Monday, June 15, 2009

Mixed metaphors (1)

Mixed metaphors can confuse and amuse your readers. If you are aiming for clear writing, you don’t want to confuse your readers, or unintentionally amuse them. You don’t want to make them slow down to wonder why you mixed two or more metaphors. You don’t want to do anything to distract their attention from the flow of your main argument.


A mixed metaphor is a series of two or more metaphors that become incongruous when combined.


For example, in an article today on the effect of the depression on Las Vegas strip clubs, the writer includes this sentence:

“And investors are not the only ones getting hammered by the softness in the bump and grind industry.”

The incongruity is that people are being “hammered” (a metaphor for “being damaged financially”) by “softness” (a metaphor for “depression”). Readers are amused by the thought of a soft hammer.

But this mixed metaphor is not only incongruous; it is also illogical. Compare it, for example, to the classic mixed metaphor “barnacles on the wheels of progress” – the incongruity is that in reality barnacles attach themselves to the hulls of ships, not to the wheels of land-based vehicles.

However, there is some logic in the metaphor: if barnacles did attach themselves to wheels, they would slow the wheeled vehicles, just as they slow ships (by adding friction).

But the strip club metaphor is illogical: the softer the softness, the less effective it would be as a hammer.

While a reader stops to think these kinds of thoughts about a mixed metaphor, he is not paying attention to the main argument. He may even stop reading, because the mixed metaphor has distracted him. Every time you use a mixed metaphor, you risk losing readers.

By the way, one could argue that the strip-club mixed metaphor is an example of a triple mixed metaphor, because the, ahem, body parts that are bumped and ground in strip clubs are indeed soft.

A much clearer example of a triple mixed metaphor (which coincidentally also involves body parts) is the well-known elementary-school blooper, “A virgin forest is a place where the hand of man has never set foot.”

But that’s enough frivolity for today. Besides, I want to keep this blog rated family friendly.

The Takeaway: Unless you are being intentionally amusing, do not use mixed metaphors. It’s fairly easy to avoid using mixed metaphors: as you write, just be aware of the metaphors you are using. That is to say, don’t choose your words unconsciously. Recognize when you are using metaphors and take the time to think through their effect on your readers. It really is that easy.

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