Thursday, June 03, 2010

On the Use of Analogy

Someone recently said, “I have been trying to think of an analogy for you. Try this one.”

So I tried it.

It failed for at least one main reason: It did not have clear relevance. 

You see, an analogy is “a comparison between one thing and another made for the purpose of explanation or clarification” (Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 11th ed.). It is a word picture designed to bring things into sharper focus for the hearer or reader.

In order for an analogy to work, it must be clear to the hearer what the point(s) of the comparison is/are, so that the situation is explained and clarified.

This particular case was a case where the analogy made absolutely no sense because the point of comparison was unclear. There was no indication in the conversation of what the components of the comparison stood for. 

Here’s an analogy: “You are like a tree growing by the rivers of water.”

Does it work? It can, but only when people understand two things: What a tree growing by the rivers of water is like, and who “You” is (Yes, that’s correct.) If the hearer does not know either, he or she cannot make sense of the analogy. It will not explain or clarify. It will confuse.

Furthermore, if you do not know what in the life of “You” is being referred to, it also will not clarify.

Here’s another analogy: “You are like a Hebrew shewa in a hollow verb.”

Does it work? It can, but in more limited situations. First, you have to know a little about the Hebrew language to know what a shewa is and what a hollow verb is. And you have to know who “You” is. (Yes, it’s still right.)

For many Hebrew students this means, “I am failing this class.”

The point is that unless the hearer of the analogy can identify the parts and meaning of the analogy, the analogy is useless.

Back to the original point: The analogy was useless precisely because the components of the word picture could not clearly be identified with anything.

In communication, the burden falls on the communicator to clarify an explain. Analogies can be very helpful for that purpose, but only if they actually clarify and explain, rather than confuse.

So to you teachers, preachers, speakers, or anyone trying to communicate, use analogies freely because they are tremendous tools for clarification and explanation. But use them carefully because they require a shared knowledge or experience in order to work.

If your analogy fails, it’s probably your fault. The fact that you know what you are referring to means you know what you are referring to. It does not mean that your hearer knows what you are referring to.

So give the analogy, and then explain the analogy.

It’s what good communicators do.

And by the way, a Hebrew shewa is a diacritical marking in Hebrew, usually used to mark the absence of a vowel at the end of a syllable. It can be silent or vocal. It comes and goes throughout the verbal paradigm of the word. It is often confusing and difficult to know when to use it and what caused it to appear.

Now that I think of it, it’s a great analogy for so much in life, but it works for so few people, so it’s not good for much.

Ironic, isn’t it?

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