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Common Usage Dilemmas

Mixed Metaphors: A Dollar Late and a Day Short

Figures of speech use words for more than their literal meaning. There are a number of different kinds of figures of speech, including hyperbole, understatement, personification, analogies, similes, and metaphors. Today, class, our focus is on the metaphor.

A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two unlike things. The more familiar thing helps describe the less familiar one. Unlike their first cousins, similes, metaphors do not use the words like or as to make the comparison. “My heart is a singing bird” is an example of a metaphor.

As you can tell from the preceding definition, metaphors are innocent creatures that never did harm to anyone. That being the case, how can we explain this abomination:

You Could Look It Up

A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two unlike things. The more familiar thing helps describe the less familiar one.

  • “I don't want to say they lost sight of the big picture, but they have marched to a different drummer,” Victor Fortuno, the general counsel of Legal Services Corporation, said of the individual lawyer's challenges. “Whether it will upset the apple cart, I don't know.”

Like the title of this section, this passage is a mixed metaphor, a combination of images that do not work well together. It's like that old joke: “Keep your eye on the ball, your ear to the ground, your nose to the grindstone, your shoulder to the wheel: Now try to work in that position.” Here are some other mixed metaphors:

You Could Look It Up

A mixed metaphor is a combination of images that do not work well together.

Strictly Speaking

Mixed metaphors occur when writers string together clichés. Don't string together clichés and you won't get mixed metaphors.

  • Milking the temp workers for all they were worth, the manager barked orders at them.
  • (The first image suggests cows; the second, dogs. That's one animal too many.)
  • Unless we tighten our belts, we'll sink like a stone.
  • (Belts and a stone? I think not.)
  • The fullback was a bulldozer, running up and down the field like an angel.
  • (Only Ali could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee; this football bulldozer can't move like an angel.)
  • The movie weaves a story that herds characters and readers into the same camp.
  • (Let's not mix spiderwebs and cattle roundups.)

Like all comparisons, metaphors must contain elements that can be compared logically—even if not explicitly. The comparison must be consistent as well. Like my sister zooming to the sweaters at a department store super sale, stay focused on a single element when you create metaphors. Otherwise, you risk creating the dreaded mixed metaphor. Don't mix your drinks or your metaphors and you'll go far.

Here are two more suggestions to help you keep your metaphors straight:

  • Use only a single metaphor per paragraph.
  • Make sure the verb matches the action the subject of the metaphor might take. (For example: a bulldozer driving up the field.)
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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Grammar and Style © 2003 by Laurie E. Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website or call 1-800-253-6476. You can also purchase this book at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

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