Metaphors: should we stop using them in “international English?”

If you’re an English language speaker from Beijing, will you know what “like a pig in a poke” means?

If you’re an English speaker from Moscow, would you know what I mean when I say, “sling your hook?”

And if you’re an English speaker from Mumbai, would you understand the meaning of “hit it out of the park?”

Yet more examples of the lunacy of English

I’m all for using the lunacy of the English language for more interesting expressions of ideas and creative concepts, being a writer and native English speaker and all that. But considering that English is rapidly becoming a very important international language – number 3 currently of languages spoken worldwide after Chinese (Mandarin/Cantonese, I assume) and Spanish – can we, and/or should we, try to preserve the language’s idiosyncrasies when we write in it?

Or should we give way to the increasing role English plays on an international basis and restrict our use of figurative speech to help English-as-a-second-language (E2L) speakers understand what the hell we’re talking about?

English – a colorful language

Anyone who enjoys Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth and hundreds of other British writers is likely to say that it is their use of the figurative elements of the language that helps to make their writing such major examples of literary brilliance.

On the other hand, does this mean they are guilty of shutting out E2L speakers who find it hard to appreciate the finer points of metaphors and similes in a language other than their own?

And before we dismiss the Brits as being the sole users of figurative language, let’s not forget the North American writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edmund Wilson, Tennessee Williams, Mark Twain and countless others who use metaphors in their writing too, to great effect.

So why is English so dependent on metaphors, similes, etc.?

Ah, this is where it gets particularly interesting. According to this source, there are just under one million words used in the English language.

Spanish uses somewhat less – roughly half that of English, according to this interesting article.

Mandarin/Cantonese? It seems there are more than 15 million words to choose from.

I don’t speak either Mandarin or Cantonese, but I’m guessing that with around 15 million words to play with it’s probably quite easy to express yourself in those languages without recourse to figures of speech.

Is internationalism going to kill figurative language forever?

Are we destined always to communicate in bald, boring real-speak terms using international English because no-one teaches the figurative nuances in the E2L language laboratories?

Well, you can understand that. It take decades before many of us E1L speakers can get to grips with some of the more figurative English used in literature, so it’s hardly reasonable to expect the E2L speakers to do anything other than burst out laughing at some of English’s more absurd figures of speech.

And that’s just within “international” English, before you start looking at national, regional and local metaphors. (See my example above – how many Californians would know what “sling your hook” means?)

As an experiment, I’ve taken an excerpt from classic English literature and shown it here, first as it was written, and then with the metaphors removed. It’s a passage from “Vanity Fair” by William Makepeace Thackeray

How Thackeray wrote it: “Oh, sir! it would be the pride of my life to go back to Queen’s Crawley, and take care of the children, and of you as formerly, when you said you were pleased with the services of your little Rebecca. When I think of what you have just offered me, my heart fills with gratitude indeed it does. I can’t be your wife, sir; let me–let me be your daughter.” Saying which, Rebecca went down on HER knees in a most tragical way, and, taking Sir Pitt’s horny black hand between her own two (which were very pretty and white, and as soft as satin), looked up in his face with an expression of exquisite pathos and confidence, when–when the door opened, and Miss Crawley sailed in.

Now, without much figurative language: “Oh, sir! I want to go back to Queen’s Crawley, and take care of the children, and of you as formerly, when you said you said you thought I was good at the job. When I think of what you have just offered me, I am grateful. I can’t be your wife, sir – instead let’s pretend that I’m your daughter.” Saying which, Rebecca knelt down and pretended to be emotionally affected by this, and, taking Sir Pitt’s hard, underweight, dark-skinned hand between her own two (which were very pretty and pale-skinned, and very soft to touch), looked up at his face using a facial expression that conveyed a combination of emotional pain and confidence, when – when the door opened, and Miss Crawley walked in.

Tends to lose some of its charm, doesn’t it? And yet I suspect the second version would be easier for most E2L speakers to understand.

So. Should we sacrifice metaphors in English for the sake of easier comprehension by E2L speakers? I welcome your views. Please share them here!

More help for you if you write in “international English:”

“Business Writing Made Easy”…everything you need to know about writing for business in English

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

“English to English: the A to Z of British-American translations”…more than 2,000 business and social terms from the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand




  1. Oh no. As a bilingual (German/English) person I say no, no,no, keep the metaphors that’s part of a language, only by learning the metaphors, by reading the literature and by learning so-called ‘metaphors’ will we really learn a lanuage and learn how people form their language, what makes them who they are (or what makes them tick and there’s an interesting metaphor if you’re from the USA!).

    I used to work with a guy in Germany who delighted in translating German sayngs into Engish for our MD who spoke relatively litte German. My colleague ould say ‘I fall from my socks’ – (I am amazed), ‘he/she has not got all their cups in thier cupboard (2 slices short of a loaf) and other things. What is also interesting is, for many years I was married to a former East German his ‘metaphors’ were different to those from the West. 2 years ago I was on a course in Berlin and found i could converes with those who had grown up in the former East, whereas my Western German counterpats could not (I live in the Highlands of Scotland by the way). So German Germans and Austrian German speakers and Swiss German speakers all have different metaphors, Scotland and the Scots Doric has different metaphors, as does the North of England to the South.
    Metaphors are what makes life and lanaguage rich as in the exaample Suze gives above.

    Keep the metaphors – because in my professsion as an NLP Trainer and Practitoner it gives us the opportuity to use subtle questions to find out who is this person what does this language mean for them.

  2. A powerful argument for keeping the metaphors there, Rosie! Thanks for that very well-argued view. Let’s see some more points of view now ….

  3. Interesting … can you apply the swearing argument to this? ie That in certain circumstances, correct, clear and appropriate word choice can be used to convey a precise message without the use of idiosyncratic expressions / swear words?

    I love the richness of the English language, but am frustrated by the spellings I have to admit. I think a degree of sensitivity in the business world can only help, but in our own homes, long may we have bonkers expressions that make us laugh our heads off or cry our eyes out …

    Love the piece Suze xx

    • Thanks Amanda and glad you enjoyed this article!

      As you say, the English language is very rich with a choice of words for almost everything. One of my (French speaking) Belgian cousins made the point to me that English offers much more choice than French in this way. In French, to describe something very accurately you may have to use several words, whereas in English chances are you’ll only need one word.

      I wonder how that stacks up in other languages? Are the other “romantic” languages (i.e. Italian, Spanish, Portuguese) similarly light on choice of words?



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