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The use of simile, metaphor, hyperbole, personification. -- by Ernie Watson

Are metaphor and simile becoming less frequent used in modern writing? It seems to me that they are, but is it merely a trick that my memory plays on my mind? I remember this being a subject at school when I was about twelve years old. Is this subject still taught, or is it considered old fashioned and not worth teaching the modern pupil?

I decided to download this worksheet to test myself.

I thought it may provide an interesting subject for discussion at my writers group so I printed copies off so everyone could test their own ability using it. Try it for yourself and see how much you remember.

I handed a copy of the test which everyone complete and asked how many of us got everything correct. The result was two out of seven experienced writers.

I then asked everyone if they could identify the same figures of speech in the following extracts from popular modern writing that I chose at random:

Station Eleven

This is an award winning science fiction novel by Emily St. John Mandel that was originally published by Harper Collins in September 2014.

THE KING STOOD in a pool of blue light, unmoored. This was act 4 of King Lear, a winter night at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto. Earlier in the evening, three little girls had played a clapping game onstage as the audience entered, childhood versions of Lear’s daughters, and now they’d returned as hallucinations in the mad scene. The king stumbled and reached for them as they flitted here and there in the shadows. His name was Arthur Leander. He was fifty-one years old and there were flowers in his hair.

“Dost thou know me?” the actor playing Gloucester asked.

“I remember thine eyes well enough,” Arthur said, distracted by the child version of Cordelia, and this was when it happened. There was a change in his face, he stumbled, he reached for a column but misjudged the distance and struck it hard with the side of his hand.

“Down from the waist they are Centaurs,” he said, and not only was this the wrong line but the delivery was wheezy, his voice barely audible. He cradled his hand to his chest like a broken bird. The actor portraying Edgar was watching him closely. It was still possible at that moment that Arthur was acting, but in the first row of the orchestra section a man was rising from his seat. He’d been training to be a paramedic. The man’s girlfriend tugged at his sleeve, hissed, “Jeevan! What are you doing?” And Jeevan himself wasn’t sure at first, the rows behind him murmuring for him to sit. An usher was moving toward him. Snow began to fall over the stage.

The Girl on the Train

by Paula Hawkins - Contemporary, Fiction, Literary, Romance, Suspense, Thrillers. Published on 20 September 2016 by the Penguin Publishing Group

There is a pile of clothing on the side of the train tracks. Light-blue cloth—a shirt, perhaps—jumbled up with something dirty white. It’s probably rubbish, part of a load dumped into the scrubby little wood up the bank. It could have been left behind by the engineers who work this part of the track, they’re here often enough. Or it could be something else. My mother used to tell me that I had an overactive imagination; Tom said that, too. I can’t help it, I catch sight of these discarded scraps, a dirty T-shirt or a lonesome shoe, and all I can think of is the other shoe and the feet that fitted into them.

The train jolts and scrapes and screeches back into motion, the little pile of clothes disappears from view and we trundle on towards London, moving at a brisk jogger’s pace. Someone in the seat behind me gives a sigh of helpless irritation; the 8:04 slow train from Ashbury to Euston can test the patience of the most seasoned commuter. The journey is supposed to take fifty-four minutes, but it rarely does: this section of the track is ancient, decrepit, beset with signalling problems and never-ending engineering works.


by Annie Proulx – General literary fiction published by Harper Collins in 2016.

In twilight they passed bloody Tadoussac, Kébec and Trois-Rivières and near dawn moored at a remote riverbank settlement. René Sel, stiff black hair, slanted eyes, yeux bridés—in ancient times invading Huns had been at his people—heard someone say “Wobik.” Mosquitoes covered their hands and necks like fur. A man with yellow eyebrows pointed them at a rain-dark house. Mud, rain, biting insects and the odor of willows made the first impression of New France. The second impression was of dark vast forest, inimical wilderness.

The newcomers, standing in the rain waiting to be called to make their marks in a great ledger, saw the farmers clumped under a sheltering spruce. The farmers stared at them and exchanged comments.

At his turn René made not only an X but the letter R—marred by a spatter of ink from the quill—a letter which he had learned in childhood from the old priest who said it was the beginning of René, his name. But the priest had died of winter starvation before he could teach him the succeeding letters.

We all had difficulty with this, and there were several disagreements. Someone said this was something that a writer does subconsciously because it comes naturally when one writes and therefore does not need to be studied. I don’t know if this is true, surely we should be aware of everything we write. The whole thing has left me with more questions than ever. What’s your opinion?


Posted by Ernie Watson 30 May 2017 at 00:54
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Responses to this blog

Sophcritch 30 May 2017 at 18:43  
Definitely still taught in English schools and in college if you take A level English Language (I remember looking at this in depth during lexis and semantics seminars). Can't comment on anywhere else though.
Zznewell 30 May 2017 at 19:37  
Use and understanding of metaphor may very well be in decline. It would be interesting to have a study which gathered statistics to see if this is true.
It might be that with the accessibility of film, readers are less adept at decoding metaphor and may be confusing idiom and metaphor. I understand that idiom is when the literal meaning is different from the accepted meaning. Readers might be understand the meaning without understanding the metaphors. As language evolves, metaphor becomes cliche, cliche becomes idiom, and idiom becomes a new word.
I theorize that writers are increasingly drawing language and ideas from movies and from other fiction and when they do this they end up using cliches and idiom instead of fresh metaphors. At the same time, readers accustomed to cliches and idiom may experience a jolt of confusion when faced with a new metaphor.
Those are my thoughts. We won't really know unless we design studies to examine what vocabulary is in use. It might be possible to quantify originality in use of language and metaphors by incidence of unusual words.
Rellrod 10 Jun 2017 at 02:23  
Actually, you should check out the stories by our CC colleague Harpalycus. He writes an unusually intricate prose that abounds in the kind of metaphor and allusion we typically don't see any more.

Kcm 10 Jun 2017 at 12:49  
I posit that simile (I need to add "analogy") and metaphor, in that order of precedence, are the most fundamental tools the human mind' use to assign meaning to anything and everything that visits any of the body's five senses. I hold Ernie's observation on modern literature to be valid.

What point is there to teaching long division to a six-year-old who can define Pi to ten digits on his/her three dollar electronic calculator? The long term investments earlier generations made in mastering the phenomena listed in this blog's title are anathema to the generations bent on learning how to get maximum value from disposables.

But then, what do I know and what permits me to wax positive?

Chaine 10 Jun 2017 at 14:24  
We poor writers are constantly told to show, not tell. We struggle to find the exact words to describe without going into elaborate description. Yet it seems that we often ignore the tools of metaphor, personification, hyperbole (and perhaps onomatopoeia) that are at our disposal. Of course there is a danger of using clichés, and we must guard against that, but should we not have the presence of mind to use figures of speech when it is appropriate. Should this not be part of our conscious writing practice? A short sentence, or a well turned phrase, could put the perfect image in a readers mind. It does take a degree of imagination, and it isn’t easy, but surely the rewards are worth the effort.

Joeljt 4 Jul 2017 at 16:30  
Can we find it in our hearts to forgive the fiction writer for not being capable of using the metaphorical tools at their disposal? Consider the writer dominated by the left hemisphere of the brain who may find it difficult, if not impossible, to think metaphorically.

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