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Review of  Frames and Constructions in Metaphoric Language

Reviewer: Alessia Bianchini
Book Title: Frames and Constructions in Metaphoric Language
Book Author: Karen Sullivan
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Issue Number: 24.2748

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As the title of the book suggests, “Frames and Constructions in Metaphoric Language” focuses on the analysis of metaphoric language by integrating contributions from a variety of cognitive linguistic theories (namely, Frame Semantics, Construction Grammar, Cognitive Grammar, Conceptual Metaphor Theory and Metonymy Theory). The reason for bringing together insights from the aforementioned linguistic fields is to supply a new account of metaphoric language, as well as, in the author’s words, “to raise awareness of this fertile new area of research, and provide some of the connections between fields of study necessary for its exploration” (p. 167). Note that, as clearly stated in the first chapter (p. 5), the book is not intended as a guide for metaphor identification, but rather aims to individuate general trends in metaphor evocation within the English language, and supports its analysis with corpus-based evidence.

In Chapter One, which works as a preface, the major argument of the book is introduced: metaphoric language makes use of meaning structures present in non-metaphoric language, therefore, well-known semantic concepts which have been identified over the past few decades for the purpose of understanding non-metaphoric language (e.g. semantic frames, constructions, autonomy/dependence relation, etc.) should nowadays be applied to the study of metaphoric language because of their great explanatory power. An overview of the state of the art about metaphoric language and metaphoric thoughts is then given, filled with references to seminal publications (Lakoff & Johnson 1980, Brooke-Rose 1958, Turner 1987, 1991, Deignan 2005, Pragglejaz Group 2007, Antonopoulou & Nikiforidou 2009, Croft 2003, among others), and relevant frameworks and terminology are clarified. In the book, the author employs the basic notions of Conceptual Metaphor Theory (CMT), whose premise is that metaphor is a conceptual phenomenon involving structured mappings from a source domain – usually a quite concrete domain of experience – to a target domain – usually a more abstract concept (Lakoff & Johnsons 1980); for instance, conceptualizing LIFE (target domain) as a DAY (source domain) allows us to understand our BIRTH as the DOWN, OLD AGE as the EVENING and so forth (p. 1). The author then builds on these CMT observations, pointing out that, however, words are not enough to convey metaphor; more specifically, taking a constructional approach to the issue, in the book, it is argued that constructions select the source and target domains of their actual lexical items. Finally, the author elaborates on the idea of using Frame Semantics, Construction Grammar (CxG) and notions from Cognitive Grammar (CG) (namely, the dichotomy autonomous/dependent element, Langacker 1997, 2002) as tools for investigating the relationship between metaphoric and non-metaphoric uses of words and constructions. The insights introduced so far are then thoroughly detailed in the following chapters.

Chapter Two focuses on how Frame Semantics and CG may be integrated and used as a means to study metaphoric language. A definition of semantic frame, according to Fillmore (Fillmore 1980), is given, along with an introduction to the FrameNet Project (FrameNet 2012), which provides a useful schematization of cognitive representations of situations, objects and events. Reasons for investigate the possible application of Frame Semantics to metaphor analysis are presented as follows: since semantic frames have been documented throughout both metaphoric and non-metaphoric language, they can be used to detect links between these two domains (p. 24). As for the CG approach, it is stated that CG structures can be represented by means of semantic frames. The author then deals with the mapping of autonomous and dependent elements (Langacker 1997, 2002) on semantic frames; for instance, in the phrase “tall man”, “tall” (the dependent element) evokes the MEASURABLE_ATTRIBUTES frame, which includes the frame element ENTITY, whose actual filler “man” (the autonomous element) is selected by “tall” itself (pp. 29-33). The chapter concludes by arguing that a theory of autonomy/dependence incorporating Frame Semantics is effective in capturing the generalization that can be made about metaphoric vs. non-metaphoric constructions.

In Chapter Three, the theoretical notions outlined in Chapter Two are contextualized by presenting a case study whose data were collected in a series of searches within the British National Corpus (p. 36). Specifically, this chapter is dedicated to a corpus-based, frame-integrated analysis of the metaphors HAPPINESS IS LIGHT, UNDERSTANDING IS SEEING, and its sub-mappings INTELLIGENCE IS LIGHT EMISSION and COMPREHENSIBILITY IS VISIBILITY, all of which come from the well-known Master Metaphor List (Lakoff, Espensen & Schwartz 1991). The author points out that not all adjectives referring to light (e.g. HAPPINESS IS LIGHT and INTELLIGENCE IS LIGHT EMISSION) or to sight (e.g. UNDERSTANDING IS SEEING and COMPREHENSIBILITY IS VISIBILITY) trigger these metaphors (e.g. “sunny mood” vs. ?“brilliant disposition”). It is then argued that the explanation for this inconsistency lies in the different structure of the non-metaphoric semantic frames evoked by the respective adjectives, which supports the hypothesis that a lexical item’s frame evocation constrains the item’s uses in metaphor (p. 41).

Chapter Four focuses on metonymy. More precisely, here, the author extends the methodology described in Chapter Two to the study of metonymy in order to demonstrate how Frame Semantics proves to be a useful tool for telling apart metaphors from other figurative expressions.

The rest of the book brings together findings from Frame Semantics and CxG with the CMT. In particular, Chapters Five to Nine each analyse a basic grammatical construction (or a combination of basic grammatical constructions) which encodes the structure of a metaphor.

Chapter Five focuses on adjective constructions exemplified, for instance, by the metaphors “spiritual wealth” and “blood-stained wealth”. It is argued that domain constructions (e.g. “spiritual wealth”) and predicating modifier constructions (e.g. “blood-stained wealth”) must be treated as distinct constructions, as opposed to simply constructs involving different kind of adjectives. In fact, the essential semantic difference between “spiritual wealth” (which refers to metaphorical wealth) and “blood-stained wealth” (which refers to literal, monetary wealth) cannot be attributed to the semantics of the modifier alone, but rather depends on the different constructions instantiated by the two phrases. In general, it is stated that in domain constructions, the head of the phrase is the conceptually dependent element; this element evokes a frame whose frame elements’ fillers are constrained by the domain adjective. On the contrary, in predicating modifier constructions, the pattern of autonomy/dependency is reversed and the head of the phrase is the autonomous element.

Chapter Six focuses on verbal argument structure constructions and explores how verbal heads and their complements work together to evoke metaphor. In particular, it is argued that the verb evokes the source domain, while, with verbs with more than one argument, only one of the arguments expresses the target domain. Metaphoric examples of a variety of argument structures from the corpus are then thoroughly illustrated (namely, transitive, intransitive, resultative, ditransitive and copula constructions), even if, as the author herself states, the aim of the chapter is not to present a comprehensive list of English argument structure constructions, but rather provide “a step toward a comprehensive understanding of metaphor in argument structure constructions” (p. 89).

Chapter Seven analyses closed-class constructions, focusing on prepositional phrase (PP) constructions, which are one of the most frequent means for conveying metaphor in English (Sullivan 2009). The variability in PP constructions makes it hard to generalize about the autonomy/dependence relation, or about the target/source domain status. The author deals with this issue by choosing to focus exclusively on Noun Phrase – Prepositional Phrase (NP-PP) constructions in which relational nouns (e.g. “father”, “friend”, “killer”, … ) or non-processual event nouns (e.g. “injury”, “sting”, …) appear, since these two subtypes together represent the vast majority of the examples of metaphoric PP constructions from the corpus.

Chapter Eight focuses on a combination of the previous constructions. In particular, the chapter focuses on the so-called “xyz” construction, which plays a main role in metaphor and has been studied from Aristotle till today. The xyz construction traditionally takes the form “x is y of z”, where x, y and z are NPs (e.g. “old age is the sunset of life”), and in this chapter, it is argued that there are two main variants to this construction, one in which z is the target domain, and one in which z is the source domain. Also, in this chapter, the author shows how, when multiple metaphoric constructions combine to evoke a metaphor, they do so in a regular way.

Chapter Nine extends the discussion to larger structures which go beyond sentence boundaries. Here, multi-clause constructions (namely, relative clauses and conditional clauses) and rhetorical figures, such as parallelism, negation of the literal, and allegory, are all explored. The purpose of analysing these last peculiar and uncommon constructions is because, since they exist exclusively to evoke metaphors and do not have a non-metaphoric counterpart, the mechanisms of metaphor evocation may be particularly intriguing.

Chapter Ten is dedicated to conclusions, in which the author summarizes her work. Furthermore, the chapter points out some limitations of the study: first, it focuses on the English language only; second, it accounts for metaphor evocation in a limited set of constructions; and last, the analysis is limited to the most-studied metaphors, as represented in the Master Metaphor List.

Finally, the book provides an index of both subjects and metaphoric constructions, as well as an index of primary sources.


“Frames and Constructions in Metaphoric Language” aims to provide an analysis of the main strategies for metaphor evocation within the English language. This goal is certainly met, since the outcome of the research is a fine-grained analysis of a rich subset of well-known English metaphors. As the author herself underlines, however, the book is not to be intended as a comprehensive guide to English metaphors. Rather, its most notable value (aside from its thorough analyses of a variety of case studies) is that it shows the way toward a new approach to metaphoric language. In fact, the findings presented here certainly seem to prove the effectiveness of an integrated approach to linguistic metaphor that takes into account efforts from any area concerned with the issue.

From a readership point of view, “Frames and Constructions in Metaphoric Language” will be of interest to different kinds of readers: on the one hand, since the book provides a clear overview of a variety of cognitive linguistic theories concerned with metaphorical and non-metaphorical language, it suits readers looking for a survey on the subject; on the other hand, semanticists and syntacticians looking for a new account of linguistic metaphor will definitely benefit from it, especially due to both the new methodology and the empirical data presented.

In terms of internal structure, the book is coherent and well organised, despite the complexity of the topic. In the first chapter, the book’s purpose, its theoretical background and its terminology are clearly illustrated. As for the methodology, its step-by-step description is postponed to the last chapter; on the one hand, this gives coherence to the book and definitely helps enhance the strong points of the proposed approach, however, on the other hand, a general overview of the process of the work may have been better suited for the first chapter, especially for readers who are less familiar with the discipline. The analysis of how conceptual metaphor may surface through language is systematically presented chapter by chapter, describing a path that goes “from language, to frames, to metaphor” (p. 168). Finally, the last chapter summarizes the achievements of the study, along with some emerging issues that could be addressed in future works: testing whether the generalizations presented for the English language stand up to cross-linguistic research; expanding the inventory of constructions instantiating metaphors, since the book focuses mainly on the best-known ones; and increasing the inventory of metaphors.

“Frames and Constructions in Metaphoric Language” is a stimulating read that gives new insights about well-known issues and supplies a fresh approach to the study of conceptual and linguistic metaphor. Also, the book is engaging from the point of view of both form and content. In fact, even if the topic on which the research focuses is not easy to address, the use of examples taken from a corpus and the systematic contextualization of what is theoretically described make the reading clear and pleasant to those who work on metaphor and related fields.


Antonopoulou, E. & Nikiforidou, K. (2009). Deconstructing Verbal Humour with Construction Grammar. In Brône, G. & Vandaele, J. (Eds), Cognitive Poetics: Goals, Gains and Gaps (pp. 289-314). Berlin-New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Brooke-Rose, C. (1958). A Grammar of Metaphor. London: Secker and Warburg Ltd.

Croft, W. (2003). The Role of Domains in the Interpretation of Metaphors and Metonymies. In Dirven R. & Porings R. (Eds), Metaphor and Metonymy in Comparison and Contrast (pp. 161-206). Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Deignan, A. (2005). Metaphor and Corpus Linguistics. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Co.

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Pragglejaz Group (2007). MIP: A Method for Identifying Metaphorically Used Words in Discourse. Metaphor and Symbol, 22(1), 1-39.

Sullivan, K. (2009). Grammatical Constructions in Metaphoric Language. In Lewandowska-Tomaszczyk B. and Dziwirek K. (Eds.), Cognitive Corpus Linguistics (pp. 57-80). Frankurt/Main: Peter Lang.

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Turner, M. (1991). Reading Minds: The Study of English in the Age of Cognitive Science. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Alessia Bianchini is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Pavia (Italy). Her research interests include Corpus Linguistics and Computational Linguistics and particularly the interface syntax-semantics.