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The Philosophy of Rhetoric by I.A. Richards (Oxford University Press, 1936; rpt. 1965)


In rhetoric, the underlying idea or principal subject that is the meaning of a metaphor.

According to the theory of metaphor held by rhetorician I.A. Richards, the tenor is the idea conveyed or illuminated by the vehicle (that is, the actual figurative expression). (See Examples and Observations, below.)

See also:


The terms tenor and vehicle were introduced by the British rhetorician I.A. Richards in The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1936).

Examples and Observations:

  • In William Stafford's poem "Recoil," the first stanza is the vehicle and the second stanza is the tenor:
    The bow bent remembers home long,
    the years of its tree, the whine
    of wind all night conditioning
    it, and its answer--Twang!

    "To the people here who would fret me down
    their way and make me bend:
    By remembering hard I could startle for home
    and be myself again."

  • In the first stanza of Abraham Cowley's poem “The Wish,” the tenor is the city and the vehicle is a beehive:

    Well then! I now do plainly see
    This busy world and I shall ne'er agree.
    The very honey of all earthly joy
    Does of all meats the soonest cloy;
    And they, methinks, deserve my pity
    Who for it can endure the stings,
    The crowd and buzz and murmurings,
    Of this great hive, the city.

  • I.A. Richards on Tenor and Vehicle
    - "We need the word 'metaphor' for the whole double unit, and to use it sometimes for one of the two components in separation from the other is as injudicious as that other trick by which we use 'the meaning' here sometimes for the work that the whole double unit does and sometimes for the other component--the tenor, as I am calling it--the underlying idea or principal subject which the vehicle or figure means. It is not surprising that the detailed analysis of metaphors, if we attempt it with such slippery terms as these, sometimes feels like extracting cube-roots in the head."
    (I.A. Richards, The Philosophy of Rhetoric. Oxford Univ. Press, 1936)

    - "[I.A. Richards] understood metaphor as a series of shifts, as borrowings back and forth, between tenor and vehicle. Hence, in 1936, his famous definition of metaphor as a 'transaction between contexts.'

    "Richards justified coining tenor, vehicle, and ground to clarify the terms of that transaction. . . . The two parts had been called by such loaded locutions as 'the original idea' and 'the borrowed one'; 'what is really being said or thought of' and 'what it is compared to'; 'the idea' and 'the image'; and 'the meaning' and 'the metaphor.' Some theorists refused to concede how much idea was imbedded in, drawn from the image. . . . With neutral terms a critic can proceed to study the relations between tenor and vehicle more objectively."
    (J. P. Russo, I.A. Richards: His Life and Work. Taylor, 1989)
Pronunciation: TEN-er
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