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Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching

Explaining grammar with metaphor part 2

Secondary adult
Simon Mumford, Izmir University of Economics, Turkey

[ To read the first part of this article click on HLT May 05 ]

'Metaphors bring things before the eyes of the listener or reader, and the pleasing mental effort required to understand them makes them memorable,' according to Mahon (1999:76), commenting on Aristotle's view of metaphor. This sums up the benefits of using metaphors for teaching: they make grammar points real, something that can be visualised, instead of just words. Also, they give pleasure, perhaps because they involve familiar things in a novel way. Finally they are memorable, because they need mental effort to understand them.

Since the first article on metaphor (HLT May 05) I have been working on more, finding they get easier as one acquires a better understanding of how they work. For anyone interested, random assocation techniques may help, for example, ask yourself what the connection between a language point and a random word or object is, and work from there.

I have put the metaphors into two groups. In the first group, the sound or structure of the word is the starting point. A simple example is the the shape and sound of the u in used to. In the second group, the connection is with some object or process, eg ice melting.

Part 1 Sounds and structure

Must and mustard
Must is the first syllable of mustard, which is a sauce with a strong taste. Like mustard, must is strong, so it should be used carefully, as overuse can cause discomfort, for example it is often not polite to tell someone they must do something, especially when giving advice. It is better to use a milder sauce, like should or could. Like mustard, must comes in different strengths, from the mild (ie unstressed) You must get you hair cut sometime to the very strong (ie stressed) You must get your hair cut this afternoon!

Demonstratives and shouting and whispering
The demonstratives this, that, these, those can be divided into two, those that refer to something near: this, these, and the ones which refer to further away: that, those. The way the words are said could be a way of remembering which is which: when saying this and these, the mouth is not open much when saying the vowel sounds, whereas the vowels in that and those do require the mouth to be open. So this and these seem to be more like whispering sounds, as if refering to something close, whereas that and those could be called voice-projecting sounds, as if calling out to something far away. This metaphor suggests a drilling activity.

Used to and U turns
Take a straight piece of wire that can be bent. Hold it horizontally and say 'I played fooball when I was at school' and keep repeating this as you move your finger from one end towards the middle. When you get to the middle, repeat 'I don't play football now', until you reach the other end. Now bend the wire into a 'U' shape. Show that as you moved down one side you did something, but on the other side you discontinued it. Use the concept of a 'U turn' to show a change in behaviour. Hold up the U-shaped piece of wire and practise the U (/yu:/) sound, which is the vowel sound in 'used'. You have created a link between the sound, form and meaning.

Remember to vs. remember -ing and typing
Remember and forget can be followed by both to and -ing forms of the verb, but with different meanings. Here is a way to help students remember. Point out that on a keyboard, the letter t (for to) is hit with the left index finger, whereas the letter i (for -ing) is hit with the right middle finger when typing with all fingers. To press the t you move your left index finger slightly to the right and to hit the i you move your right middle finger slightly to the left. Draw a time line on the board. In the middle write remember. Now turn and face the board. As you move your left index finger (in an exaggerated way, so all can see) towards the right, you point forward in time, and as you point your right middle finger to the left you point back in time. Now explain you remember to do something before you do it, ie looking forward in time, but you remember doing something after doing it.

Part 2 Object and processes.

Extreme adjectives and elastic bands.
Take an elastic band and gradually stretch it, saying 'quite interesting, interesting, very interesting, really interesting' as you do this. When you have stretched the band as far as it will go, say 'fascinating.' Tell students this is an extreme adjective, it does not go any further, it is already stretched as far as it will go. You cannot normally say rather a bit/ very fascinating. However, you can use absolutely, which is an extreme adverb. Illustrate this by taking another band and stretching them both as far as they will go at the same time to represent absolutely fascinating.

The determiners some, any, no and every and a padlock.
Take a padlock and explain that it has 4 positions, open-locked, open-unlocked, closed-locked, and closed-unlocked. The closed position represents a restricted amount while the open is an unrestricted amount. The locked position represents negative, the unlocked is positive. The locked-closed position means no (negative, restricted); locked-open means (not) any (negative, unrestricted); the unlocked-open is every (positive, unrestricted), and locked-open (positive, restricted) represents some. To keep the metaphor simple, any is presented in its negative sense.

Past vs present perfect and a broken window.
Tell the students the board is a window, and then 'break' it by drawing a large jagged hole in the middle. Tell the students that the window represents the present, and write a sentence, e.g. I play chess in big letters on the unbroken part. The hole represents the past. In the hole, write a sentence like I played chess last night. Write it in smaller letters to show it is further away. Now write a sentence that starts on the glass but continues over into the hole: I have played chess many times. Write it in letters that get gradually smaller so it appears to be trailing off into the past, to show that it includes time from the present into the past. This is a novel way of visually demonstrating the present perfect, because we see it starting in the present and going back in time, whereas timelines show it starting in past and continuing to present. This metaphor confirms that it is a present tense rather than a past tense.

The future and ice, water, steam
The three main ways of talking about the future tense are: present continuous, going to and will. They represent the future in different ways and an important difference between them is definiteness: present continous is the most definite (for arrangements), then going to (for intentions) then will (in the sense of prediction.) We could use a water metaphor to explain this. Present continuous is the most definite form of the future, because it has already been arranged, it can be compared to water in the form of ice. It is solid, you can hold it in your hand. Going to (for intentions), is water, you can touch it but it is difficult to hold. It is not solid like ice, less definite because it represents what you plan rather than an arrangement. Will (for predictions) is steam because it is even less tangible, denoting what you think or guess will happen; you cannot hold steam!

Separable phrasal verbs and a case for glasses.
Some phrasal verbs that take an object are separable, that is, the object can come either between the two words, (verb and adverbial particle) or at the end. If the object is a noun, it is more likely to be used in end position, whereas a pronoun is more likely to come in mid position: eg I gave up smoking (end position), I gave it up (mid position) . Think of the phrasal verb as a box with two connected parts, a base and a lid, eg a hinged case for reading glasses. The pronoun it and smoking refer to the same thing, but it is more compact and economical, and is prefered if we know what is being refered to. Think of a pair of glasses. When folded and compact they are usually inside the box, and when unfolded are usually outside.

Apostrophe s and identical twins.
There are two uses of the apostrophe s ('s) in English, one for possessives, eg John's car and the other for contractions, eg John's driving, John's happy. As they appear exactly the same, students could confuse them. The metaphor works like this: although identical twins and look exactly the same, they have different characters, and the only way to tell them apart is by their friends, the people who they are found with. The possessive is followed by a noun whereas the contraction is followed by a verb or adjective.

Must and have to, photos and negatives.
Must and have to have very similar meanings in their positive form (obligation) but different meanings in negative form (negative obligation vs lack of obligation). In photographs some colours seem close to each other, eg two shades of blue. However, when you look at the negatives, they look different, one could be yellow and the other looks orange-red. Negatives emphasise the difference between darker colours because they change them to lighter colours, so difference is more noticeable. Do not have to is a much lighter shade than must no t.


Metaphor may help students remember better because it links the familiar and unfamiliar. It could have have a consciousness-raising effect because students are challenged to think and understand how the grammar point is mapped on to the 'vehicle', that is, the thing it is being compared to. Also, metaphors are succinct, they may help to avoid lengthy and potentially confusing explanations.

With metaphor, anything may be connected with anything else. Therefore there is the possibility of a limitless number of metaphors that could be devised to help our learners. While not all will necessarily be helpful, it should be possible to produce a comprehensive list of simple but useful metaphors covering the main grammar points. This could be used as a resource for teachers to use in lesson preparation.


Mahon J.E. Getting your sources right in L. Cameron and G. Lowe (eds) Researching and applying metaphor Cambridge University Press 1999

Simon Mumford
Izmir University of Economics, Turkey

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