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Concourse 2



The word synonymous has two meanings:

  • having the same meaning (e.g., huge and massive)
  • being strongly associated with (e.g., David Greenglass, a Man Whose Name Is Synonymous With Betrayal (Roberts, 2014))

Here we are concerned, mostly, with the first meaning.  David Greenglass is not, for our purposes, a synonym of betrayal.


Five related ideas:
Metonymy, Synecdoche, Simile, Metaphor, Hyponymy

All five of these are often considered subsets of synonymy.

the device of using a term closely associated with something actually to mean the thing.
For example:
    the White House has decided to come clean (Adams, 2015).
The term The White House (and the addresses of many other government offices) is routinely used as a synonym for The American Government.
This is also used with many other government addresses around the world, for example:
    No 10 reveals there will be no early general election before 2020 (Daily Telegraph website)
Other examples of metonymy include
    the stage [to mean the theatre or the acting profession]
    the crown to mean monarchy / power
    the bench
[to mean a judge or group of judges]
    a tongue [to mean language]
    table a motion (to mean put a piece of paper on the table for discussion)
    he is fond of the bottle (to mean he drinks too much)
    the throne is above politics (to mean the monarchy is independent)
this device involves the use of part of something to mean the whole or the whole of something to mean a part.  It's pronounced /sɪ.ˈnek.dək.ɪ/, by the way.
For example:
Part to stand for whole:
    head count [in which head stands for person]
    transistor [to stand for portable radio]
    glasses [for spectacles]
    threads [BrE slang for clothes]
    wheels [for motor car]
    wiser heads (for sagacious people)
    call the hands (for members of a crew)
    boots on the ground (for foot soldiers)
    the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world (for mothers in general)
Whole to stand for part:
    Britain has won a gold medal
    Germany lost the race
    the police have arrived
    the army are guarding the port
    Paris was starving
    Washington welcomed the idea
    the union voted to stay out
(Synecdoche derives from a lexical relationship in language known as meronymy which describes the relationship between, for example, car and windscreen, wheel, bonnet, dash board and so on.  People have faces, heads, hands, arms and so on and from these we can derive:
    there are new faces in the room
    per head
    many hands make light work
    strong-arm tactics

and more.)
is the device of making comparisons, often with the use of as ... as or like.  The sense of one item is carried over to the sense of the other so in this way they are synonyms.
For example:
    he's like a fish out of water
    he's as dull as ditchwater
    as fast as lightning
    it went like the wind
    it made a noise like thunder
    it sounded thunderous
    her anger was volcanic
    he appeared like a ghost
by contrast, metaphor is the device of using language for an item which actually is appropriate only to the synonym one implies.
For example:
    I have a lot on my plate [I'm very busy]
    cut and paste [for computerised documents where physically cutting and pasting is not possible]
    a political body blow
    the election is a one-horse race
    he showered her with gifts
    she thundered through her presentation
Understanding metaphor is, of course, crucial to comprehending language.  There are those who would claim that metaphor is, in fact, the way we make sense of everything.
Almost all behavioural and material process verbs can be used metaphorically so we have, for example:
    pull out of a contest
    dive in to an explanation
    fire questions
    shoot arguments down
    iron out difficulties
    boil with rage
    cook the books

and thousands more.
Multi-word verbs, too, especially phrasal verbs, are often used metaphorically so we encounter:
    pick up a language
    throw out a question
    strike up a conversation
    get over an illness

and so on.
Metaphor can, of course, be taken too far and result in clumsy, sometimes risible, expression.  Here's an example from a communication from Amazon, the mail-order company:
    feedback like yours motivate us to dive deep and unearth ways and means which helps us
and that, apart from the two nasty errors in concord, conjures an unlikely picture of people diving deeply into the earth.
While it is helpful to get learners to understand how verbs in particular may be used metaphorically, examples of that order are unhelpful.
a relationship between words in which the meaning of one word includes the meaning of others which are closely related (compare synecdoche).
There are two bits to this:
  • The hypernym is the word which includes the meanings of others (often called the superordinate)
  • The hyponyms are all the second-level words which are related to each other and each one may, in turn, act as a superordinate with a third level of hyponyms below it.
For example, the term vehicle is the hypernym of other terms like car, bus, tram, motorcycle, lorry, coach etc. so we can use vehicle as a synonym for bus and lorry in, e.g.
    A bus collided with a lorry outside the shop.  Both vehicles were badly damaged



Apart from the five categories above, there is, of course, synonymy proper.  For example

  1. We can say
        The pub's over the hill
        The pub's beyond the rise
    and, in the same context, the two prepositional phrases would be considered functionally synonymous.
    That's phrasal synonymy.
  2. We can say
        I'm eager to go
        I'm keen to go
    and few would argue that keen and eager mean pretty much the same thing.
    That's lexical synonymy.
  3. Apart from synonymy proper in cases 1. and 2. there is a relationship called troponymy.  A troponym is a word which carries the same essential meaning but defines the concept more precisely.
    For example, the word stroll is a troponym of walk because its meaning contains the idea of walking slowly in a relaxed manner.
    As a shortcut in the classroom troponyms are often simply defined as a kind of xxxx and that suffices in many cases but we need to be a bit more careful sometimes because that may lead a learner to errors such as:
        He strolled casually and slowly
    which, while not obviously wrong, contains a redundant adverb phrase.

Here's the cut-out-and-keep summary:


And here's a short test to see if you can identify all seven.

There are theoretical linguists and others who would not analyse synonymy like this.  So be it.  This site is concerned with categories which help language teachers understand how the language they are teaching fits together.


Synonymy in the classroom

As teachers, we are often reduced to explaining new vocabulary by resorting to synonyms that the learner knows and that's legitimate, providing we are careful.  So, for example, this exchange is typical of what happens:

Learner: What does 'register' mean?
Teacher: In this case, it means put in a user name and a password on the website.  It can also mean just put your name into a list.

There are, however, some problems which a more careful look at synonymy reveals.


Problems with using synonymy


sense problems

It has been claimed that:

By taking the synonym of a word, and then a synonym of that synonym, and so on, you can ultimately arrive at any other word in the English language.
(Probably Christopher Cinq-Mars, https://www.cinqmarsmedia.com/synonymy/)

That can, in fact, only be true if you ignore shades of meaning and word class.  Clearly, if synonyms were exact matches, with exactly the same meanings, the game of hunt-the-synonym-chain could not function.  The only way one can arrive at any other word in the English language is to follow shades of meaning and ignore word-class changes.
If you ignore the sense relationships, you can get from turquoise to depressed via blue (ignoring the dual meaning of blue), from appendage to machine gun via arm and from deposit to rely via bank if you ignore the fact that bank is, in this case, a set of homonyms.  You can also get from occupation to operate via work if you ignore the fact that work is a verb as well as a noun.
It's a good game but useless for teaching purposes because we are actually very concerned with meaning and word grammar.

Two lexemes may be synonymous in some senses but not in others.
For example
    Bring the papers with you = Bring the paperwork with you
    I like to read the Sunday papers ≠ I like to read the Sunday paperwork.
    The door is open = The door is unlocked
    The shops are not open on Saturdays ≠ The shop are not unlocked on Saturdays

Some linguists deny the existence of synonymy altogether.  They argue that if we have two words then we need two words because they refer to different things.  It's a sustainable argument.


syntactical / colligational problems

Briefly, colligation refers to similarities of grammatical collocation.
A popular example of this problem are the words probable and likely.

  1. It's likely John will be late
    It's probable John will be late
  2. John will likely be late
    *John will probable be late

In 1., the two words are synonyms with the same grammatical characteristics but in 2., although the meaning is the same, the grammar isn't.  The words form syntactical relationships differently.
We can't make the subject of the clause be the person identified in both cases but the construction with the dummy it works for both words.
By some definitions, these two words are not synonyms because full synonymy demands both semantic and structural similarity.  If we are only discussing meaning, they are synonyms.
Here are some more examples (mostly from Hudson et al (1996: 442)):

  1. try vs. attempt
        It's hard to get right but please try to
        It's hard to get right but please attempt to

        It's hard to get right but please try
        *It's hard to get right but please attempt

    The to complement is optional with try but obligatory with attempt
  2. ought and should, let and allow
    These are often synonyms but ought requires (usually) the to + infinitive and should never does; allow needs the to but let does not.  For example:
        I ought to go vs. *I ought go
        I should go
    vs. *I should to go
        I allowed her to go
    vs. *I allowed her go
        I let her go
    vs. *I let her to go
  3. stop vs. cease
        It stopped raining
        It ceased raining

        It ceased to rain
        *It stopped to rain
    may be followed by an infinitive or an -ing form but if stop is treated the same way the to is interpretable as in order to.
  4. want vs. wish
        I want to go to London
        I wish to go to London

        I want the heater turned on
        *I wish the heater turned on
    does not permit a passive participle so the last sentence would be understood as
        It's a pity the heater is faulty and won't switch on
  5. sick, poorly, unwell
        The child was sick
        The child was poorly
        The child was unwell
        The sick child
        The poorly child

        *The unwell child
    Synonymous adjectives may have different characteristics in terms of attributive vs. predicative use.
  6. nearly vs. almost
        I nearly lost my temper
        I almost lost my temper
        I very nearly lost my temper

        *I very almost lost my temper
    The issue here is choice of modifier: almost cannot be modified with very.
  7. as well, also, too
        It rained as well
        It rained, too
        It rained also
        It also rained
        *It too rained
        *It as well rained
    Some words can have flexible word ordering; others are stricter.
  8. hide vs. conceal
        I hid it in the cupboard
        I concealed it in the cupboard
        I hid in the cupboard
        *I concealed in the cupboard.
    Transitivity with otherwise synonymous verbs is sometimes an issue.  The verb conceal is always transitive.
  9. though and although
    are often presented to learners as synonyms.  Conceptually, they are but syntactically they are not.  The word though can be a conjunct or a conjunction but although is only a conjunction.  We can accept, therefore:
        The work was done on time.  It was more expensive than I expected, though
        The work was done on time though it was more expensive than I expected
        The work was done on time although it was more expensive than I expected

    but not:
        *The work was done on time.  It was more expensive than I expected, although.
  10. like and as
    are often confused because both function as comparative prepositions so we have:
        He talked like a teacher
        He talked as a teacher
    However, the first means that his manner of talking was similar to a teacher's although he was not one and the second refers to the manner of speaking, too, but suggests he really was a teacher and operating in that role.

syntactical homonymy

This is also a syntax-related issue.
One example will suffice here.  You might assume that the word since in:

  1. I have been here since the beginning of the year
  2. I have been here since I was a child
  3. I went there five years ago and haven't been back since

are examples of the word since all having the same meaning (or even being the same word).
However, in sentence a., the word is a preposition, in sentence b., the word is a subordinating conjunction and in sentence c., the word is an adverb.  They may have the same meaning, i.e., are synonyms, but they certainly do not have the same syntactical properties.  That is what is meant by syntactical homonymy.
You can have:

  1. Since the beginning of the year I have been here
  2. Since I was a child I have been here
  3. Since I went there three years ago I haven't been back

but in a., we are fronting a prepositional phrase for marked effect, in b., the marking is much less obvious with a simple reversal of the clauses in a complex sentence and in c., we are forced to repeat the pronoun, I, to get a well-formed sentence which some may find only marginally acceptable or clumsy.

The word since can also function as a subordinating conjunction with the different and unrelated meaning of a resultative or causal sense in, e.g.:
    Since I was in London, I went to see my aunt
    I had a drink since it was an hour before my train left

but it would be perilous to suggest to a learner that because and since are synonyms except in this restricted use.

The word can even function as a postpositioned preposition so instead of
    She was here an hour ago, but hasn't returned
we can, in some varieties have:
    She was here an hour since, but hasn't returned
but suggesting to a learner that since and ago are synonyms will not be productive of well-formed grammar (or very helpful).


connotational problems

Lexemes may be synonymous in sense (denotation) but not in connotation.
For example, determined. pig-headed and stubborn mean much the same thing but have positive or negative connotations.  Compare, too, terrorist, freedom fighter, partisan and resistance fighter.
A doctor and a quack may do the same job but are viewed rather differently.
In addition to the word-class difficulties set out below concerning small and little, it is worth noting that little is used pejoratively or affectionately but small does not carry those connotations so, for example:
    She had a beautiful little house
implies the house was attractive to the speaker and viewed with affection but
    She had a beautiful small house
merely comments on the size of the house.
    He's a nasty small man
suggests that he is unpleasant and of a small stature but:
    He's a nasty little man
suggests that he is unpleasant and contemptible but says nothing much about his size.


collocational / word class problems

We can have tough rope and strong rope as well as strong people and tough people but other collocations are not possible: strong winds not *tough winds, a tough job not *a strong job and so on.

The words small and little form another popular example with numerous collocational and syntactical difficulties.

For a little (!) more on the use of little as a determiner and a pronoun, see the guide to indefinite pronouns.


stylistic problems

Words may be synonyms but vary in formality.  For example, He's a dustman vs. He's a cleansing operative.  Toilet, loo, bog, bathroom, restroom, john are all words for the same thing but stylistically very different.
    I wonder if you would mind opening the window
    Please open the window
    Let's have the window open, shall we?
are functionally synonymous but stylistically and communicatively different.
The conjunctions like and as or as if are often described a synonyms and they do perform similar functions.  However:
    He shouted like he was a maniac
    He shouted as if he were a maniac
are distinguished in terms of formality, not least because the second requires the formal subjunctive form of the verb.

Almost any word in English which has a close synonym will differ from it in style (and, often other respects).  So, for example we can get sets such as:
    reception, party, do, knees up, bash
    work, chore, labour, toil, slog, graft
    happy, contented, content, pleased, glad, joyful, cheerful, cheery

etc. which all differ only stylistically and, therefore, by their appropriacy to the context in which they are used.


register problems

We have cricket pitches, golf courses, football grounds and tennis courts: they all mean something like playing area and are synonyms but you cannot have *a football court, *a golf ground or *a tennis pitch.
A porthole is the same thing as a window, a cabin is a bedroom and a galley is a kitchen but the first of each pair are found on ships and the others in homes.
    a doctor's examination
is not synonymous with
    a car mechanic's inspection
although the words inspection and examination are often considered synonyms.


affixation problems

Word formation causes problems if an assumption is made that two words are synonymous in all ways.  For example:


variety problems

Words which are synonymous in meaning but differ in dialect are out of place when used in the inappropriate variety.
A BrE lift is an elevator in AmE, and there are hundreds of other synonymous terms.  Other varieties of English around the world demonstrate similar pairings.
In BrE the word footpath can denote a pavement or a small country way but in Indian English, it is a pavement.  In American English, it's a sidewalk.
The verb revert in BrE means go back but in Indian English is often used to mean reply.
In BrE, the term bathers refers to people swimming in the sea or a pool.  In Australian English it refers to a swimming costume.
In BrE, the word blue is usually a simple adjective but in Australian English is can be used as a synonym of the noun mistake.

Grammatical (colligational) differences also occur.
For example, in Indian English, the verb appreciate can be used intransitively as in:
    I would appreciate if you would help me
and the verb reach, in the sense of arrive, can also be used that way.
In other varieties of English, the verbs must be transitive.
AmE also makes verbs transitive which are, in BrE intransitive so we get, for example:
    protest the idea
    write me

and so on which in BrE require complementation with a prepositional phrase (protest against and write to).


CAUTION, therefore

Although it can be helpful simply to provide what we think is a synonym for something a learner doesn't understand, it's a technique to handle with a little care or we will end up seriously misleading our learners.
It should be clear by now that it isn't enough to say this word or phrase means the same as that one.  That procedure is fraught with perils and is the source of much confusion and, what's worse, teacher-induced error.



Understanding and using concepts of synonymy is something many learners would like very much to be able to do.  They are aware that a rich and appropriate source of lexis on which to draw contributes to sounding sophisticated and getting their messages across clearly and vividly.


Exploiting lexical and phrasal synonymy

A favourite of course-book writers and some teachers are exercises which require the learners to find words in a text which mean the same as words in a list provided.
Here's an example of why it doesn't always help:

Grand Theft Auto:
The game is played from either a third-person or first-person view and its world is navigated on foot or by vehicle. Players control the three lead protagonists throughout the single-player mode, switching between them both during and outside of missions. The story is centred on the heist sequences, and many of the missions involve shooting and driving gameplay. Players who commit crimes may incite a response from law enforcement agencies, measured by a "wanted" system that governs the aggression of their response. Grand Theft Auto Online, the online multiplayer mode, lets up to 30 players explore the open world and engage in cooperative or competitive game matches.
Find words in the text which mean:
found your way
steering a car
do a crime

All the words are synonyms of the words in the text.  However, if we replace them the text (as learners are being encouraged to do mentally) we end up with:

Grand Theft Auto:
The game is played from either a third-person or first-person view and its world is found your way on foot or by vehicle. Players regulate the three lead heroes throughout the single-player mode, switching between them both during and outside of operations. The story is centred on the robbery sequences, and many of the missions involve shooting and steering a car gameplay. Players who do a crime crimes may incite a response from law enforcement agencies, measured by a "wanted" system that governs the hostility of their response. Grand Theft Auto Online, the online multiplayer mode, lets up to 30 players explore the open world and engage in supportive or competitive game matches.

Which is close to nonsense in places.
To avoid this kind of thing, we need to be much more careful and consider: syntax, sense, connotation, collocation, style, register and variety.

Here's what we should have done:

Grand Theft Auto:
The game is played from either a third-person or first-person view and its world is navigated on foot or by vehicle. Players control the three lead protagonists throughout the single-player mode, switching between them both during and outside of missions. The story is centred on the heist sequences, and many of the missions involve shooting and driving gameplay. Players who commit crimes may incite a response from law enforcement agencies, measured by a "wanted" system that governs the aggression of their response. Grand Theft Auto Online, the online multiplayer mode, lets up to 30 players explore the open world and engage in cooperative or competitive game matches.
Find the parts of the text which mean:
people take part in the game
and you walk or drive around
players are in charge of the three important characters
the story mainly concerns
scenes of robberies
players who break the law
the police
work together or against each other

By focusing on mostly phrasal synonymy, we can maintain the sense of the text and increase our learners' knowledge of the language without producing unnatural or misleading examples.  Simple, but it needs a little thought.


A note on word class

Synonyms must, of course, share the same word class.  If we decide to have a synonym matching task, we need to be careful that the items share a word class and we are not offering, e.g., look up to as a synonym for admiring or do the washing as a synonym for laundry.
This error in materials design is more common than you may imagine (and more common than it should be).


Exploiting metonymy, synecdoche and hyponymy

As these three devices are similar in many ways (lots of people can't distinguish between them) we don't really need to trouble our learners with the subtleties of use.

We can, however, and arguably should, raise our learners' consciousness of just how commonly these are used in both written and spoken English.
For example, an exercise like this often performs a very useful function because it raises learners' awareness of how one term may stand in for another, providing that there is a close association.

What words in red on the left carry the same meaning as words on the right in black?  Circle and draw lines between the words.
What is happening here?  Discuss with a partner and then tell the class.
Downing Street has issued a press release. Watch the ball carefully.
His residence is normally in Spain but he is staying in a house in London now. The British Prime Minister's Office has issued a press release.
Keep your eye on the ball. After acting in the theatre, he started working in the film industry.
He went into film after a time on the stage. He usually lives in a house in Spain but his residence is in London now.

In the above there are examples of all three of these synonym devices.  Identify them, if you will.

If you are using a reading text in class, look out for examples like this so you can be prepared to alert your learners to what is happening and what term is standing for another.


Using simile

As we saw above, simile in English is often achieved with the as ... as or like connections.  The as ... as connection, in particular, frequently forms common, fixed binomial expressions (or clichés if you prefer) such as
    as deaf as a post
    as dead as a doornail
    as bald as a coot
    as drunk as a judge
    as blind as a bat
    as cool as a cucumber
    as fit as a fiddle
etc.  Some of these are quite ancient similes and many come from Shakespeare and biblical sources.  Some are of fully obscure origin.
The like formulation also occurs in fixed expressions such as
    like a breath of fresh air
    like a man possessed
    like a tornado
There is a cline here from more or less fixed expressions to more flexible semi-fixed ones.  (For more, go to the guide to idiomaticity linked in the list of related guides at the end.)

Simile can also be achieved without the use of any connector except a copula of some kind:
    She's a bit of a dragon
    He's becoming something of a grumpy old bear
Rarely, similes can be made with -like or -wise suffixes:
    She talked machine-gun-like
    They walked crabwise

The like formulation to compare two things is rather more flexible and it's routine for speakers to make them up as they go along to imply something is synonymous with something else in some sense.  For example
    He talks like a machine gun (sounds)
    He sings like a crow (makes a noise)
    It's like a bad dream (feels)
Fixed similes and the ability confidently to deploy the like formulation to add meaning are both important for learners of a language and the area is not difficult to teach.  In particular, the ability to use sound, look, taste, feel, seem, smell + like is important.
(When at a a loss to find an appropriate synonym with which to form a simile, some native speakers in casual speech resort to ... like anything for want of something better.  We get, for example:
    She enjoyed the party like anything
Learners may need to be made aware of this use but it is not something on which to dwell because it betrays a lack of available vocabulary in the speaker.)

Similes can also be created in English with the use of neither the as ... as nor the like formulation.  Here's a short list of what is meant:
    paper thin (=as thin as paper)
    crystal clear (=as clear as crystal)
    feather light (=as light as a feather)
    grass green (=as green as grass)
    sky high (=as high as the sky)
    ice cold (=as cold as ice)
These formulations are rarer and the formation of adjectival compounds like these is unpredictably allowable.

Both fixed phrases and the ability to use simile can be taught.  Here are a couple of ideas:

Match the phrase on the left with the ones on the right:
as blind as a cucumber
as safe as a bat
as fit as gold
as cool as mustard
as old as a fiddle
as good as houses
as thin as clockwork
as regular as rain
as keen as the hills
as right as a rake

Spot the simile and underline it.  Can you say the same in your language?
The rain was so heavy, it felt like a monsoon and John arrived looking and feeling like a drowned rat.
The house was a complete tip and looked like a bomb had hit it.  He went through it like a whirlwind, clearing everything up because he knew his mother would explode if she got home and found it in that state.  By the time he'd finished, he was dog tired but happy that the house seemed a bit more like a proper home and less like a students' common room.  It smelt a bit less like a takeaway pizzeria, too.

Completing expressions can also be helpful and lead to some interesting cross-language comparisons such as:

sleep like ________
sing like ________
work like ________
run like ________
smoke like ________
drink like ________

Once presented, such structures can be reinforced with gap-fill tests to locate acceptable combinations and with freer exercises to compare common objects, actions, people, situations and so on.  It's not difficult to do that.

Some of these fixed similes have alternatives, with alternative meanings.  For example, we can have
    run like a hare [fast]
    run like a rabbit [in fear]
    run like clockwork [smoothly]

All languages do this kind of thing and have traditional similes for many common verbs and nouns.  It can be amusing, interesting and educational to do some cross-language analysis with learners.
For example, the expression
    that story is as old as the hills
will translate into German roughly as
    that story has a long beard
In the same language, however,
    as poor as a church mouse
translates word for word.
In French, that would be
    as poor as Job
    to smoke like a chimney
in that language translates as
    to smoke like a fireman.
The expression:
    as flat as a pancake
translates exactly into Swedish and so does
    as slippery as an eel
    stubborn as a mule
might translate as
    as stubborn as an old goat.
In Hungarian,
    drink like a fish
is rendered as
    drink like a brush maker.
In Spanish, finally
    sleep like a log
translates as
    sleep like a dog
    mad as a hatter
translates into
    crazy as a goat.
Learners will, naturally, often assume that similes will translate across languages – they rarely do, but it's fun finding out.

needle in a haystack

Using metaphor

a needle in a haystack  

In the spot-the-simile exercise we have sneakily inserted one metaphor: explode.  We do not mean that the mother will actually explode.

Metaphor is a more difficult, but, many would argue, even more important area to tackle simply because metaphor is so common in English.  It is almost impossible to understand much of the language unless you are alert to metaphorical uses.  It has been asserted that nearly all thought and language is metaphor of some kind.

Consider these examples:
    he hammered on the door
    she was boiling with rage
    his face darkened
    that's music to my ears
    I have a mountain of work to do
In none of these is the word meant literally; nobody used a hammer, boiled, went dark, heard music or saw a mountain.

Writers have deployed metaphor for thousands of years to make a point more vivid.
Even in Harry Potter, not otherwise considered great literature, they occur quite frequently.  For example:

she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences
they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them

The master was PG Wodehouse who, it is said, invented a new metaphor (or simile) on almost every page:

Jeeves shimmered in
the supply of the milk of human kindness was short by several gallons
the voice of Love seemed to call to me, but it was a wrong number
unseen in the background, Fate was quietly slipping lead into the boxing-glove
the butler loomed in the doorway

As with similes, many of the metaphorical expressions commonly used in English have become clichés and are more or less fixed.  They can be approached in a way similar to the ideas for simile above.  For example,

Choose the right word:
She ___________ with rage exploded, banged, burst
They ____________ into tears exploded, went off, burst
He ________ the idea down shot, destroyed, gunned
He ________ his success trumpeted, sang, drummed
We are ________ with the problem weighed, loaded, saddled
There's light at the end of the ________ road, way, tunnel
He ________ through the agenda motored, hurtled, steamed

Human emotion, of course, is a rich field:
We explode, erupt, spit blood, burn, boil, seethe, become volcanic etc. with anger and happiness has us on top of the world, over the moon, flying high, walking on air etc.
Here are some more (mostly from Verspoor, 1993)
Anger Happiness Sadness Love Fear
boiling in high spirits have the blues starry-eyed petrified
blowing a fuse making merry broken up falling for someone frozen
blowing up on cloud nine with a heavy heart stuck on someone shaking in your shoes
blowing your top tickled pink in the dumps swept off your feet spine chilling
foaming at the mouth in heaven have a long face losing your heart give someone the creeps
fuming in paradise crest-fallen struck with someone paralyzed
storming glowing (with) heartbroken sweet on someone hair standing on end
flying off the handle over the moon aching head over heels in love jump out of your skin

Any section of the above would provide raw material for an interesting presentation and practice of common metaphors.

All fields of activity are called on to make metaphors and that can be a useful way to approach raising learners' awareness of them.
For example:

Match the metaphor with the topic:    
The crowd was a sea of umbrellas military
Attach a file
It's all a bit of a dog's dinner
The idea sank without trace
It sticks in my throat
Use Notebook science
I'll chew the idea over
Sweet dreams
It's a bitter pill to swallow
It'll be plain sailing from here
It was a battle of wills food and drink
The sweet smell of success
He's eaten up with envy
The idea was floated
The idea started a chain reaction
He's a couch potato the sea and ships
Put it on the clipboard
Open the folder
The taste of freedom
There are choppy waters ahead
Cut and paste the section office equipment
We have an ocean of work to do
She fought her ground
I gave it a wide berth
Bitter memories / experience



It has frequently been noted that certain adjectives which are literally applicable to one of our five senses can be transferred metaphorically to another.  We get, therefore:
    a sharp sound (touch to hearing)
    a smooth taste (touch to taste)
    a sweet smell (taste to smell)
    a flat taste (touch to smell)
    a loud pink blouse (hearing to sight)
    acid yellow (taste to sight)
The adjective cold is often associated with unfriendliness and warm with its opposite so we get:
    a cold reception
    an icy smile
    a cool look
    lukewarm applause
    a tepid agreement
    a warm welcome

and so on.
There is some evidence that all languages do this, by the way, so it is an area worth a small amount of investigation in the classroom.  Raising your learners' awareness that they can do this in English as well as in their own languages is sometimes productive.



In English, and many other languages, time is seen as moving from left to right and from behind us to in front of us.  We get metaphorical expressions derived from these notions such as:
    back to square one
    on to the end
    We are behind time
    They are ahead of the game

and so on.
In other languages, however, time is seen as a vertical dimension, moving from top to bottom, right to left or in front to behind.  Speakers of those languages will have some difficulty extracting meaning from metaphors which work differently.

Less obviously, positive notions are often connected, in English, with ideas of upward movement and negative ones with downward movement so we have, e.g.:
    He fell into poverty
    They rose to fame
    She's really up for it

    He's feeling a bit down
    Sales took off
    Sales fell away


In common with most languages, too, English recognises a distinction between the centre and the periphery so we get metaphors such as:
    the core of the problem
    the heart of the matter
    a tangential comment
    a circle of friends




In English, metaphor is often used in a way which uses language related to a different field of concern from what one might expect and these structural metaphors are not consistent across languages.  So, for example, in English:

and so on.  It is perilous to assume that these kinds of comparisons are not culturally determined.



In English, certain colours are associated with certain emotions and states and metaphor is common in this area.  We get, therefore:
    She's a bit green
    They are feeling blue
    He's in a black depression
    the green-eyed monster
    a brown study
    white noise

    see red
    purple prose

See the link, below, to the guide to language and thought for a little more in these areas.


productive practice

Getting learners actually to use metaphor is somewhat more difficult but at all levels they need to be aware of the device and be able to unpack what's being said or written.
That said, designing written tasks which require the use of standard (clichéd?) metaphors is a good beginning.
Expressing emotion is a place to start.  For example:

Re-write the following to make them more emphatic and interesting.  The first is an example.
He was very angry indeed He blew his top
He was very afraid  
The boys are really happy  
When she saw the mess she was very upset  
He is very in love with Mary  
The poor man is very unhappy  
When she left him she made him sad  
The film made her feel afraid  
She was very surprised by the sudden noise  
She was very satisfied with her examination result  

Clearly, you have to present two or three ways of expressing anger, happiness, fear and love before your learners can begin to tackle the exercise but many find that the knowledge that they are writing / speaking more naturally very satisfying.

A follow-up exercise could be to get learners to prepare to tell an anecdote about a time they were very happy / sad / angry / in love etc. and to include a selection of metaphors before telling their story to other people.

You can do the same thing with other semi-fixed metaphors:

Re-write the following to make them more emphatic and interesting.  The first is an example.
They argued for a pay rise They battled for a pay rise
He put the idea to the meeting float
It will be easy from here sail
We have lots and lots of work to do mountain
The website is a real mess dog
If I were you, I'd avoid him berth
Everyone in the crowd was wearing blue sea

You can include or omit the clues as you see fit, of course.
And you can follow that up with a more productive exercise in which learners write / talk / write then talk about a situation including three or four metaphors from a list.
An interesting game is to get learners to speak about a topic for 2 minutes, inserting one of the target metaphors.  Others have to listen carefully and shout out when they hear the metaphor.  It's a bit of fun.

Related guides
semantics for more on the meaning of meaning
language and thought for more on how the ways we think are reflected in the language (and metaphor) we use
idiomaticity many idioms are based on the figurative use of lexemes or on similes and this guide considers them
lexical relationships for a guide to an allied area of concern
syntactical homonymy for much more in the area of word-class issues and synonymy
polysemy for a guide to Homonymy, Polysemy and Monosemy
the roots of English for a guide which helps to explain where synonyms in English originate and why there are so many of them
context for more on what it affects and sources of context for teaching

Adams, M, 2015, in http://www.hightimes.com, July 16, 2015
Hudson, R, Rosta, A, Holmes, J and Gisborne, N, 1996, Synonyms and syntax, Journal of Linguistics 32: 439–446
Riemer, N, 2010, Introducing Semantics, New York: Cambridge University Press
Roberts, S, 2014, in the New York Times, October 15, 2014
http://www.synonymy.com/index.html for a common synonym database (which includes Spanish and French as well as English)
https://www.cinqmarsmedia.com/synonymy/ for a game based on synonym chains
Verspoor, C, 1993, What are the Characteristics of Emotional Metaphors? at http://compbio.ucdenver.edu/Hunter_lab/Verspoor/Education_files/met-thesis.pdf [accessed December 2021]