Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Mixed metaphors are often amusing to readers, as these examples illustrate. However, we writers are usually more interested in informing and persuading our readers than in amusing our readers. Mixed metaphors get in the way of information and persuasion by distracting our readers from our topic.
When we do employ humor, it should be intentional and relevant to the topic – as opposed to mixed metaphors, which are unintentional and irrelevant.
Here are a few recent examples of mixed metaphors from the press:
In a September 15 column in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:
"In what passes for 'conservatism' nowadays, however, Republican leaders in Congress and right-wing media figures seem to intent on riding – and sometimes sewing – the winds of hate."
In a September 20 guest editorial in The Toronto Star:
"Unfortunately for Layton, the Liberal wind abruptly changed direction last month in Sudbury and he has been caught with his pants down."
In a September 26 “Errors & Omissions” column in The Independent (UK):
“Mixed metaphor of the week: This is from an article on Thursday about Tony Blair and his prospects for the European Union presidency: ‘Blair is unwilling to launch a public campaign in a forum in which the favourite all too often falls at the last fence.’
“The original forum was the market place of ancient Rome, where the law courts sat. Hence, a place for argument and debate. There are no horse races in a forum.”
The Takeaway: When editing your own copy, watch carefully for mixed metaphors. Better yet, ask someone to edit your copy. For some reason, others can spot our mixed metaphors much more easily than we can.
Friday, September 25, 2009
As you know, emotional power can create an unforgettable passage: an unforgettable scene in a movie, play or novel; an unforgettable paragraph in an essay; or an unforgettable climax of a speech. Emotional power enables you to make your point clearly and concisely.
There are several ways to load your writing with emotional power; one of the easier ways is to use an emotional hook.
For example, do you remember these words?
“I coulda been a contenda. I coulda been somebody. Instead of a bum, which is what I am.”
The words are from a scene in the movie On the Waterfront (1954). The speaker is Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando, right), a longshoreman and ex-boxer. He is speaking to his older brother Charley Malloy (Rod Steiger, left), a gangster.
By today’s standards, the scene is technically primitive. No color. No special effects. No quadraphonic sound. Until the end of the scene, no action – just two men talking in the back seat of a car.
But the scene is unforgettable, because it connects to a powerful emotion in the minds of the viewers: pity for someone who knows he has missed his main chance in life.
Great playwrights, novelists, essayists and speechwriters do the same. They connect their themes to powerful emotions that are already stored in the memories of their readers or audiences.
Here are three examples from famous speeches in English.
William Jennings Bryan, 1896: “We will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: ‘You will not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.’ ”
- Theme: A gold standard would impoverish Midwestern farmers.
- Emotion: Christians' reverence for Christ’s suffering.
- Hook: A crown of thorns and a cross, symbols of Christ’s suffering.
Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963: “From every mountainside, let freedom ring.”
- Theme: Racial equality is essential to a great nation.
- Emotion: Patriotic feelings evoked by the song “America.”
- Hook: The last six words of the song.
Ronald Reagan, 1987: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
- Theme: The Soviet Union must permit emigration.
- Emotion: Painful memories of the closing of the Soviet border.
- Hook: The Berlin Wall, symbol of the closed border.
The Takeaway: Use an emotional hook to make your writing unforgettable. Hook your theme to a strong emotion that is already stored in the memories of your readers, listeners or viewers.
Thursday, September 24, 2009
In recognition of National Punctuation Day, I’m going to briefly review the rules for the use of quotation marks with other punctuation (in American English).
Rules for using quotation marks with other punctuation
Comma: always inside (,") the quotation marks
Period: always inside (.")
Semicolon: always outside (";)
Colon: always outside (":)
Question mark: inside (?") only if it is part of the text quoted; otherwise outside ("?)
Exclamation point: inside (!") only if it is part of the text quoted; otherwise outside ("!)
The Takeaway: The rules for using quotation marks with other punctuation are simple. Just memorize these six rules. Exceptions are rare.
Monday, September 21, 2009
If clear writing is your goal, always strive to be consistent in your use of grammatical person (first, second and third person). In other words, when you begin a passage in one person (first, second or third), stay in that person until the end of the passage (sentence, paragraph or several paragraphs).
If you change person within the passage, you risk confusing your readers. The shorter the passage, the greater the risk. That’s because the shorter the passage, the more unexpected the change.
Example of a change of grammatical person
An example of a change of person within a single sentence appeared last Friday in the Telegraph (UK). The newspaper carried an article titled, “How you write ‘shows if you’re a liar,’ scientists discover,” which begins with a one-sentence paragraph:
“Instead of analysing body language or eye movement, to catch out people telling fibs, people’s handwriting can instead give them away.”
Most readers, when encountering the phrase, “to catch out people telling fibs,” are likely to expect an imperative-mood verb. The implied subject of an imperative is always second person (you). So the reader expects something like this:
Instead of analysing body language or eye movement, to catch out people telling fibs, just analyse their handwriting for tell-tale strokes.
But in the article, the subject (handwriting) and the verb (can) are third person.
Alternatively, some readers may expect third person, as in:
Instead of analysing body language or eye movement, to catch out people telling fibs, some bankers, insurance brokers and police detectives are beginning to analyse their handwriting for tell-tale strokes.
In this case, there is no change of person; readers expect third person, and the clause is in third person. However, the readers expect the subject to be the people who are analyzing handwriting, not the people whose handwriting is being analyzed.
The Takeaway: When you begin a passage in one grammatical person (first, second or third person), stay in that person until the end of the passage. If you change person, you risk confusing your readers. Review the pronoun section in your grammar book; learn first person, second person and third person so thoroughly that you will jar yourself awake whenever you accidentally switch person.
First, second and third person (1)
First, second and third person (2)
Sunday, September 20, 2009
As writers, we need a daily dose of straight talk. Most of the diction we read and hear every day is evasive; it’s indirect, euphemistic and insinuating. Anything but straight. We need to read and hear straight talk to counteract the seduction of evasive diction.
A recent example of straight talk
Doug Casey (photo), an economist and bestselling financial author, is internationally famous for his straight-talking style. In an interview last week, he commented on the reaction to Joe Wilson's heckling of Barack Obama:
“One trouble with Congress – one of very many – is that it’s entirely too politically correct. They have rules about how they are supposed to treat each other with respect, not call each other names, etc. But I’m of the opinion, assuming we have to have a Congress at all, that the country was much better served during the 19th century, when these creatures would physically fight each other on the floor and invite each other outside for duels.”*
The Takeaway: Many of us are startled when we read or hear straight talk. We react this way because we have been habituated to evasive diction. Be consciously aware of evasive diction, lest you absorb it and eventually imitate it.
*I selected this sample because of its diction, not its content. On this blog, I am promoting no political position. Unless you consider clarity a political position.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Although mixed metaphors can be amusing to read, you should be careful to avoid writing them. Mixed metaphors not only amuse but also distract. Your readers may pause to laugh at a mixed metaphor and lose track of your main argument. They may even stop reading.
A September 13, 2009 post on “The King’s College-ENG 110” blog pointed out this mixed metaphor from Our Town, N.Y., cited by The New Yorker in March 2000:
“ ‘The environment [of a subway station] contributes to the fear that develops in men and women. The moment that you walk into the bowels of the armpit of the cesspool of crime, you immediately cringe.’ ” (Boldface added.)
A rare quadruple mixed metaphor!
From a September 14, 2009 comment on the “Alpine Opinion” blog:
“EVERY DOG DESERVES HIS DAY IN COURT. (Somehow I think that’s a mixed metaphor)”
It may also be fair to coin the phrase “mixed bromide” to describe that mixed metaphor: It is a combination of “Every dog has his day” and “You will have your day in court,” both bromides. But that may be confusing, because “mixed bromide” may be a mixed metaphor itself (a literal bromide is a chemical and can be mixed with other chemicals).
From a September 16, 2009 post on the “Playing in the Word Farm” blog:
“Metaphors carried to (and sometimes beyond) their logical conclusions can obviously be entertaining. They can be made even more entertaining by derailing them with what’s commonly known as a mixed metaphor. In a letter to a friend, for instance, I once bemusedly watched myself write, ‘she steeled her threadbare nerves.’ ”
The Takeaway: Be careful to avoid mixed metaphors (unless you are deliberately using them for comedic or educational effect). Whenever possible, have someone edit your copy; it’s hard to spot your own mixed metaphors.
Sunday, September 13, 2009
Here’s another great example of concise writing from Joyce Carol Oates. It’s from her novel I’ll Take You There.
Example of concision
In the novel, a philosophy student ponders:
As the ancient Jewish people, persecuted by their enemies, interpreted history and the random events of nature moralistically, believing that catastrophes even of weather and geology were consequences of man’s evil, so in times of emotional distress we’re inclined to ascribe moral significance to whatever happens. We cease believing in chance and cling to a belief in design; we can’t accept that we don’t deserve what happens to us; we prefer a wrathful, capricious god to no god at all.
That’s a lot of history, psychology and philosophy packed into 80 words. It is classic Oates. We may not always agree with her assertions, but we always know what they are.
The Takeaway: To improve the clarity of your writing, spend at least ten minutes a day reading aloud from writers who write clearly, such as Joyce Carol Oates. You will see, hear and feel the stark contrast between careful, grown-up diction and the careless, infantile diction that surrounds us. If you would like a list of recommended writers and works, please email me at the address shown in my profile. Ask for my “List of Writers to Absorb.” I will respond via email.
Friday, September 11, 2009
A mixed metaphor can be unintentionally amusing. It can also confuse or distract your reader. Your reader may stop to chuckle at the incongruity of the mixed metaphor and lose track of your main argument. Worst of all, your distracted reader may even stop reading what you have written.
From a September 8 post on the “Bah! Humbug” blog:
“ ‘Now we are ready to venture into the tiger’s lair in search of the holy Grail’ Great mixed metaphor”
From a September 10 article on the “LewRockwell.com” web site:
“Tuition costs have gone in only one direction – up – during Mr. Weiss’s career. ‘I genuinely believe that we are at a crossroads here in higher education,’ he said. ‘I think we have reached a ceiling that we’re beginning to bump into.’ ”
[Mr. Weiss is a college president and a former management consultant; even highly educated and experienced people inadvertently use mixed metaphors, especially when speaking.]
From a September 10 post on the “while coding” blog:
“These questions only scratch the surface, but hopefully they plug a few leaks. (How’s that for a mixed metaphor?)”
The Takeaway: For some reason, we generally find it difficult to detect our own mixed metaphors. If possible, always have someone edit your copy.
Thursday, September 10, 2009
Here’s another great example of concise, clear writing. It is from the essay, Dissertations on First Principles of Government (1795), by Thomas Paine (pictured).
Example of concision
In the last paragraph of the essay, Mr. Paine tells politicians why they should not attempt to rationalize torture or other barbarities:
“An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty. It leads men to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws. He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”
He makes his point clearly, in only 54 words.
In contrast, the March 14, 2003 memo in which George W. Bush’s Department of Justice attempts to rationalize the use of torture by U.S. troops runs 81 pages.*
The Takeaway: Concise writing is almost always clear writing, and clear writing is almost always concise writing. Careless writers dash off a draft, run it through a spell-checker and are satisfied. The result is usually overly long and not overly clear. In contrast, careful writers revise several times until they know the writing is both clear and concise. Thomas Paine and his contemporaries wrote with quill pens; we who write with word processing software are kidding ourselves when we say we have no time to revise.
*Clear writers are always clear thinkers. That’s why Mr. Paine could foresee that men like George Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld would eventually show up.
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
When you inadvertently use a mixed metaphor, you are taking a risk. A mixed metaphor can easily confuse or distract your reader. Your reader may stop to chuckle at the incongruity of the mixed metaphor and lose track of your main argument. Worst of all, your distracted reader may even stop reading what you have written.
Definition of a mixed metaphor
A mixed metaphor is a series of two or more metaphors that become incongruous when combined. Often the incongruity strikes the reader as humorous.
Example of a mixed metaphor
Two weeks ago, Atlanta-based wsbtv.com published a memo that was “circulating the Internet.” The last paragraph of the memo contained an unintentionally amusing mixed metaphor:
“At the end of the day, when the morning comes, a black agenda would better enable us to have our interests respected by and our influence realized in any administration.”
The Takeaway: Here are five tips for avoiding mixed metaphors: (1) Use metaphors 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. (5) Have someone edit your copy: for some reason, we generally find it difficult to detect our own mixed metaphors.
Monday, September 7, 2009
Here are two more great examples of concise, clear writing. They are from A Book of Common Prayer by Joan Didion. As you may know, Ms. Didion is famous not only for her concision but also for her detachment and precision. You can see all these qualities in the passages quoted below.
Example of Concision
The setting of the novel is the fictional Boca Grande, a small and poor Latin American country. The narrator, Grace, is a widow and a member of the ruling family. Here, she describes her sister-in-law Elena:
The day Luis [the president] was shot Elena [his wife] flew into exile in Geneva, a theatrical gesture but unnecessary, since even before her plane left the runway the coup was over and Little Victor had assumed temporary control of the government. The wife of any other Latin president would have known immediately that a coup in which the airport remained open was a coup doomed to fail, but Elena had no instinct for being the wife of a Latin president. Nor does she make a particularly appropriate presidential widow. In any case. A few weeks later Elena came back. Edgar and his father and I met her at the airport. She was wearing tinted glasses and a new Balenciaga coat, lettuce-green. She was carrying a matching parrot.
The passage is only 124 words long. However, it tells us a lot about Grace (worldly-wise), Elena (histrionic), the family (powerful), and the insurgents (weak).
Example of Concision
Later in the novel, Grace describes how the family stays in control of the government:
Oil wells about to come in have a sound the attentive ear can detect.
As do earthquakes.
Volcanoes about to erupt transmit for days or weeks before their convulsion a signal called "the harmonic tremor."
Similarly I know for months before the fact when there is about to be a "transition" in Boca Grande. There is the occasional tank on the Avenida Centrale. Sentries with carbines appear on the roof of the presidential palace. For reasons I have never understood the postal rates begin to fluctuate mysteriously. There is a mounting mania for construction, for getting one’s cut while the government lasts: dummy corporations multiply, phantom payrolls metastasize. No one has an office but everyone has a mail drop. A game is underway, the "winner" being the player who lands his marker in the Ministry of Defense, and the play has certain ritual moves: whoever wants the Ministry that year must first get the guerrilleros into the game. The guerrilleros seem always to believe that they are playing on their own, but they are actually a diversion, a disruptive element placed on the board only to be "quelled" by "stronger leadership." Guns and money begin to reach the guerrilleros via the usual channels. Mimeographed communiqués begin to appear, and twenty people are detained for questioning. A few are reported as prison suicides and a few more reported in exile but months later, again mysteriously, the same twenty are detained for questioning.
A mounting giddiness about the proximity of the guerrilleros sets the social tone of the city: many tea dances are planned, many adulterous liaisons initiated.
Many citizens adopt eccentric schedules to comply with the terms of their kidnapping insurance.
El Presidente, whoever is playing El Presidente at the moment, falls ill, and is urged to convalesce at Bariloche, in Argentina.
In only 301 words, Ms. Didion gives us a clear sense of the narrator’s cynicism, the family’s corruption, and the insurgents’ foolishness.
In both passages, the writer is restrained and deadpan. The reader supplies the emotions. This is a powerful literary technique, smoothly executed.
The Takeaway: To improve the clarity of your writing, spend at least ten minutes a day reading aloud from writers who write clearly, such as Joan Didion. You will see, hear and feel the stark contrast between careful diction and the careless, vague, infantile diction that besets us every day. The topic you select for your reading doesn’t matter, because you’re reading for style not content. If you would like a list of recommended writers and works, please email me at the address shown in my profile. Ask for my “List of Writers to Absorb.” I will respond via email.
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
(Updated Below, September 5) I have frequently discussed examples of the overuse of uninhabited clauses, which is a form of bad diction. “Uninhabited clause” is my phrase for a main clause* with a subject that is a physical thing or a concept, as opposed to a person or group of persons. It is a main clause that has no people in it. We use uninhabited clauses in our writing every day; there’s nothing inherently wrong with them. But when we use a lot of them we confuse, tire and irritate our readers.
An example of the overuse of uninhabited clauses
Last week, Carl M. Cannon, Senior Washington Correspondent for Politics Daily, posted an egregious example of this type of bad diction. His article, “Mary Jo Kopechne and Chappaquiddick: America's Selective Memory,” begins with these two paragraphs:
“It was just a car accident, really, albeit one involving alcohol, excessive speed, and the late-night machinations of a married man partying with an unmarried woman. Although traffic fatalities happen all-too-frequently in this country, the reverberations of this one reached far beyond the families of the driver who escaped without injury and the passenger who perished. There’s no way to know for sure, but the accident at Dike Bridge on Chappaquiddick Island on July 18, 1969 probably cost Edward M. Kennedy the presidency. It certainly cost Mary Jo Kopechne her life.
“The one-car mishap was Teddy Kennedy’s fault, of course, no one disputes that. And his actions that followed – not summoning emergency personnel who might have saved her life, the cover-up of the facts, not even reporting the accident until the following morning – likely would have landed a man without political connections in prison. That thought has stuck in the craw of Kennedy critics and assorted conservatives for forty years. It was heartbreaking for her family and friends to experience the loss of a lovely, devout, and socially committed 28-year-old woman. For millions of Americans who never knew her, the tragic incident has fed a festering cultural grudge.”
Critique of the example
I’m sure you can feel it. Main clauses with non-human subjects feel academic, theoretical and irrelevant. Overall, the prose conveys to the reader a sense that “nobody’s doing anything.”
In these two paragraphs, Mr. Cannon has used nine main clauses. These nine main clauses have eleven subjects:
Ten of the eleven subjects are non-persons:
One of the eleven subjects is a person (grammatically but not rhetorically):
That’s why the prose conveys a feeling of “nobody’s doing anything.” But of course there really are people in these two paragraphs. Lots of people:
a married man
an unmarried woman
fatalities [that is, people who die in traffic accidents]
families of the driver and the passenger
no way to know [that is, people who can’t know]
Edward M. Kennedy
Mary Jo Kopechne
her life [that is, Mary Jo Kopechne’s]
the cover-up [that is, Edward M. Kennedy covered up]
not even reporting [that is, Edward M. Kennedy did not even report]
would have landed [that is, Edward M. Kennedy would be in prison]
her family and friends [that is, Mary Jo Kopechne’s]
her [that is, Mary Jo Kopechne]
The writer downplays or hides all these persons, in various ways. For example, he makes them the objects of prepositions:
“late-night machinations of a married man”
Or he translates these persons into events:
“traffic fatalities happen all-too-frequently” [that is, too many people die in traffic accidents]
Or he recasts clauses to eliminate persons:
“There’s no way to know for sure” [that is, people can’t know for sure]
Or he makes persons possessive:
“The one-car mishap was Teddy Kennedy’s fault” [that is, Kennedy caused the one-car mishap]
Or he recasts sentences to express a person’s action not as a verb but as a noun:
“the cover-up of the facts” [that is, Kennedy covered up the facts]
Or as a gerund:
“not even reporting the accident until the following morning” [that is, Kennedy did not even report the accident until the following morning]
Or he makes persons direct objects:
“his actions… would have landed a man without political connections in prison” [that is, if a man without political connections had done these things, he would be in prison”]
Or he makes persons into adjectives:
In summary, Mr. Cannon has resorted to eight different kinds of grammatical tricks to avoid using persons as the subjects of main clauses. You can almost feel the strain as he labors to find places to tuck away these persons. That is why the copy feels contrived.
It takes skill and conscious effort to torture language in this way. Professional writers do not do this accidentally. When they do it, they know that they are risking the bad effects (confusing, tiring and irritating their readers) in order to achieve whatever goal they are aiming at.
I do not know – and cannot know – what goal Mr. Cannon had in mind when he wrote this. But when most people write this way, their goal is to “say something without really saying it,” or to say something but in a muted way. It is the same reason why we invent and use euphemisms, such as deceased for dead.
The Takeaway: Politicians prosper by insinuating, dissembling and lying. That’s why they are fond of rhetorical devices that obfuscate more than communicate. After years of habituation to these solecisms, a politician will use them all the time – even when he’s telling the truth. So, if you are not a politician, don’t emulate the writing and speech of politicians (there are exceptions; e.g., Julius Caesar and Winston Churchill). And don’t emulate the writing of reporters who have political beats; typically these reporters assimilate the bad writing habits of the politicians they cover. Remember, you are trying to communicate; the worst people you could ever emulate are people who work hard to avoid communicating.
*Also called primary clause, independent clause, and sentence.
Update, Saturday, September 5, 2009, 2:01 PM: In a comment on this post, Ernest Nicastro suggested that I rewrite the example to demonstrate an improvement in clarity. Here’s my rewrite:
It was just a car accident. A married man had been partying and drinking with an unmarried woman. He was speeding. He survived the accident and she did not. Tens of thousands of Americans die in car accidents every year, but when this woman died her death affected many people beyond her family and the family of the driver. We can’t know for sure, but Edward M. Kennedy probably could have become President had he not driven off the Dike Bridge on Chappaquiddick Island on July 18, 1969. We do know Mary Jo Kopechne would have enjoyed a longer life.
Teddy Kennedy caused the one-car accident, of course. No one disputes that. He also failed to summon emergency personnel who might have saved Mary Jo’s life. He delayed reporting the accident until the following morning, and he covered up the facts. If a man without political connections had done all those things, he would have gone to prison. That thought has stuck in the craw of Kennedy critics and assorted conservatives for forty years. Her family suffered the heartbreak of losing a lovely, devout, and socially committed 28-year-old woman. Millions of Americans who never knew her have carried a grudge to this day.
The original has 9 main clauses with 11 subjects
10 of the 11 subjects are non-persons
1 of the 11 subjects is a person
Flesch Reading Ease score is 35.2
The rewrite has 19 main clauses with 19 subjects
3 of the 19 subjects are non-persons
16 of the 19 subjects are persons or groups of persons
Flesch Reading Ease score is 60.1
Thanks for the suggestion. I hope this update helped clarify the point of the original post.