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On Mixed Metaphors: Putting a Fine-Toothed Comb to the Grindstone

by Michael Bedford

Published at 2024-01-31

I’ve always been a fan of finding examples of humorous misapplications of grammar or usage guidelines in writing. One source of such grammatical humour comes from mixing metaphors. Mixed metaphors and are formed when a writer or speaker mixes one metaphor up with another, such as in the title of this post. Some writers and speakers perform this humorous act on purpose, but many mixed metaphors are the results of imprecise or poorly edited writing. No matter their origins, though, they’re always funny to read and hear.

 

Burning the Midnight Oil at Both Ends

As the above mixed metaphor shows, a great way to spot one is to say the phrase out loud and try to determine if it sounds right. Many metaphors are part of common speech so chances are that you’ve read or maybe even used at least one part of the mixed metaphor in question. So, if you can isolate the part you know, it’s easy enough to pick out the part that’s been added on incorrectly—as one famous mixed metaphor helps advise us, mixed metaphors “stick out like a sore throat.” But, since no one is an island, or an encyclopedia for that matter, no one should be expected to be familiar with the correct application of every possible metaphor. It’s important that writers and editors have a good usage dictionary on hand, such as Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage or The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.

 

Using Metaphors Effectively Is as Easy as Falling Off a Piece of Cake

As with other elements of writing, such as adjective use, using metaphors should be approached cautiously and economically. Similar to adjective chains, wherein a parade of adjectives meant to improve specificity works against the writer by weighing down the sentence with unnecessary words, overusing metaphors can open a writer or speaker up to criticisms about using clichés.

 

Cliché vs. Metaphor

Strictly speaking, a metaphor is “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.” So, when picking your metaphors, just make sure the ideas in the writing seem original and unique rather than smattered with clichés.

Much like the “smell test” used to determine if a piece of writing includes mixed metaphors, determining if a phrase falls into the metaphor or cliché category can be similarly accomplished. But, beware: not all writers and editors will agree on whether a phrase qualifies as a cliché. So, after doing your editorial smell test and referring to your style and usage guide, it’s always a good idea to run the questionable metaphor by your trusty editor.

The tricky thing about determining whether a phrase is a cliché is that metaphors tend to become cliché through being overused. How effective it must have been the first time a writer referred to someone as the black sheep of the family. Over time, though, the effectiveness of every metaphor weakens. Where once a metaphor seemed like an original and poetic way of describing a specific idea, the phrase eventually becomes so common that it barely catches the attention of the reader, or, just as likely, it draws the wrong kind of attention and annoys the reader.

 

It’s Time to Step Up to the Plate and Lay Your Cards on the Table

To avoid using metaphors that could be accused of being cliché, it’s often best to err on the side of caution. So, unless the metaphor being used is a new or thoroughly breathtaking one, consider cutting it in preference for something else. Certain metaphors that could be considered overused still fall short of cliché. “The marquee was a beacon,” or another similar construction, even though metaphors involving beacons and lighthouses are commonplace in writing, isn’t quite a cliché. Similarly, referring to someone as a black sheep wouldn’t necessarily set off cliché alarms for everyone. As with all writing, context and the opinions of the reader are the real test.

 

Don’t Get Stuck Between a Rock and the Deep Blue Sea

In addition to the funny examples I’ve used throughout this article, there are other less obvious offenders. Some mixed metaphors seem to be the result of either exhaustion on the part of the writer. For instance, saying someone is a rock is a standard—albeit arguably cliché—metaphor, but saying, “She is a rock. I can’t wait to see her spread her wings and fly,” creates a spectacular mixed metaphor that conjures up the image of a rock/bird.

As interesting as it might be to try to imagine a rock/bird, though, neither metaphors used—rock nor bird—effectively described what the writer or speaker intended.

 

We Have to Get All Our Ducks on the Same Page

To wrap things up, I’ve included a great link to a long list of mixed metaphors. And finally, because he may have been the king of mixed metaphors, check out these excellent Yogi Berra quotations. After all, “the future ain’t what it used to be.”

 

Michael Bedford is a freelance editor, copywriter, and performer living in Stoney Creek, Ontario. He can be reached at https://mgb-editor.com/

 

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