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


In a metaphor, the figure itself--that is, the image that embodies the tenor (the underlying idea of the metaphor). See also:


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


  • "By 'tenor,' [I.A. Richards] meant the purport or general drift of thought regarding the subject of a metaphor; by 'vehicle' the image which embodies the tenor. In these lines from R.S. Thomas's A Blackbird Singing, the tenor is the bird's song, its tune; the vehicle is the fine smelting image in the fifth and sixth lines:
    It seems wrong that out of this bird,
    Black, bold, a suggestion of dark
    Places about it, there yet should come
    Such rich music, as though the notes'
    Ore were changed to a rare metal
    At one touch of that bright bill.
    ("Tenor and Vehicle," J.A. Cuddon, A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. Basil Blackwell, 1991)

  • 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."

  • "A modern theory would object, first, that in many of the most important uses of metaphor, the co-presence of the vehicle and the tenor results in a meaning (to be clearly distinguished from the tenor) which is not attainable without their interaction. That the vehicle is not normally a mere embellishment of a tenor which is otherwise unchanged by it but that vehicle and tenor in co-operation give a meaning of more varied powers that can be ascribed to either. And a modern theory would go on to point out that with different metaphors the relative importance of the contributions of vehicle and tenor to this resultant meaning varies immensely. At one extreme the vehicle may become almost a mere decoration or coloring of the tenor, at the other extreme, the tenor may become almost a mere excuse for the introduction of the vehicle, and so no longer be 'the principal subject.' And the degree to which the tenor is imagined 'to be that very thing which it only resembles' also varies immensely."
    (I.A. Richards, The Philosophy of Rhetoric. Oxford Univ. Press, 1936)

  • "As Manuel Bilsky points out, if someone says his mind is a river, mind is the tenor and river the vehicle; but in 'I walked into the river,' what is the tenor and what is the vehicle? This criticism does not vitiate Richards' theory; it does indicate the kinds of problems that remained to be clarified."
    (J. P. Russo, I.A. Richards: His Life and Work. Taylor, 1989)

  • "In her brief assessment of [I.A.] Richards's approach, [Christine] Brooke-Rose also notes that 'the very terms' tenor and vehicle 'destroy' the interaction Richards seeks to stress."
    (Brian Caraher, Intimate Conflict. SUNY Press, 1992)
Pronunciation: VEE-i-kul
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