English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

Is it appropriate to use phrases such as the following in technical prose?

  • The road runs south.
  • The river turns to the west.

While I understand that literary texts often use such constructions, roads technically do not "run" and rivers do not "turn" since they are inanimate objects. Can these constructions be used in technical writing?

share|improve this question

Metaphor pervades scientific language as much as it does non-technical language. See Lakoff's work, eg here.

I can't put my finger on a specific work linked to metaphors in science and technical language, but that should give you a starting point for further research.

share|improve this answer
+1 for the link. – Barrie England Feb 3 '14 at 19:49
A river moves, and is therefore strictly an animate object. That we have conflated life and movement that we would call a non-living moving thing inanimate shows that the answer was hiding in the question. – Jon Hanna Feb 4 '14 at 1:33
And cities grow, empires fall, and the sun also rises. – bib Feb 4 '14 at 3:35

Metaphors such as those are so well established that they will normally pass unnoticed as metaphors. Whether you use them depends on the conventions of the particular kind of technical writing, but in principle I see no reason to avoid them.

share|improve this answer
I'll suggest the flow metaphor and the journey metaphor before John Lawler sees this thread. A complication is that they're so well established that the metaphorical senses are now usually defined in dictionaries. [run 11. a. To flow, especially in a steady stream AHD]. Does this literalise them? – Edwin Ashworth Feb 3 '14 at 21:29

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.