Sunday, August 16, 2009

Mixed metaphors (3)

Metaphors are, of course, useful for emphasizing, explaining and illustrating our key points and for entertaining our readers. But mixed metaphors work against us. They distract our readers.

Definition of a mixed metaphor

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

Example of a mixed metaphor

A good example of a mixed metaphor appeared last Friday, in an article headlined “Blindsided.”*

“I concluded from intensive study that for most of a century growing optimism led to trust in a debt pyramid so large that its shadow simultaneously falls on every part of the globe. Asset values are pyramided on top of one another where the price of each asset is supported by debt at multiple orders of magnitude, each strand of this web depending upon nothing but creditor confidence that the debtor can make good on the debt.” (Boldface added.)

The first metaphor, even before it mixed with the second, distracts the reader. The writer is attempting to illustrate the size of a debt by using the old familiar metaphor of a pyramid. But when he adds “so large that its shadow simultaneously falls on every part of the globe,” he is attempting to conjure an unimaginable picture. It is absurd on its face: no structure on earth could be large enough to cast a simultaneous shadow on every part of the globe. One reason is that the globe is spherical.

Because the reader can’t imagine the picture, the metaphor distracts the reader – and possibly amuses the reader in a way the writer did not intend.

Then the writer mixes in a second metaphor, "this web." It does what every mixed metaphor does: it distracts the reader. The reader wonders, "How does the 'web' relate to the 'pyramid'?" And, to make matters worse, the reader cannot even understand what the “web” metaphor stands for, because the preceding text is a confusion of passive voice verbs, vague adverbs and vague prepositions.

Example of a mixed metaphor

Later in the same article, the writer uses a triple mixed metaphor, one that will almost certainly amuse most readers:

“Unfortunately, a populace ignorant of economic fundamentals is fertile ground for charlatans and their news media megaphones promoting ‘hair of the dog that bit you’ policy fixes.” (Boldface added.)

Example of a mixed metaphor

Another article, published yesterday, is headlined, “Why Is America’s Heartland So Angry?” One paragraph contains at least seven metaphors:

“The Heartland of America is furious and is finally finding its voice. It is time for the slumbering populace to wake up, read the founding documents, remind themselves of the truths of our country and fight this illegal usurpation of power by an out-of-control federal government. America is at a crossroads. Will the Heartland take back its country or is it destined for collapse? You decide.” (Boldface added.)

Some of the metaphors are mixed; some aren’t. In any event, this is a lot of metaphors for a 66-word paragraph. The effects on the reader are distraction and (unintended) amusement.

And there’s one more ill effect: When a writer uses metaphors this frequently, many readers will become totally distracted. They will stop paying attention to the writer’s message and start watching for the next metaphor.

It’s similar to listening to and watching a public speaker who has a distracting habit – say, clearing his throat or adjusting his eyeglasses. Eventually, you tune out his message because most of your mind is listening for the next throat-clearing or watching for the next eyeglass-adjustment.

The Takeaway: Whenever you write, pay close attention to your metaphors: (1) Use them sparingly. (2) Double-check the definition of each metaphor you use. (3) Make sure each metaphor is clear and imaginable. (4) Make sure there is no chance of a mixed metaphor – unless you are deliberately creating a mixed metaphor for the purpose of humor. Have someone edit your copy: for some reason, detecting mixed metaphors is difficult for the writer but easy for the reader – even the casual reader.

*I am not “singling out” or “picking on” the authors of the two articles cited here. I chose their articles for educational purposes only.

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