What Is a Conduit Metaphor?

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A conduit metaphor is a type of conceptual metaphor (or figurative comparison) commonly used in English to talk about the process of communication.

The concept of the conduit metaphor was originally explored by Michael Ready in his 1979 article "The Conduit Metaphor: A Case of Frame Conflict in Our Language About Language" (see below). Reddy estimated that the conduit metaphor functions in roughly 70% of the expressions used to talk about ​language.

The Framework of the Conduit Metaphor

  • "Typical solutions to the unskilled speaker's communication problems are illustrated by (4) through (8). (4) Whenever you have a good idea practice capturing it in words
    (5) You have to put each concept into words very carefully
    (6) Try to pack more thoughts into fewer words
    (7) Insert those ideas elsewhere in the paragraph
    (8) Don't force your meanings into the wrong words. Naturally, if language transfers thought to others, then the logical container, or conveyer, for this thought is words, or word-groupings like phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and so on. . . .
    "[F]our categories . . . constitute the 'major framework' of the conduit metaphor. The core expressions in these categories imply, respectively, that: (1) language functions like a conduit, transferring thoughts bodily from one person to another; (2) in writing and speaking, people insert their thoughts or feelings in the words; (3) words accomplish the transfer by containing the thoughts or feelings and conveying them to others; and (4) in listening or reading, people extract the thoughts and feelings once again from the words."
    (Michael J. Reddy, "The Conduit Metaphor: A Case of Frame Conflict in Our Language About Language." Metaphor and Thought, ed. by Andrew Ortony. Cambridge University Press, 1979)

The Conduit Metaphor and Communication

  • "[Michael] Reddy points out that the Conduit Metaphor is not a specific expression; rather, it names the metaphoric assumptions that enable a range of common expressions such as getting the message across, putting thoughts into words, and getting a lot out of a text. . . .
    "Although the Conduit Metaphor may fail to describe all that transpires in typical writing situations, it does not impose an erroneously reductive structure upon complex activity but rather grows out of a complex of embodied activity, situated experience, and rhetorical human relationships. It is a rhetorical metaphor that, in certain instances, asserts a description of communication or an ethical standard. Without it, for example, we would have little basis for ethical objections to lying, concealment, failure to warn, failure to be responsible, and so on. It is crucial that we recognize, however, that when the Conduit Metaphor is treated as credible, it is combined with other concepts whose implications support its credibility. Most saliently, it combines with Language Is Power, a concept that has both evident ontological and ethical ramifications."
    (Philip Eubanks, Metaphor and Writing: Figurative Thought in the Discourse of Written Communication. Cambridge University Press, 2011)

Lakoff on the Grammar of Conduit Metaphors

  • "Now consider: That idea just came to me out of the blue. . . . The general conceptual metaphor involved here is the CONDUIT metaphor, according to which ideas are objects that can be sent and received. 'Out of the blue' is a metaphorical source phrase, and 'That idea' is not just the Content of the cognitive experience, but is also the metaphorical Theme that moves to 'me.' The grammar of the sentence is a reflection of the metaphor. That is, it has the grammar of a literal Theme-Goal-Source sentence, like the literal 'The dog came to me out of the kennel.' To put it another way, the sentence has source domain syntax. . . .
    "Now let us turn to a case where an Experiencer is a metaphysical Patient and has the syntax of a Patient: The idea struck me out of the blue. Again, we have the CONDUIT metaphor, with an idea that is conceptualized as an object that comes from a source 'out of the blue' to me, not just reaching me as a goal but striking me. Thus, 'me' is not merely a Goal, but moreover, a Patient that is affected by being struck. The verb 'struck' is from the source domain, as is the syntax, in which 'me' is direct object, which is the natural grammatical relation for a Patient to have."
    (George Lakoff, "Reflections on Metaphor and Grammar." Essays in Semantics and Pragmatics: In Honor of Charles J. Fillmore, ed. by Masayoshi Shibatani and Sandra A. Thompson. John Benjamins, 1995)

Challenging the Conduit Metaphor

  • "In Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson (1980: 10-12 et passim) describe what they call the 'CONDUIT metaphor' as a cross-domain mapping consisting of the following main correspondences: IDEAS (OR MEANINGS) ARE OBJECTS
    (Lakoff and Johnson 1980: 10) This formulation of the CONDUIT metaphor has since become the most widely accepted account of the dominant way in which speakers of English talk and think about communication (e.g. Taylor 2002: 490 and Kövecses 2002: 73-74). More recently, however, [Joseph] Grady (1997a, 1997b, 1998, 1999) has questioned the validity of the CONDUIT metaphor alongside that of many other well-established formulations of conceptual metaphors, for the following reasons: first, it lacks a clear experiential basis; second, it does not explain why some prominent elements of the source domain are not conventionally mapped onto the target (e.g. the notion of opening or sealing packages is not conventionally projected from the domain of the transfer of objects to the domain of communication); and third, it does not account for why many expressions that have been associated with the CONDUIT metaphor are in fact conventionally used in relation to other domains of experience as well (e.g. 'The detective couldn't get much information out of the partial shoeprint' (Grady 1998: 209, italics in original))."
    (Elana Semino, "A Corpus-Based Study of Metaphors for Speech Activity in British English." Corpus-Based Approaches to Metaphor and Metonymy, ed. by Anatol Stefanowitsch and Stefan Th. Gries. Mouton de Gruyter, 2006)

Alternate Spellings: Conduit Metaphor

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Conduit Metaphor?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/conduit-metaphor-communication-1689785. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). What Is a Conduit Metaphor? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/conduit-metaphor-communication-1689785 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Conduit Metaphor?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/conduit-metaphor-communication-1689785 (accessed May 29, 2023).