Michael Reddy, Ph.D, CPC
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Conduit Metaphor

Scholarly References to 1979 Article

Letter from William M. Reddy, Ph.D., Chair, Deparment of History, Duke University (my brother), on the surprising number of references to the original conduit metaphor article.

June 12, 2007

Dear Michael,

Two years ago, in California, I got to know a linguist named Gregory Ward (Northwestern). He was surprised to learn that I was your brother, and very dismayed to learn that you, the author of the classic article "The Conduit Metaphor," had left academia.

Same thing happened at a conference at UCLA in March: Zoltán Kövecses, a linguist from Budapest, asked me if I was related to you, and expressed dismay that you were not in academia.

The other day I was messing around with Web of Science and checked the number of hits that showed up for "The Conduit Metaphor." A list of 354 articles came up. (Attached.)

This is a very high number of hits for a scientific publication. The average article gets about 1 hit. Articles in the very top journals will average 10 hits. Anything over 50 is fantastic. A total of 354 is truly a classic article. Many people get promoted to full professor with 354 hits for their whole career.

Just thought you would be interested.


The list of 354 scholarly/scientific references to the 1979 article from the Web of Science, June 2007.  These break down as follows: 

  • 137 in linguistics
  • 45 in information science
  • 43 in psychology
  • 38 in education
  • 17 in sociology
  • 15 in anthropology
  • 10 in law
  • 9 in business/economics
  • 8 in neurology
  • 7 in medicine
  • 5 in political science
  • 4 each in the arts, biology, environmental science, and mathematics
  • 1 each in architecture, geography, parapsychology and robotics

Original Conduit Metaphor Article

The text of my groundbreaking article on a coherent, underlying "folk model" for human communication found in the English language follows.  Comments are turned on here, so feel free to make them or ask questions.  You can also read a summary of this work in Wikipedia.  MR

The conduit metaphor: A case of frame conflict in our language about language.

by Michael J. Reddy

I should like to respond to Professor Schön’s chapter by replaying his theme several octaves lower. In my opinion, he has struck exactly the right set of notes. “Problem setting” should indeed be considered the crucial process, as opposed to “problem solving.” And the “stories that people tell about troublesome situations” do set up or “mediate” the problem. And “frame conflict” between various stories should be studied in detail, precisely because it is quite often “immune to resolution by appeal to the facts.”

It is hard to think of a better overture to genuine advance in the social and behavioral sciences than this. At the same time, it seems to me that Schön has managed to sound these excellent notes only in their overtones, so that the fundamental frequency is barely to be heard—even though, to my ears at least, Schön’s kind of thinking is real and long awaited music.

Quite simply, what I believe is missing is the application of Schön’s wisdom—this paradigm-consciousness—to human communication itself. It may seem predictable that I, a linguist, would take such a position. But, if I do, it is hardly disciplinary narrow-mindedness that motivates me. In 1954, Norbert Wiener, one of the originators of information theory, and the “father of cybernetics,” stated quite flatly: “Society can only be understood through a study of the messages and communications facilities which belong to it” (Wiener, 1954, p. 16).

I have never thought of this statement as referring to things like the size and adequacy of the telephone system. Wiener was talking primarily about the basic processes of human communication—how they work, what sort of wrinkles there are in them, when and why they are likely to succeed or fail. The problems of society, government, and culture depend ultimately on something like the daily box score of such successes or failures to communicate. If there are too many failures, or systematic types of failure, troubles will multiply. A society of near-perfect communicators, though it would no doubt still face conflicts of interest, might well be able to avoid many of the destructive, divisive effects of these inevitable conflicts.

Evidence for the Conduit Metaphor

A partial listing of the metalingual resources of English

This appendix lists core expressions available in English to describe how verbal communication succeeds or fails.  It is divided into two parts. The first lists expressions arising from the logic of the conduit metaphor; the second lists expressions which are either metaphorically neutral or involve logics alternative to the conduit metaphor. Further search for expressions, along with a more elaborate means of analyzing and classifying, will be required before either collection can be termed complete. In some cases, in Part One, core expressions which I have placed in one category could with justification be placed in a different category as well. These and other niceties must await later exposition. One or two examples follow each expression.  Click below to see these lists.

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