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According to Lexico Dictionary, the three words are defined as:

  1. Vehicle

a thing used to express, embody, or fulfill something:

Example: "I use paint as a vehicle for my ideas"

  1. Outlet

a means of expressing one's talents, energy, or emotions:

Example: "writing became the main outlet for his energies"

  1. Avenue

a way of approaching a problem or making progress toward something:

Example: "three possible avenues of research suggested themselves"

I'll try my best to state my intentions for asking this question: I came across these 3 words while reading some books and noticed that they seemingly have a similarity--that similarity being "a means of attaining something". I've asked some friends if my analysis is right; all of them say no. So I'm positing this question to get people's opinions on whether I am right on these 3 words sharing a similarity and if my analysis is also correct. If I'm wrong, tell me where my interpretation is wrong.

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    Look back to the main meaning of these words to understand better the metaphorical meanings
    – James K
    Commented Jun 18, 2022 at 6:08

2 Answers 2

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Broadly, I agree with you. The three words, used metaphorically as they are here, are indeed similar (although not identical) in meaning.

Now, I guess I can see why someone might disagree that the similarity in question is that they are all "means" (of attaining something). The word "means" could imply something more precise than a way, or approach. For example, one might say:

Writing became the main outlet for his energies, and by means of his grandfather's old typewriter he began, slowly but surely, to build a record of his past.

But it's a very subtle, and, frankly, subjective difference. If that is the objection your friends are raising, then I'd say they are quibbling.

I said earlier that while similar, the metaphors or not identical. The difference comes from the different connotations of the words in their literal senses. For example, if I were making use of the three items mentioned above then I would move:

  • with a vehicle
  • through (and usually exit from) an outlet
  • along an avenue

Again, the differences are subtle, and they may not even have any relevance to the metaphorical use. So as before I'd say it was quibbling to say that these differences mean that you are wrong to say the metaphorical uses are similar. They are similar. You're right. And your friends are wrong! 🤓

(To be fair, I'm making a big leap there, having not heard your friends reasons. Maybe they're thinking of something entirely different. If you can say more in your question about their criticism, then you might get better answers than I've just given.)

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There are certainly similarities in the meanings of these three words, but they are not interchangeable.

The key to the differences lies in the more basic meanings of the three words. An outlet lets something out, a vehicle carries something, and an avenue is a road.

Suppose John is an accomplished sculptor, currently working voluntarily on a sculpture for his local school.

"Sculpture is an outlet for John's creativity" suggests that John has a need to do something creative and sculpture is what he does to meet that need. The words "vehicle" and "avenue" do not carry this suggestion of meeting John's needs.

"John's current sculpture project is a vehicle for John's creativity" suggests that the project shows his creativity. The vehicle is often an object rather than an activity. The words "outlet" and "avenue" are more likely to refer to an activity.

"Sculpture is an avenue for John's creativity" suggests that the process of sculpting is the way John uses his creativity. (Note that an avenue and a way are both roads.) Often the sentence will add a reason, such as "Sculpture is an avenue for John's creativity to help his local school." The words "outlet" and "vehicle" are less likely to refer to a reason for the activity.

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