grammatical metaphor (GM)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

An Introduction to Functional Grammar, 3rd ed., by Michael Halliday, revised by Christian M. I. M. Matthiessen (Hodder Arnold, 2004).


Grammatical metaphor involves the substitution of one grammatical class or structure for another, often resulting in a more compressed expression. Also known as GM or marked clause structure.

The concept of grammatical metaphor was identified by linguist Michael Halliday (An Introduction to Functional Grammar, 1985). "Written language tends to display a high degree of grammatical metaphor," says Halliday, "and this is perhaps its single most distinctive characteristic."

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • Michael Halliday on Grammatical Metaphors
    -  "Most examples of adult English contain some instances of grammatical metaphor: clauses in which one type of process is represented in the grammar of another; for example, the fifth day saw them at the summit 'on the fifth day they arrived at the summit,' or guarantee limited to refund of purchase price of goods 'we guarantee only to refund the price for which the goods were purchased.'
    "Children's speech is largely free of grammatical metaphors of this kind; this is in fact the main distinction between child and adult language."
    (M.A.K. Halliday, "Dimensions of Discourse Analysis: Grammar." The Handbook of Discourse Analysis, Vol. 2: Dimensions of Discourse. Academic Press, 1985)
    -  "There is a strong grammatical element in rhetorical transference: and once we can recognize this we find that there is also such a thing as grammatical metaphor, where the variation is essentially in the grammatical forms though often entailing some lexical variation as well."
    (M.A.K. Halliday, An Introduction to Functional Grammar. Edward Arnold, 1994)
    -  "Examples given by Halliday are Mary came upon a wonderful sight and a wonderful sight met Mary's eyes as metaphorical variants of Mary saw something wonderful."
    (Miriam Taverniers, "Grammatical Metaphor in SFL," Grammatical Metaphor: Views From Systemic Functional Linguistics, ed. by A. M. Simon-Vandenbergen et al. John Benjamins, 2003)
  • Conceptual Structuring
    "[M]etaphorical vocabulary and metaphor themes structure our experience of concepts such as emotion, education, disease, time or success. Similarly, but in an even more fundamental way, the grammatical clauses of the language we speak structure how we understand, experience and act on our material, social and mental worlds. And just as there are levels of conventionality in our use of vocabulary, . . . so there are usual or conventional clause patterns for conceptualising and constructing events, and rather less typical clause patterns, known variously as 'marked clause structure' or 'grammatical metaphor.' For example, the usual way to refer to a Thing is by a noun, and to a Process by a verb. A marked or metaphorical grammar would use a noun to refer to a process, as in--'John's eating of the banana' rather than 'John ate the banana.'"
    (Andrew Goatly, Washing the Brain: Metaphor and Hidden Ideology. John Benjamins, 2007)
  • Grammatical Metaphor in Technical Writing
    - "Grammatical metaphor is particularly associated with technical or scientific writing, where, for example, processes are routinely represented as 'things.' This leads to noun-heavy sentences such as the following from a scientific journal (processes as 'things' are in bold): While still in its infancy, numerical drug design shows significant potential for boosting experimental research productivity by the early identification of promising candidates for detailed experimental investigation. This style of writing has its origins in the 17th century. The development of science meant that the resources of language had to be adapted to accommodate new kinds of knowledge and new ways of finding out about the world."
    (Michael Pearce, The Routledge Dictionary of English Language Studies. Routledge, 2007)
    - "It has been established (e.g. Halliday, 1989: 94; 1987: 75) that grammatical metaphor is a feature of written language more than of spoken. And, by the same token written language generally displays higher lexical density than spoken language, a convention that has been sustained by Halliday (1995a: 14) who found average lexical densities of technical/scientific texts to be around six while informal spontaneous speech had around two lexical items per clause. This difference is a logical consequence of the spoken mode being grammatically intricate. The number of clauses goes up, while the number of lexical items remains constant."
    (Inger Lassen, Accessibility and Acceptability in Technical Manuals: A Survey of Style and Grammatical Metaphor. John Benjamins, 2003)