Saturday, November 22, 2008

Rhetorical clutter (3)

Clear writing is orderly and uncluttered. As we have covered previously, rhetorical clutter can confuse your readers and hide your main point.

Rhetorical clutter often involves mixed metaphors. A mixed metaphor is a series of two or more metaphors that become incongruous when combined. An example appears in a recent essay on the mortgage contraction:

“It doesn’t take the most competent forensic expert to put the crime scene squarely at the doorstep of the quasi-government banking institutes Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.”

The phrase “crime scene” makes an easy-to-grasp metaphor. So does the word “doorstep.” But together, the metaphors are incongruous. The reader may imagine the crime scene as a piece of Central Park or an entire ranch house in Tarrytown. Then he imagines a giant crane picking it up, moving it, and placing it at a doorstep.

And the writer, by adding the phrase “forensic expert” and the word “squarely,” increases the likelihood that the reader will take both metaphors literally and thereby recognize the (unintentional) incongruity.

While I’m at it, I may as well point out a related flaw. The word “doorstep” is singular but there are two buildings involved: the headquarters of Fannie Mae and the headquarters of Freddie Mac.

What does all this have to do with clarity? A mixed metaphor confuses your reader, distracts him and wastes his time. It may also irritate him and persuade him that you are a careless writer and therefore a careless thinker.

The Takeaway: Handled well, a metaphor can help you make a point more clearly or more memorably. Handled poorly, a metaphor is a distraction. When in doubt, do not use a metaphor. If you do use a metaphor, make sure it does what you want it to do: no more, no less.

A Good Resource: If you would like more advice about using metaphors, see Simple & Direct by Jacques Barzun.

No comments:

Post a Comment