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Saturday, April 28, 2012

Q and A on Metaphors and Usage

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Many of the questions in this week’s column were chosen from the responses I received from my three previous articles on the misuse of metaphors in Nigerian English, namely “On ‘Metaphors’ and ‘Puns’ in Nigerian Media English,“Reuben Abati's Violence Against Metaphors,” and “Grammar of Reuben Abati’s Semantic Violence.” Enjoy.

Question:
In your “Grammar of Abati's Semantic Violence,” you wrote: “In deference to this perfect gentle man for whom I have the greatest respect….” “Deference” is a mark of respect; don’t you think it is an unnecessary duplication to further add “for whom I have a greatest respect”? Also I’m not satisfied with the presence of “whom” and “for.” Why not “that I have the greatest respect” instead of “for whom....,” or to even leave out the preposition completely? Finally, the word “blots,” did you use it as an idiom or a phrase?

Answer:
“Deference” is not always synonymous with “respect.” In the context in which I used it, it means yielding to someone's wishes or opinions (E.g.: Because I respect you, I defer to your views on this matter). In my case, a well-known national figure privately wrote to tell me he wished I did a close textual analysis of Abati's grammatical and stylistic usage instead of attacking his person. So my deference is to that wish. But in addition to deferring to the wish, I said I also had respect for the person who expressed the wish. That's the meaning the sentence conveys. Maybe you're confusing “deference” with “reverence.” They are similar but different words.

In response to your second question, the conventional wisdom in Standard English is that the relative pronoun “who” should be used for humans and “that” for non-humans only. Example: She is the lady WHO [not “that”] broke his heart. But: It was that big dog THAT bit him. However, many other authorities, such as the American Heritage Dictionary, say it is legitimate to use “that” for humans and “who” for animals that we have a sentimental attachment to, such as our pets. But I choose to go with the “who-for-humans-only” rule.

“Whom” is the object of “who” just like “him” is the object of “he,” “her” the object of “she,” “them” the object of “they,” “us” the object of “we,” etc. The “subject” is the doer of action and the “object” is the recipient of action. In the sentence in question, “I” is the subject and “the man” is the object. Why “for” before “whom”? Because the objective case in English grammar is always preceded by a preposition, such as “for him,” “on whom,” “for her,” “on them,” etc.

When I wrote “One of the most glaring blots in Abati’s write-up is the abuse of punctuations,” I used “blot” metaphorically. It originally means a blemish made by dirt, such as ink on a book. In my sentence, I transferred that sense of “dirt on a book” to convey the idea that his write-up was blemished by errors of grammatical usage. “Blot” certainly isn't a phrase because a phrase is usually more than a word, although it can sometimes be a word. And it's not an idiom because an idiom is a fixed phrase.

Question:
I have no comment on the President's speech other than to say that it is hard for me to imagine that he meant a literal stoning hence I would be inclined to not read him literally but, rather, metaphorically. As for metaphors I have a different take. You pointed us to your earlier essay “On ‘Metaphors’ and ‘Puns’ in Nigerian Media English” wherein you say: “Now, I have lost count of how many senior journalists have characterized the crisis in Jos as a ‘metaphor’ for what ails Nigeria. But that’s more properly called an illustration or an exemplar. Jos and Nigeria are geo-political entities; they both belong to the same class. None has the capacity to conjure up vivid mental images of the other.”

I have a different reading of this. Yes, in this example, Jos is an exemplar but it is also metaphorical. Metaphors have several different sub-categories: E.g., metonyms (one thing is referenced by something associated with it) and litotes (one thing is identified by the negative of its opposite). In the example you cite above, Jos functions as a synecdoche--the part stands in for the whole. That is to say violence in Jos is a metaphorical reference to violence in other regions of Nigeria or Nigeria generally.

Answer:
You are conflating, perhaps confusing, “figures of speech” with “metaphors.” They are not the same. Metaphors are a type of figure of speech. So are metonyms, litotes, synedoches, etc. There are scores of them.  While you're right that metaphors do have sub-categories, metonyms, litotes, and synedoches are certainly not subcategories of metaphors.

So your inclination to read the president “metaphorically” is a consequence of your inadequate grasp of what a metaphor means as evidenced from your conflation of metaphors with figures of speech. You probably meant to say you were inclined to read the president “figuratively,” which is fair enough, although I think that's a rather overgenerous interpretive leap.

Now back to “Jos as a metaphor for Nigeria.” That’s certainly not a metaphor. But I agree that it could be a synecdoche, i.e., the use of a part to represent the whole. And although a synecdoche is sometimes characterized as a “metaphorical substitution” it is not the same thing as saying it's a subcategory of metaphor. It only shows that figures of speech are not immanent, self-contained categories; that they overlap at several conceptual levels. For instance, the simplest way to define a metaphor is to say that it is a condensed simile. (E.g. "He is as brave as a lion" is a simile, but "He is a lion" is a metaphor.) But that characterization doesn't make a metaphor a “sub-category” of a simile.

Question:

I forwarded your article to a friend but fear that I may have misused “metaphor” in the note I wrote to accompany the forward.  I am not anywhere as educated as you and Reuben Abati are but I am always concerned with my grammar and word usage. In fact, it was from you that I learned about and how to use the British National Corpus (BNC). I do not think that you know how much your “intrusion into our lives” has changed the way we write and communicate in English.

Anyway, in the note, I wrote: “In his last article at his blog, http://www.farooqkperogi.com/2012/03/grammar-of-reuben-abatis-semantic.html, he metaphorically took that rascal – Reuben Abati – to the cleaners.” I hope I did not misuse the word “metaphor” here.

Answer:
Thanks for your kind words. Yes, your use of “metaphorically” in the sentence is perfect. You compared dry-cleaning to criticism—two otherwise separate and dissimilar spheres of human activity that nonetheless share something in common.


Related Articles:
The Politics of Grammar (Over 50 articles on Nigerian, American, and British English usage)
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