Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Robert Fiengo

Committee Members

Dianne Bradley

William McClure

Subject Categories

Discourse and Text Linguistics | Philosophy of Language | Semantics and Pragmatics


linguistics, figurative language, simile, metaphor, pragmatics


The Artfulness of Absence:

A Linguistic Analysis of Simile and Metaphor

by Kathryn O’Shields

This dissertation addresses two forms of artful language: similes and metaphors. It argues that one way to speak artfully is to deliberately omit information, inviting the listener to figure out the missing parts. Patterns can be found in this absent information, including the type of information omitted, the underlying structure of the utterance, and how the artful statement is usually interpreted. Once these are identified, the contributions of similes and metaphors (which are distinct both from each other and from literal statements) become clear.

Using the basic form ‘A is like B’ as a prototype, it is argued here that a simile’s absent information is tacit assumptions about its second member, B. Sentences of the form ‘A is like B’ may be used in two different ways. When ‘A is like B’ is used as a simile, it is not intended as a comparison of two individual items. Instead, the point of the simile is to state that A is “B-like” in some respect. In contrast, literal comparisons ‘A is like B’ (which I call similatives) assert that two individuals (item A and item B) are comparable and share properties. As a result, similes and similatives behave differently and have distinct syntactic interpretations.

Using the basic form ‘A is a B’ as a prototype, this writing supports the claim that a metaphor’s absent information is a tacit analogy, A:X::B:Y. As such, metaphors assert a parallel between two relations, not two items, as it may appear. Because metaphors leave more information tacit, they are more artful than similes, and the two forms of artful statements are distinct.

It is also shown here that the literal truth of similes and metaphors is irrelevant to their interpretations because their truth depends on tacit assumptions. However, artful statements can nevertheless be used to make true or false assertions. Their truth is determined by taking their absent information into account. Furthermore, similes and metaphors can meaningfully use negation, as literal statements can.

Such patterns in simile and metaphor usage reveal that there are predictable thought processes behind their creation and a systematic method to their interpretations. Although similes and metaphors are not easily analyzed by the guidelines of traditional linguistic theory, they are so commonly employed in everyday speech that an accurate analysis of their usage is critical to the discipline.

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