Vehicle (Metaphors)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

vehicle in metaphors - time bomb
Time bomb, says Sam Glucksberg, is an example of an "unambiguous vehicle" in a metaphor: "People agree that time bomb epitomizes something that can cause considerable damage at some unpredictable time in the future" (Understanding Figurative Language, 2001). (Dick Patrick Studios, Inc/Getty Images)

In a metaphor, the vehicle is the figure of speech itself--that is, the immediate image that embodies or "carries" the tenor (the subject of the metaphor). The interaction of vehicle and tenor results in the meaning of the metaphor.

For example, if you call a person who spoils other people's fun a "wet blanket," "wet blanket" is the vehicle and the spoilsport is the tenor.

The terms vehicle and tenor were introduced by British rhetorician Ivor Armstrong Richards in The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1936). Richards emphasized the "tension" that often exists between vehicle and tenor. 

In the article "Metaphor Shifting in the Dynamics of Talk," Lynne Cameron observes that the "multiple possibilities" evoked by a vehicle "are both derived from and constrained by speakers' experience of the world, their socio-cultural contexts, and their discourse purposes" (Confronting Metaphor in Use, 2008).

Vehicle in Metaphors in Academics

Academicians and others provide explanations as to the proper use of vehicles in metaphors as these selections demonstrate.

Norman Friedman

"Because he was dissatisfied with the traditional grammatical and rhetorical account of metaphor, which he believed emphasized its merely decorative and embellishing powers, I. A. Richards in 1936 reintroduced this pair of terms . . . with the notion of 'a borrowing between and intercourse of thoughts.' Since any metaphor at its simplest gives two parts, the thing meant and the thing said, Richards used tenor to refer to the thing meant—purport, underlying meaning, or main subject of the metaphor—and vehicle to mean the thing said—that which serves to carry or embody the tenor as the analogy brought to the subject. . . .
"The vehicle, [Richards said], 'is not normally mere embellishment of a tenor which is otherwise unchanged by it but . . . vehicle and tenor in cooperation give a meaning of more varied powers than can be ascribed to either.'"
(The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 4th ed., ed. by Roland Greene, Stephen Cushman et al. Princeton University Press, 2012)

Sam Glucksberg

- "Unambiguous vehicle terms are those that people agree about: there is consensus about what properties they represent. One example of an unambiguous vehicle is time bomb. People agree that time bomb epitomizes something that can cause considerable damage at some unpredictable time in the future."
(Understanding Figurative Language: From Metaphor to Idioms. Oxford University Press, 2001)

J.A. Cuddon

"By 'tenor,' [I.A. Richards] meant the purport or general drift of thought regarding the subject of a metaphor; by 'vehicle' the image which embodies the tenor. In these lines from R.S. Thomas's A Blackbird Singing, the tenor is the bird's song, its tune; the vehicle is the fine smelting image in the fifth and sixth lines:
It seems wrong that out of this bird,
Black, bold, a suggestion of dark
Places about it, there yet should come
Such rich music, as though the notes'
Ore were changed to a rare metal
At one touch of that bright bill.
("Tenor and Vehicle," A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. Basil Blackwell, 1991)

I.A. Richards

"A modern theory would object, first, that in many of the most important uses of metaphor, the co-presence of the vehicle and the tenor results in a meaning (to be clearly distinguished from the tenor) which is not attainable without their interaction. That the vehicle is not normally a mere embellishment of a tenor which is otherwise unchanged by it but that vehicle and tenor in co-operation give a meaning of more varied powers that can be ascribed to either. And a modern theory would go on to point out that with different metaphors the relative importance of the contributions of vehicle and tenor to this resultant meaning varies immensely. At one extreme the vehicle may become almost a mere decoration or coloring of the tenor, at the other extreme, the tenor may become almost a mere excuse for the introduction of the vehicle, and so no longer be 'the principal subject.' And the degree to which the tenor is imagined 'to be that very thing which it only resembles' also varies immensely."
(The Philosophy of Rhetoric. Oxford University Press, 1936)

J. P. Russo

- "As Manuel Bilsky points out, if someone says his mind is a river, mind is the tenor and river the vehicle; but in 'I walked into the river,' what is the tenor and what is the vehicle? This criticism does not vitiate Richards' theory; it does indicate the kinds of problems that remained to be clarified."
(I.A. Richards: His Life and Work. Taylor, 1989)

Brian Caraher

- "In her brief assessment of [I.A.] Richards' approach, [Christine] Brooke-Rose also notes that 'the very terms' tenor and vehicle 'destroy' the interaction Richards seeks to stress."
(Intimate Conflict. SUNY Press, 1992)

Vehicle in Metaphors in Popular Culture

The notion of a vehicle in metaphor has also been expressed in the popular press as well as in poetry, as these quotes show.

Kashmira Gander

- "Some three decades after China launched its highly controversial policy restricting families to having one child, the government may soon allow a two-child policy to curb a demographic time bomb. . . .
"The law is believed to have resulted in millions of forced abortions, and has left China with the combination of a rapidly ageing population, a shallow labour pool and an imbalance in the sex ratio. The result is a demographic time bomb."
("China May Scrap One-Child Policy to Curb Demographic Time Bomb." The Independent [UK], July 23, 2015)

Bonnie Tsui

- "Wedged in the narrow space behind us was the umbrella stroller that held Teddy, slumped over in exhausted, jet-lagged sleep. We’d carried him up the stairs like a drunken rajah.
"We were all ravenous from our morning walk through the greenery of Yoyogi Koen, but I was acutely aware that the ticking time-bomb of the slumbering 1-year-old could interrupt our meal at any moment."
("Traveling to Tokyo With Three Generations." The New York Times, December 3, 2015)

William Stafford

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."

Other Examples and Observations

Pronunciation: VEE-i-kul

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Nordquist, Richard. "Vehicle (Metaphors)." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Vehicle (Metaphors). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Vehicle (Metaphors)." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).