Sunday, August 17, 2008

Rhetorical clutter (1)

Metaphors can help you achieve clear writing, but only if you use them carefully. If you use metaphors carelessly, you may distract and even confuse your reader. For example, on the web site, an article entitled “The Shift” opens with this paragraph:

“The tectonic plates of the geopolitical landscape are shifting, visibly, as the consequences of our crazed foreign policy are being felt at home and abroad. That alarming crunching sound you hear is the impact of the sudden realization that, in Iraq, the government our troops are fighting and dying for is openly demanding that we leave.”

The reader is distracted immediately. In the opening sentence, the author has used two metaphors (“tectonic plates” and “geopolitical landscape”) that appear to be related because they both involve geography. But he has combined the metaphors illogically (in reality, landscapes don’t have tectonic plates).

The reader is also distracted by the use of “visibly,” “felt,” “crunching sound,” and “impact” – each of which suggests one of the five senses. These words convey a feeling of literalness; they imply that the writer really is talking about tectonic plates and landscapes, as opposed to politics.

If the reader persists in deciphering the paragraph, he concludes that the metaphors are not meant literally and are merely rhetorical clutter.

Then he pays full attention to the substance of the paragraph: “the sudden realization that, in Iraq, the government our troops are fighting and dying for is openly demanding that we leave.” He guesses that the essence of the article is the verb realize, which the author has unhelpfully disguised by hiding it inside the noun realization.

But who is doing the realizing? The author uses the pronoun we, so the reader looks at the URL of the web site, notices that it ends in .com and figures that the author is an American. The reader gathers that the author’s we is a sloppy way of saying “The U.S. Government.”

So the long-suffering reader guesses that the author is trying to say something like this: “The U.S. Government has suddenly realized that the Iraqi Government wants it to leave Iraq.”

The Takeaway: Don’t use a metaphor as an ornament. Use it only as a means of clarifying your point. And make sure that it does indeed clarify your point. And if you are ever tempted to use more than one metaphor in a sentence, ask yourself whether it’s worth the risk of confusing your reader. Don’t be sloppy in your use of pronouns. And don’t hide your verbs inside of nouns. If you make your readers work too hard, eventually you will lose all but the most loyal.

No comments:

Post a Comment