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At Cognizant, we try hard to make the content we present to our users understandable. Let’s elaborate on how two main figures of speech – metaphor and metonymy – can help to be clear and concise, and how they can have adverse effects if used incorrectly. 

Why are these two figures of speech the main ones? Because they are the basis of two main mental processes on which every creation relies: selection, which provides basic building blocks, and composition, which puts them together. It is important to understand how each of them works, because individuals have different abilities to perceive them; therefore, understanding the distinction is essential when writing content with cognitive accessibility in mind.

Selection vs Composition

Images by Mariëlla van de Stolpe


Metaphor is the first figure of speech that comes to most people’s minds. It replaces one word or expression with another, to make it more understandable, interesting, or memorable. It relies on comparison and similarity. For example, Virginia Woolf calls the human mind “the most capricious of insects”; referring to something abstract by comparing it to something visible. 

But metaphor isn’t only a writer’s tool. Jargon of the street, office, news media, sport, or even product development, includes metaphors too: 

  • “Funnel flow” relates to the gradual decrease of users within various steps in the sales flow, by comparing it to how the physical funnel narrows. 
  • “Bottleneck” in a bottle restricts the flow of liquid, but used metaphorically, implies that the capacity of a specific resource or person becomes a limiting factor. 
  • “Safety net” is a mechanism that, for example, prevents users from falling into endless circle of misunderstanding with the chatbot, by pointing them to the live chat or the contact page.  
  • “Sanity check” refers to the quick functionality test of a production page after a feature release. 
  • “Shifting left” means moving activities or processes earlier in the development lifecycle. We elaborated on this subject in this accessibility-related article.
  • “Framing the collaboration” refers to clarifying the boundaries in which the collaboration will be happening, which we elaborated on in this process-related article.
  • “Cognitive load” is the amount of mental effort required to complete a task, which metaphorically refers to physical load. We spoke about cognitive load in this UX-related article.

Metaphor has a less-known, but equally widely-used sibling, called metonymy. They are both used to make content either more memorable or easier to understand. But it is important to grasp the difference, because different mental processes drive them. 

Metonymy doesn’t compare to anything else but replaces the word with something from its own context. For example, the tool with the tool’s purpose, part with the whole, verb with the corresponding noun, and so on: 

  • “First flute” or “second clarinet” refers to players in an orchestra by the names of their instruments. 
  • “White collar” or “blue collar” refers to types of occupation by usual clothing. 
  • “Passing the feature to development” or “evaluating it with the business” refers to company departments by their activities.
  • “The standpoint of the White House" or “conflict with Paris” refers to government by the place where it resides. 
  • "Illustrator’s brushstroke" refers to the illustrator’s specific style.
  • “Systems thinking” refers to a specific way of thinking by its target, which we elaborated on in this design-related article
  • The “ins and outs”, “dos and don'ts”, and other forced variations of invariable words.
  • "To-do”, “must-have”, “nice-to-have", and other examples of sentence contractions.
Similarity and contiguity disorder: Issues with metaphor or metonymy

Metaphor and metonymy aren’t just two figures of speech. They are fundaments of two different ways of perceiving the world. Linguist Roman Jakobson wrote an influential essay in 1956, in which he researched two types of aphasia, reflecting on the lack of understanding of either metaphor or metonymy.  

Metonymy vs Metaphor

Images by Mariëlla van de Stolpe

Like with all types of accessibility concerns, there is a whole range of potential recipients with a certain impairment present in different degrees, from barely noticeable to the extreme. In the case of understanding metaphor and metonymy issues, these extremes are called similarity disorder and contiguity disorder. 

People who do not understand metaphor suffer from similarity disorder:
  • They struggle when they need to replace one word with any of its synonyms or heteronyms (corresponding words from another language).
  • They have difficulties understanding different dialects of their native language.
  • Context plays an important, often crucial role for them 
  • They can’t understand building blocks in isolation, but they can easily see how those blocks fit together.
  • Since their sense of a metaphor is impaired, people with similarity disorder often use metonymy as a communication device. For example, if they don’t understand the word “cat”, they might refer to it with an expression like “it catches mice”. 
On the other side of this spectrum are people with contiguity disorder, who struggle with metonymy: 
  • They give little or no importance to the context and word order.
  • They can understand isolated building blocks better than the arrangement of such blocks.
  • When learning new words, they tend to ignore their derivates.
  • They instead see compound words as unique without noticing the parts they were made of.
  • They adopt new vocabulary easily, but they struggle with grammar, especially declension, conjugation, and other types of inflection.
  • They often omit context-related words, such as conjunctions and prepositions, unlike the opposite group, which relies on such words. 

Important is that between these two extremes lays the whole range. Think about what makes it difficult for you when learning a new language. If it’s grammar, you are a more “metaphorical” type of person. If it’s vocabulary, you are more “metonymical”. 

How can these insights help us write and design more accessible content? 

Does this all mean we should drop metaphors or metonymies? Certainly not. But we should acknowledge the difference between the two and be aware that there are people who have difficulties understanding one or the other. Here are just a few things you can do out of the box (which is a metaphor) and a few no-nos (which is a metonymy): 

Metaphors are often used in inappropriate language:  
  • Be careful when referring to people as animals or associating animal-like characteristics with individuals, even in a positive context, such as “heart of a lion” or “faithful as a dog”.
  • Don’t call anyone a “design bullseye” or “grammar Nazi”.
  • Avoid metaphors that can be easily misinterpreted. For many readers, a “smashing design” or “killer logo” can sound unnecessarily violent.
  • Avoid overused metaphors like “tip of the iceberg” or “needle in the haystack”.
  • Avoid metaphors with too broad meaning, like “making a design pop”. 
Metonymies are, on the other hand, often used in unfair generalizations:  
  • Avoid replacing the whole with the part – don’t call Great Britain “England” or The Netherlands “Holland”.
  • Don’t use it the other way either – avoid using just “America” as a name for the United States. 
  • Similarly, avoid using brand generalizations, like “Googling”, “Skyping” or “Photoshopping”.
  • Same, but much worse, is the use of “generic masculine” pronouns. Saying that you care for “a user and his needs” is wrong for the same reason as addressing the whole group of people as “guys” – it is poor metonymy. 

Again, if all this looks like suggesting yet another limitation to the copywriter’s creativity, it really isn’t. On the contrary, both metaphor and metonymy help make your content more accessible if you use them the right way. It applies to both accessibility and inclusivity, which aren't mutually exclusive. 

In one of the following articles, we will discuss how metaphor and metonymy reflect in visual content, from Rembrandt’s paintings to icons on a website. You choose whether to stay tuned (metaphor) or to keep your eyes peeled (metonymy). 

1. Woolf, Virginia. (1953) A Writer's Diary. Edited by Leonard Woolf. Oxford University Press, 2003. 
2. Jakobson, Roman. (1956). Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances. In Jakobson, R., & Halle, M. (Eds.), Fundamentals of Language (pp. 27-87). The Hague: Mouton. 

Luka Stanisavljević

Senior Front-End Experience Developer

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