Lexical Creativity:
Patterns, Rules, and the
Exploitation of Norms
Patrick Hanks,
Insittute of Formal and Applied Linguistics,
Charles University in Prague,
Czech Republic
Outline of the talk
1. A natural language is an analogical, creative
2. Phraseological norms
3. Exploiting the norms; exploitation rules
– Typology of figurative langauge
4. Criteria for distinguishing metaphorical meaning
from literal meaning
5. The function and structure of similes; uses of the
preposition ‘like’
What is a language?
Hypothesis (being explored by systematic corpus
• A natural language is a sort of double helix:
A) a set of constructions (words and phrases), with rules
governing their normal use, intertwined with
B) a set of rules for exploiting normal constructions
Words don’t have meaning
E.g. ‘fire’ …. innumerable possibilities …
So how are dictionaries possible?
Dictionaries record meaning potentials not meanings.
Even the best modern dictionaries (e.g. American Heritage
or the 1-volume Oxford Dictionary of English) fail to show
how the meaning potential of each word is activated.
• Words only have meaning in context: contextual patterns
activate meanings.
• A new kind of resource is needed -- a pattern dictionary -showing how the meaning potential of each word is
normally activated.
Corpus Pattern Analysis (CPA)
• A project to compile a pattern dictionary of all normal
verb patterns in a language (starting with English)
– A resource for mapping meaning onto use
– A benchmark for idiomatic text generation
– A resource for language teaching: which patterns are most
• Patterns are explicit and (mostly) mutually exclusive
– Word senses in dictionaries are not mutually exclusive and need
prior annotation before they can be be counted
– The frequency of different patterns in a corpus can be counted and
What does a CPA pattern look like?
PATTERN 1 (80%): [[Human]] hazard {guess}
IMPLICATURE: [[Human]] utters [[Speech Act = Guess]] without
much confidence that the proposition that it represents is true
EXAMPLE: No one at this stage is prepared to hazard a guess at the outcome.
PATTERN 2 (20%): [[Human]] hazard [[Entity]]
IMPLICATURE: [[Human]] puts [[Entity = Valued]] at risk, typically in
the hope of obtaining some [[Benefit]]
EXAMPLE: ... a principle strong enough to hazard lives for.
Part 1: Phraseological norms
and how to exploit them
Exploitation Rule 1: Ellipsis
• I hazarded various Stuartesque destinations such as
Florida, Crete and Western Turkey
—Julian Barnes
• What’s going on here? What’s the
A destination is not a guess, nor is it a valued object.
You don’t ‘hazard’ a destination—not one of the things
English speakers do to destinations.
So is this example gibberish?
But Barnes is an admired stylist …
Extended context makes the
meaning clear(er)
Stuart needlessly scraped a fetid plastic comb over his cranium.
‘Where are you going? You know, just in case I need to get in
‘State secret. Even Gillie doesn’t know. Just told her to take light
He was still smirking, so I presumed that some juvenile guessing
game was required of me. I hazarded various Stuartesque
destinations like Florida, Bali, Crete and Western Turkey, each
of which was greeted by a smug nod of negativity. I essayed all
the Disneylands of the world and a selection of tarmacked spice
islands; I patronised him with Marbella, applauded him with
Zanzibar, tried aiming straight with Santorini. I got nowhere.
• (Other exploited verb uses in this extract are in italics)
Ellipsis: unanswered questions
• Ellipsis in verb arguments is very common
• Under what circumstances is ellipsis possible?
– What can be safely left out of a speech act because it is
already understood? What information does the
reader/hearer have to supply?
• Like this:
• [[Human]] hazard {guess {at [[Topic]]}
– ‘destination’ is selected as [[Topic]] by relevance.
Exploitations are everywhere
• Stuartesque (= characteristic of Stuart) is also an
• You won’t find it in any dictionary—at any rate
not in Barnes’s sense.
• What sort of exploitation is it?
Exploitation Rule 2:
Anomalous Argument
• Always vacuum your moose from the snout up,
and brush your pheasant with freshly baked bread,
torn not sliced.
—from The Massachusetts Journal of Taxidermy, 1986
(per Associated Press newswire)
• Is it normal to vacuum a moose?
The norm for ‘vacuum’
PATTERN: [[Human]] vacuum [[Room | Floor | Carpet]]
IMPLICATURE: [[Human]] uses a suction machine such as a
hoover to clean [[Room | Floor | Carpet]]
SECONDARY IMPLICATURE: [[Human]] pushes the hoover up
and down over the [[Floor]] or [[Carpet]] in a [[Room]]
• A moose is not a type of floor, a carpet, or a room. But
both have a surface.
• “Janet was vacuuming the Axminster”, though rare, would
be a norm, because an Axminster is a type of carpet.
• “Janet was vacuuming her moose” is an exploitation,
because it relies on a shared property of mooses and
carpets – namely having a surface.
Exploitation Rule 3:
Intertextual reference
• As speakers and writers, we are primed by what others
have said
– recently | previously in our lifetime
• and by what others have written
– recently | hundreds of years ago
• The formative influence of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and the
Bible on the phraseology that we used in English today
– but also of every English writer and speaker who ever lived –
mostly unrecorded.
– Only the famous ones can be tracked by scholars
Exploitation Rule 4: simile
• Some ways of making similes:
• like X: When the last resonances of the symphony had
died, all that was left was an electronic whine. It sounded
an idiot child whistling.
• I took the pastry. It tasted
sweetened cardboard.
• as if/as though P: … a [supermarket] trolley that squeaked
as if somebody was torturing mice
• as ... as...: He was a tallish man with a mind as sharp as a
• -esque: Stuartesque destinations
• resembling: Grandma has eyes resembling Superman’s:
they can see right through you.
Exploitation Rules 5 and 6:
Metaphor and metonymy
• There is a vast literature on metaphor and
• A necessary condition for metaphor: resonance with
another (primary or literal) sense or pattern of the same
word or construction
• Most metaphors are secondary conventions, not creative
– of little interest in the present context (creativity)
• In the literature, most examples are invented
– It’s an open question whether anyone has or would use these
invented metaphors
[I have nothing to say about metonymy]
Conceptual metaphor vs.
linguistic metaphor
• Much of our everyday thought is metaphorical –
Lakoff and Johnson 1980
• Conceptual metaphors such as HAPPINESS IS UP;
• Contrast with linguistic metaphors such as ‘a gnat
trying to curb an elephant’
– gnat vs elephant is a conventional metaphorical
Many but not all linguistic metaphors can be grouped together
under general headings of conceptual metaphors
Creative vs. conventional
• He is a cunning old fox
– many citations, often used
• Every morning he went down the three flights of
stairs the mail was there to be shuffled and dealt.
—(BNC) Esquire, 1992.
Similes vs. metaphors
Muriel Spark (1990): Symposium (a novel).
• Opening paragraph, page 1:
“This is rape!” His voice was reaching a pitch
it had never reached before. …
It was not rape. It was a robbery.
• Page 2:
“Rape,” he said. “It feels like rape.”
The metaphor has weakened to a simile, as the speaker’s
initial shock is replaced by querulous self-pity.
Exploitation Rule 7: zeugma
• In her musings, she wrings out her heart along with her
dishcloth, pouring out a torrent of disillusionments and
—(BNC) from a theatre review in the Liverpool Echo and
Daily Post, 1993.
• The concepts of each civilization, like the soil of its
homeland, have been cultivated by a long tradition of
directed effort.
—(BNC) A. C. Graham, 1985. Reason and spontaneity.
Exploitation Rule 8:
Irony and sarcasm
“What have you done with your car?” …
“My car is on the Tallaght bypass, burnt to a crisp.”
“No, did it myself last night. Nothing good on telly.
Of course stolen.”
—Marian Keyes, This Charming Man, p. 105
Exploitation Rule 9: Puns
• a rebel without claws
– Ronald Bergan, 1991, describing Dustin Hoffman’s
character Benjamin in The Graduate
– relevance (focus and genre – ref. to James Dean’s film
Rebel without a Cause), as well as just word play
• Leaf it off, asks BR: Landscape architects have had a
special request from British Rail when it comes to tree
planting alongside a busy branch line. “Please don’t plant
trees which shed thick leaves in autumn.”
• —(BNC) Northen Echo (1990s)
There are several more types
of exploitations
• More rules remain to be described.
• But the ones just described are the most salient.
• Not all the figures of speech described by Ancient
Greek and Roman rhetoricians function as
exploitations. Some account for only a few (often
highly contrived and stilted) utterances.
Alternations are not
• PATTERN: [[Human 1]] calm [[Human 2]]
• [[Human 2]] alternates with {POSDET nerves}, {POSDET
fears}, etc.
– Alternation is a focusing mechanism.
• Alternations gradually shade off into different patterns
• ... felt better after he had taken some medicine to calm his
– The same meaning, or different?
• [[Human 2]] also alternates with domestic animals (e.g.
horses) and institutions (e.g. the Stock Market).
Part 2: Distinguishing literal and
metaphorical meaning
Metaphorical meaning
• Metaphorical meaning and literal meaning are
complementary or contrastive notions.
• If there were no metaphors, it would not be
necessary to talk about “literal meanings”.
– There would just be “meanings”.
• But then language would not work!
– The fuzziness and flexibility that makes metaphor
possible also makes it possible for language users to
talk about new things
– Fuzziness is an essential design feature of language
Criteria for metaphoricity (1)
• Etymology or historical priority. This is the
defining criterion favoured by many traditional
dictionaries but it is unsatisfactory.
‘literal’ meaning of camera = small room (!)
‘literal’ meaning of literal = of or pertaining to letters
‘literal’ meaning of ardent = burning (!)
‘literal’ meaning of subject = thrown under (!)
Criteria for metaphoricity (2)
• Concrete vs. abstract. If a linguistic expression
has both a concrete meaning and an abstract one,
the abstract one is normally a metaphorical
exploitation of the concrete one. This seems
satisfactory as far as it goes, but not all abstract
senses of words are metaphorical.
Criteria for metaphoricity (3)
• Frequency. Some people have proposed that the most
frequent sense of a term must be its literal meaning. This is
untenable. The conventional ‘metaphorical’ sense of a
word (e.g. launch) is often much more frequent than the
comparable literal sense
• Thus, launching a product and launching a campaign are
more common than launching a missile or launching a
boat, but still it seems reasonable to regard the former pair
as metaphorical and the latter as literal.
Criteria for metaphoricity (4)
• Syntagmatics. The syntagmatics of metaphorical
uses of a word are typically much more narrowly
constrained than literal sense(s) of the same word.
• e.g. a torrent of abuse, a torrent of feathers
– More extensive corpus-driven studies of the
syntagmatics of metaphor are needed.
Criteria for metaphoricity (5)
• Resonance. A metaphor is a “non-core use” of a word
expressing “a perceived relationship with the core meaning
of the word.” – Alice Deignan
• If one sense of an expression resonates semantically with
another sense, then it is metaphorical, and if there is no
such resonance, it is literal.
• Strictly speaking, we should think in terms of ‘resonance
potential’ rather than resonance tout simple.
Part 3: the Function, Structure,
and Typology of Similes
What is a ‘simile’?
• (New) Oxford Dictionary of English (1998, 2003):
a figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with
another thing of a different kind, used to make a description
more emphatic or vivid (e.g. as brave as a lion)
• Merriam Webster’s 10th Collegiate (1993):
a figure of speech comparing two unlike things that is often
introduced by like or as (as in cheeks like roses)
• What the dictionaries don’t say:
What is the relation between simile and metaphor?
How is a simile structured? And what’s it for?
The vehicle is often fantastic or unreal (a banshee, a zombie,
a fairy tale, a princess, a demented lighthouse. a broiled
frog), not a real-world thing
Meaning in language:
logical and analogical
• A natural language consists of a puzzling mixture of
logical and analogical procedures
• Neglect of the analogical aspect has led to serious errors
– E.g. the quest for precise definition in ontologies currently being
designed for the Semantic Web
• In ordinary language people often make new meanings by
comparing one thing with another
– Not merely by asserting identity
– Nor by conforming exactly to conventional phraseology
– But being able to say that one thing is ‘like’ another
What are similes for?
A first tentative hypothesis
• Similes are used to associate the ‘new’
with the ‘given’
• e.g. describing ‘Bridget’, the vehicle
designed for robotic exploration on Mars:
She looks like a cross between a remotecontrolled tank and Johnny Five, the irritating
star of 80s robot movie Short Circuit.
– Guardian science correspondent, 2006
Explaining the new in terms of
the given
• When a leading Jordanian Brotherhood leader
suggested that his party was capable of winning an
election and governing—surely a tame statement
for a politician in a democratic system—the
regime reacted
he had issued a revolutionary
--Nathan Brown, ‘Taming Radical Islam: Democracy Works,
only Very Slowly’ in International Herald Tribune, July 5,
2007, p. 6
We all know what a revolutionary threat is --- or do we?
Main uses of like, preposition
• To compare: John is like his father
– Mr Pett had been like a father to him
– (An exclusive set: Mr Pett was not his father)
• To make an ad-hoc set: people like doctors and lawyers
– (an inclusive set, i.e. it includes doctors and lawyers)
• To report perceptions or imagined perceptions: looks like,
tastes like, smells like, sounds like, feels like, seems like
– His mouth tasted like the bottom of a parrot’s cage.
– It felt like velvet
• And to report feelings/emotions:
– I felt like a fool, I felt like hitting him
Donald Davidson
• All metaphors are false (like lies)
– The speaker deliberately says something false, to alert
the hearer to some salient property.
• All similes are trivially true
– Everything is like everything else.
• Donald Davidson (1978): What Metaphors Mean
Yes, but some things are more alike than others
Davidson seems to assume comparison with real,
experienceable things. But the vehicles of many similes
are not experiential realities at all.
Texts studied for similes
• Comic fiction:
– P. G. Wodehouse, Piccadilly Jim (1918)
– Sue Townsend: Adrian Mole novels (1982, 2004)
• Non-fiction:
– Jon Lee Anderson, The Fall of Baghdad (2005)
Structure of similes
• Through the rich interior of this mansion Mr Pett,
its nominal proprietor, was wandering
a lost
spirit. --PJ, p. 7
• She is thin a stick insect. --SDAM, p. 105
• My grandma has got eyes
Superman’s, they
bore right through you. --SDAM, p. 109
– Red: topic
– Blue: event or state
– Green: shared property
– Magenta: vehicle
Typology of similes (1)
• Clear-cut cases:
– like, prep.: Through the rich interior of this mansion Mr
Pett, its nominal proprietor, was wandering
a lost
spirit. PJ, p. 7
– as ... as: She is as thin as a stick insect. --SDAM, p. 105
– as: A long time had passed since Mr Crocker had set
eyes upon a biped so exhilaratingly American, and
rapture held him speechless, one who after long
exile beholds some landmark of his childhood.
– as if: My father chose a trolley [at a supermarket] that
somebody was torturing mice. . --SDAM,
p. 71
Typology of similes (2)
• Less clear-cut cases:
[14-year-old] Ogden Ford was round and blobby
and looked overweight. He had the plethoric
habit of one to whom exercise is a stranger.
“Looks to me
you were in with these two.”
[A classification, not a simile]
Typology of similes (3)
• Other borderline cases:
She had come to regard Mr. Pett almost in the light of a father.
Her progress, in short, was beginning to assume the aspect of a
Only a wet cat in a strange back yard bears itself with less
jauntiness than a man faced with such a prospect.
“What’s the matter, Jerry? ... You have the aspect of one whom
Fate has smitten in the spiritual solar plexus, or of one who
has been searching for the leak in life’s gaspipe with a lighted
Components of simile structure
• Topic (typically, noun phrase): obligatory
• Event or state (verb): obligatory
• Property (typically, adjective): can be
either explicit or implicit
: optional
• Vehicle (noun, verb, or adj.): obligatory
Similes and logical form
Similes licence logical mayhem, e.g.
• syntactic displacement:
• He looked
a broiled frog, hunched over his desk, grinning and satisfied.
= He looked broiled and hunched like a frog
• semantic anomaly:
• The presence of a single woman in their midst acts
a demented
lighthouse, enticing hapless men onto the rocks.
= Common property: both send out visible signals. BUT this
lighthouse is behaving wrongly – like a demented person. Real
lighthouses warn sailors away; they do not entice them.
Demented people also do strange things.
• Such similes draw deeply on lexical semantic norms of belief
Some conventional vehicles
for similes
• People are conventionally compared in similes to
things outside our everyday experience, e.g. a
princess, a queen, a prisoner.
• Events and situations are often compared in
similes to unreal things, e.g. a dream, a
nightmare, a miracle, a fairy tale, a demented [N],
the bottom of a parrot’s cage
– invoking conventional linguistic properties
– not real-world properties or real things
Similes vs. comparisons
• He is just like his father: COMPARISON
• He has eyes like his father: COMPARISON
• Close male relatives like fathers and brothers:
• Layton had been
a father to Leonard: SIMILE
– Layton was not his father
Similes vs. metaphors (1)
Muriel Spark (1990): Symposium (a novel).
• Opening paragraph, page 1:
“This is rape!” His voice was reaching a pitch
it had never reached before. …
It was not rape. It was a robbery.
• Page 2:
“Rape,” he said. “It feels like rape.”
The metaphor has weakened to a simile, as the speaker’s
initial shock is replaced by querulous self-pity.
Similes vs. metaphors (2)
• Linguistic metaphors can usually be reformulated as
• Similes can’t normally be re-formulated as
• Metaphors are semantically stronger than similes
• Constraints on metaphor creation are more severe
• Similes are used to report perceptions
• Similes licence certain kinds of logical mayhem.
• Similes are even more attention-grabbing
Distribution of similes in text (1)
• Not all documents contain similes.
• Where a document contains many similes, they are
not evenly distributed, but tend to cluster. Why?
Distribution of similes in text (2)
• P. G. Wodehouse, Piccadilly Jim (1918).
140 similes in 300 pages (~ 1 every 2 pages).
But the distribution is very uneven, e.g.
Pp.7-15: 18 similes in 9 pages (av. 2 per page):
introducing the location and main characters.
Pp. 16-37: The incidence drops to less than 1
simile every 3 pages as the narrative gets going.
There are 6 times more similes per page in the
opening 9 pages than in the next 20 pages.
Distribution of similes in text (3)
Simile cluster in PJ; associated plot developments:
p. 51: Mr. Crocker quarrels with his wife;
pp. 62-65: Mr. Pett is intimidated by his wife;
pp. 84-86 (incl. some metaphors): Jimmy is refused
admittance to Lord Percy Whipple;
pp. 97-99: Paddington Station: departure of the boat train
pp. 113-115: Jimmy arrives in New York
pp. 143-149: Jerry Mitchell strikes Ogden and gets fired
p. 276: Sudden uproar
pp. 276-280. Denouement.
Distribution of similes in text (4)
Non-fiction: Jon Lee Anderson: The Fall of
Baghdad (2005). Very factual style, few similes.
The three main clusters are:
– pp. 1-21 (8 similes). Saddam’s Iraq. E.g.: He simply
appeared and vanished again -- like the visitation of a
– pp. 229-231 (4 similes). Bombs start to fall. E.g.: debris
everywhere, which looked shorn, as if a giant rake had
come along and torn off the top layer of earth.
– p. 279. Battle comes to the city. E.g. a rhythmic noise,
like a great steel drum being pounded mechanically, ...
a huge crackling roar, like metallic popcorn popping.
Signalling the unusual
From the British National Corpus:
• howling
a demented banshee
• I look
a demented barber
• the idea of God pursuing a whole family
a demented
• My script looks
demented knitting
• A single woman in their midst acts
a demented lighthouse
• Thrashing plastic
a demented clock spring
• The paddle … thrashing
a demented washing machine
• Rising and falling
a demented yo-yo
• A natural language is an analogical system for making
meanings (built around prototypes)
• Words don’t have meanings; they have meaning potential –
activated by context
• A task for lexicographers is to create corpus-driven pattern
dictionaries, showing the patterns of normal contexts that play
a central role in activating normal meanings
• Metaphors may be normal and conventional, or they may have
meaning by reason of their semantic resonance with normal,
literal phraseological patterns
• Many similes are designed to grab the reader’s or listener’s
attention and stimulate the imagination, rather than to convey
any very precise meaning

Convention, Metaphors, and Similes