Do You Really Use Six Metaphors A Minute?

sixWhen I’m talking about the importance of metaphor in thought, I often mention that the research shows we use about six metaphors per minute – far too many to be consciously chosen.

But where does that figure come from? And if it’s true, how come you don’t hear that many metaphors, even when you’re carefully listening?

Paul Tosey (Uni of Surrey), with Wendy Sullivan and Margaret Meyer, did some checking up on the research, and tracked down the original reference in Pollio et al 1977, whose book says that speakers ‘use about an average of 1.80 novel and 4.08 frozen figures per minute’. Tosey’s team add the comment that “‘frozen’ refers to a frozen expression or dead metaphor that is important and frequently used in a culture, in other words one that is not unique to the individual who produces it.”

That gives us a hint as to why so many of those metaphors are invisible. They’re ‘frozen’, and so you may not be counting them as metaphors at all.

For example, in the paragraph above beginning ‘Paul’, how many metaphors can you count? Have a go before reading on.

Here are some I noticed.

‘Frozen’ is fairly obviously metaphorical, as is ‘dead metaphor’.

You could say that ‘tracked down’ was a metaphor: the team didn’t actually get down on their hands and knees to look at animal tracks, work out their direction and set off to follow them.

What about ‘checking up’? What about ‘the book says’? (Books can’t literally speak – at least, academic ones from 1977 can’t.)

And maybe ‘produces it’? People don’t make metaphors like factories make widgets, after all.

And there’s another layer of metaphor hidden in the nuts and bolts of language. ‘In a culture’ suggests that metaphorically, ‘culture’ is some kind of container which things can be ‘in’.

There’s no strict right or wrong answers here – everyone’s view of what counts as a metaphor will be different. But it is where the ‘six metaphors a minute’ numbers come from.

  • What other metaphors did you notice? Please comment below.
  • Many thanks to Felix Macintosh for the question which prompted this blog post.

5 thoughts on “Do You Really Use Six Metaphors A Minute?”

  1. One might add “add the comment” to the list as adding is originally a physical act.

  2. As an ESL teacher with a strong interest in Clean Language, I totally concur with your in-depth examples (No metaphor intended!)

    As a teacher of English grammar and communication, I’ve noticed that almost all, or all, phrasal verbs, collocations, idioms, and even verb tenses are metaphorical. Here’s a small list:

    -to look into getting a job-job is like a bucket you “look into”
    -looking forward to v.+ING-like fast-forwarding your future life movie, in your mind
    -set up a company -set up the dominoes
    -I have eaten lunch-like you possess the eating of the lunch
    -It’s a lot to take unlike eat? Or like allow to stay in your house?
    -all off the party-call off the dog

    Etc., etc.

    In addition, David Grove’s clean questions are effective in teaching. As a matter of fact, I had already been using “What kind of?”, and “Anything else?” naturally before discovering clean language (of course like a discoverer.

    I’ve found that grammar is a natural partner of Clean Language, NLP, and other modalities.


    Troy-ESL teacher in Canada

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