equally ambiguous, though Fowler’s is a mite more prescriptive than Webster’s. Yet ironically, the point of language usage dictionaries is to provide firm guidance. I am amused.

  3. Helen W. Mallon writes:

    I remember being completely thrilled when, at the age of four or five, my daughter began spontaneously using metaphors.

  4. Chelle G writes:

    Writing Life Stories lives on my desk. It’s a great book that I turn to frequently. Thanks for reminding me of the power of metaphor, my high school juniors will reap the benefits of this article tomorrow.

    • Bill writes:

      Thanks Chelle. High School Juniors know more about metaphor than any number of academics. It’s like, like, you know!

  5. Bill writes:

    Here are some metaphors that have gone around the Internet for years. They were originally winners of a bad metaphor contest, but the prim bloggers of Grammar-Ville have misidentified it frequently as coming from student papers, with appropriate snorts of derision. Quite a few also feel moved to say that they are not even metaphors but similes. But of course, simile is a form of metaphor. I love these smug writing police still working from their third-grade understanding of the language. Anyway, these parodies make me giggle:

    Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had its two other sides gently compressed by a Thigh Master.

    His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a dryer without Cling Free.

    She caught your eye like one of those pointy hook latches that used to dangle from screen doors and would fly up whenever you banged the door open again.

    The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn’t.

    McMurphy fell 12 stories, hitting the pavement like a Hefty bag filled with vegetable soup.

    Her hair glistened in the rain like nose hair after a sneeze.

    Her eyes were like two brown circles with big black dots in the center.

    Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.

    He was as tall as a six-foot-three-inch tree.

    The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry them in hot grease.

    Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.

    The politician was gone but unnoticed, like the period after the Dr. on a Dr Pepper can.

    They lived in a typical suburban neighborhood with picket fences that resembled Nancy Kerrigan’s teeth.

    John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.

    The thunder was ominous sounding, much like the sound of a thin sheet of metal being shaken backstage during the storm scene in a play.

    The red brick wall was the color of a brick-red Crayola crayon.

  6. Dave writes:

    What are you tryin’ to say….like, um, some things are, um, like other things?

  7. An Alewife writes:

    Wish I had the time / money / luck to have you as my actual teacher!

    You ever going to do any workshops up in MA or maybe on Cape Cod?

    If so, I hope I can be there!

    • Bill writes:

      I think I am your actual teacher! Yes to workshops, and I hope to see you there. I’m slowly getting back in action after traction and physical redaction.

  8. Peter Peteet writes:

    “Give me an instance of language that isn’t a representation.”- word -though of course it can be as in “made flesh to dwell among us”-but it can be just itself as in the beginning of this journey of thoughts which encompass sound and symbol .Before that beginning there was thought and that flows still below this word work we think of as thoughts-and music and visual arts “speak” to that. I think ,and not all of the thought makes it into words. Think of Helen Keller before she grasped language ,and think of how your language(s) determine your world-view(s); are towers of vocabulary and grammar, each with a peculiar tilt.
    Truth is too large to be simple , your Father’s hand felt like oak-so I should have known-and mind your head beneath that steel sky. Acorn ,nut ,say what?

    • Bill writes:

      I feel things that don’t have names, yes. And then I try to give them such. Usually by appropriating some other tag. Music, yes, to my ears. Love this, Peter. Got me thinking as always.