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Using Grammatical Metaphors in Academic Writing


Most people are familiar with literary metaphors such as "the smell of success" or "laughter is the best medicine." Even if you didn't learn about metaphors in sixth grade English class, you probably picked up the concept from conversation or while reading well-written books. In contrast to the literary metaphor, most people are not familiar with the term grammatical metaphor. If you frequently write academic papers, keep reading to learn all about grammatical metaphors and find out if it can help you improve your academic writing.

What is a grammatical metaphor?

Linguist Michael Halliday coined the term grammatical metaphor in 1985 in his book An Introduction to Functional Grammar and continued expanding upon the notion for the next 30 years. According to The Conversation, Halliday's concept of grammatical metaphor is when ideas that are expressed in one grammatical form (such as verbs) are expressed in another grammatical form (such as nouns). As such, there is a variation in the expression of a given meaning.

Grammatical metaphors transform a word's part of speech, which can make it easier to connect multiple clauses without overcomplicating a sentence. Grammatical metaphors can be particularly useful in academic writing if you need to remove personal pronouns. Although grammatical metaphors can transform many different parts of speech, they most often create nouns out of verbs and adjectives. In this sense, grammatical metaphors are basically the same as nominalizations. According to the Purdue Owl, Nominalizations are nouns that are created from adjectives (words that describe nouns) or verbs (action words). For example, 'interference' is a nominalization of 'interfere,' 'decision' is a nominalization of 'decide,' and 'argument' is a nominalization of 'argue.'

Consider the following example, which uses a personal pronoun "I" with the verb "concluded:"

I concluded that…

To create a grammatical metaphor and remove the personal pronoun from the sentence, you could change concluded from a past-tense verb to a noun:

The conclusion was reached…

This grammatical metaphor transformed the verb "conclude" to the noun "conclusion" and removed the researcher from the sentence so the sentence is more objective.

When to use grammatical metaphors

Whether you will need to use grammatical metaphors in your academic writing or not will most likely depend on the style guide you are following. Under the current guidelines, grammatical metaphors will be most useful for researchers writing in MLA format, since it is the only one of the main three citation styles that prohibits personal pronouns. There was a time when all academic writing, regardless of the style guide, expected researchers to write without using personal pronouns, but those standards have changed over time. Keep in mind that many publications have their own style and format expectations, so make sure to check the style guidelines before you submit your academic paper to a publication.

Since grammatical metaphors turn verbs into nouns, they tend to remove the subject of the sentence and make sentences passive, so they can make it difficult to discern who is doing the action. However, this is often the goal in formal academic writing: If you need to write a clinical account of an experiment or analyze your research study without using personal pronouns, you will most likely be using grammatical metaphors.

Proponents of grammatical metaphors in academic writing argue that grammatical metaphors make it possible to connect multiple clauses without complicating a sentence with excessive punctuation or multiple conjunctions. For example, consider the differences in the following sentences:

He advanced to the next round, so another place on the team became available.

His advancement to the next round resulted in an additional spot on the team.

The second sentence uses grammatical metaphor to transform the past tense verb "advanced" to the noun "advancement." Doing so made the sentence a simpler clause, so a writer could attach another clause with a grammatical metaphor to create a complex sentence that conveyed the same information that it might take two to three sentences to write in the original style. Both versions of the sentence use 14 words, so the grammatical metaphor did not reduce word count (as I'll discuss later, it often increases word count), but a well-worded grammatical metaphor will most likely enable you to express more complex ideas within one sentence.

Consider the following example, which shows how grammatical metaphors can express your ideas in fewer words while simplifying a sentence:

When children go to school (clause one), they are exposed to new ideas (clause 2) and discover new ways of thinking (clause three).

Education expands children's minds.

By using a grammatical metaphor, I condensed the three clauses in the original sentence to one simple clause. However, it is important to note that in doing so, I basically created a summary of the original sentence and omitted the specific details and explanations that led me to that statement. This can be extremely effective and beneficial in academic writing when you need to express findings and conclusions without explaining every detail of how you arrived at those findings. However, since grammatical metaphors often omit the details that led to a conclusion, if you rely too heavily on grammatical metaphors, your readers might not be able to deduce how you arrived at your conclusion.

How to add grammatical metaphors into your paper

If you are writing in MLA format and need to find creative ways to remove personal pronouns from your academic paper, start by identifying the sentences with personal pronouns. To create grammatical metaphors within those sentences, analyze the sentence's nouns and verbs. When you remove the current noun (presumably I, me, or we) from the sentence, does any other word become the focal point of the sentence?

According to Purdue Owl, nominalization or grammatical metaphors are most useful When you are making a general statement that focuses more on the idea than the actual actors in the sentence. Of course, this notion is particularly applicable in academic writing, because you want readers to focus on your research or findings, not on you or the people who are conducting the research or finding those findings.

To turn most (but not all) verbs into nouns, you will most likely use the root of the verb and add the ending -ion, -ance or -ment. In our previous examples, "advanced" became "advancement" and "concluded" became" conclusion." Other examples include changing the verb "assume" to the noun "assumption" or transforming the verb "collect" to the noun "collection." If this process sounds tedious or confusing, the Purdue Owl features a very handy chart with frequently used verbs and their nominalized forms. You can consult their chart and then use the "find/replace" feature in your document to identify instances in which you used a verb that you could easily nominalize.

The downsides of grammatical metaphors

I love a good literary metaphor, but I have to admit that I often end up changing grammatical metaphors when I encounter them in editing projects. I've found that when writers use too many grammatical metaphors, the paper becomes hard to understand. If you are following APA style, which most of the sciences and social sciences adhere to, you should keep grammatical metaphors to an absolute minimum. APA style now prefers that researchers use personal pronouns and avoid writing passive sentences. If you nominalize verbs throughout your paper, you will most likely be writing a paper in mostly passive voice, which violates APA guidelines.

Some linguists argue that grammatical metaphors express ideas in fewer words, as shown in the "Education expands children's minds" example. Expressing your ideas in fewer words can be quite beneficial when you are trying to omit words to fulfill a word count. However, I have found that grammatical metaphors often add to word count: Since grammatical metaphors remove the active subject and make the sentence passive, grammatical metaphors often increase your word count, even if they minimize the complexity of your sentences. Therefore, if you are facing restrictive word count limitations, you should probably avoid using any grammatical metaphors.

Another word of caution regarding grammatical metaphors: Don't overdo it. If you fill your paper with grammatical metaphors, you risk over summarizing your findings or trying to convey so much information in each sentence that your reader ends up feeling uncertain of what you are even trying to express. Therefore, be selective in your use of grammatical metaphors. Whenever possible, try to make the verb in your sentence the primary action with the subject of the sentence performing that action. If you are writing in MLA format and you're struggling to remove personal pronouns, consider using "the researcher(s)" or "the author(s)" instead of I and we.

If you are in the midst of a writing a difficult academic paper, I hope this discussion of grammatical metaphors inspires you and provides some alternate ways to present your ideas. Grammatical metaphors can enhance your academic writing when done right, but just make sure to provide enough clear information between your grammatical metaphors so readers will be able to understand your process.

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