The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Tenor: The subject of a trope. Every trope has a tenor and a vehicle; the vehicle is the image, activity, or concept used to illustrate or represent the tenor. For instance, in Emily Dickinson’s “Fame is a bee” (Collected Poems, #1673), fame is the tenor, illustrated by the vehicle bee.

The terms tenor and vehicle were first used by English critic I. A. Richards, who introduced them with reference to metaphor, one of the principal tropes, in a book entitled The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1936). According to Richards, both tenor and vehicle typically undergo change in the metaphorical process, hence his definition of metaphor as “a transaction between contexts.” Richards also viewed tenor and vehicle as the two equivalent parts of a metaphor, unlike prior critics, who commonly viewed what we now call the vehicle as mere ornament, less important than what we now call the tenor.

FURTHER EXAMPLES: Instead of saying, “Last night I read a book,” you might say “Last night I plowed through a book.” Plowed through (or the activity of plowing) is the vehicle of the metaphor; read (or the act of reading) is the tenor, the thing being figured. In the moment in which reading and plowing are metaphorically associated, intellectual activity is suddenly placed in an agricultural context (and vice versa), thereby altering slightly the significance of each of the metaphor’s two terms.

The opening lines of Langston Hughes’s poem “Long Trip” (1926) employ two vehicles to metaphorically illustrate one tenor, the sea: “The sea is a wilderness of waves, / A desert of water.” Likewise, in The Blind Assassin (2000), Margaret Atwood’s narrator uses two vehicles to describe herself: “I was sand, I was snow — written on, rewritten, smoothed over.”