Tenor (Metaphors)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

A firecracker being lit with a candle
The statement Somebody should set a match to him on the Fourth of July "convey[s] indirectly that John is a firecracker, itself a metaphor" (J.L. Morgan, "Pragmatics of Metaphor").

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In a metaphor, the tenor is the principal subject illuminated by the vehicle (that is, the actual figurative expression). The interaction of tenor and vehicle evokes the meaning of the metaphor. Another word for tenor is topic.

For example, if you call a lively or outspoken person a "firecracker" ("The guy was a real firecracker, determined to live life on his own terms"), the aggressive person is the tenor and "firecracker" is the vehicle.

The terms vehicle and tenor were introduced by British rhetorician Ivor Armstrong Richards in The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1936). "[V]ehicle and tenor in cooperation," said Richards, "give a meaning of more varied powers than can be ascribed to either."


  • "The main elements of metaphorical 'equations' such as Life is a walking shadow are often referred to as tenor ('thing we are talking about') and vehicle (that to which we are comparing it).  Ground . . . denotes the link between tenor and vehicle (i.e., common properties; Ullmann 1962: 213). Thus, in the metaphor  Life is a walking shadow, life represents the tenor, walking shadow the vehicle, and transience the ground.
    "Alternative terminologies abound. Popular alternatives for tenor and vehicle are target domain and source domain, respectively."
    (Verena Haser, Metaphor, Metonymy, and Experientialist Philosophy: Challenging Cognitive Semantics. Walter de Gruyter, 2005)
  • Tenor and Vehicle in William Stafford's "Recoil"
    In William Stafford's poem "Recoil," the first stanza is the vehicle and the second stanza is the tenor:
    The bow bent remembers home long,
    the years of its tree, the whine
    of wind all night conditioning
    it, and its answer-- Twang!
    "To the people here who would fret me down
    their way and make me bend:
    By remembering hard I could startle for home
    and be myself again."
  • Tenor and Vehicle in Cowley's "The Wish"
    In the first stanza of Abraham Cowley's poem “The Wish,” the tenor is the city and the vehicle is a beehive:
    Well then! I now do plainly see
    This busy world and I shall ne'er agree.
    The very honey of all earthly joy
    Does of all meats the soonest cloy;
    And they, methinks, deserve my pity
    Who for it can endure the stings,
    The crowd and buzz and murmurings,
    Of this great hive, the city.

I.A. Richards on Tenor and Vehicle

  • "We need the word 'metaphor' for the whole double unit, and to use it sometimes for one of the two components in separation from the other is as injudicious as that other trick by which we use 'the meaning' here sometimes for the work that the whole double unit does and sometimes for the other component--the tenor, as I am calling it--the underlying idea or principal subject which the vehicle or figure means. It is not surprising that the detailed analysis of metaphors, if we attempt it with such slippery terms as these, sometimes feels like extracting cube-roots in the head."​
    (I.A. Richards, The Philosophy of Rhetoric. Oxford University Press, 1936)​
  • "[I.A. Richards] understood metaphor as a series of shifts, as borrowings back and forth, between tenor and vehicle. Hence, in 1936, his famous definition of metaphor as a 'transaction between contexts.'
    "Richards justified coining tenor, vehicle, and ground to clarify the terms of that transaction. . . . The two parts had been called by such loaded locutions as 'the original idea' and 'the borrowed one'; 'what is really being said or thought of' and 'what it is compared to'; 'the idea' and 'the image'; and 'the meaning' and 'the metaphor.' Some theorists refused to concede how much idea was imbedded in, drawn from the image. . . . With neutral terms a critic can proceed to study the relations between tenor and vehicle more objectively."
    (J. P. Russo, I.A. Richards: His Life and Work. Taylor, 1989)

Pronunciation: TEN-er

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Nordquist, Richard. "Tenor (Metaphors)." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/tenor-metaphors-1692531. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). Tenor (Metaphors). Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/tenor-metaphors-1692531 Nordquist, Richard. "Tenor (Metaphors)." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/tenor-metaphors-1692531 (accessed March 21, 2023).