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Warning: Mixed Metaphors May Be Dangerous to the Health of Your Writing

By Julie Wehmeyer

  • He’s a wolf in cheap clothing.
  •  From now on, I’m watching everything you do with a fine-tuned comb.
  • It’s as easy as falling off a piece of cake.
  • It’s time to grab the bull by the tail and look him in the eye.
  •  I wouldn’t be caught dead there with a ten-foot pole.
  •  It’s time to step up to the plate and lay your cards on the table.
  • He’s burning the midnight oil from both ends.
  • You can’t go in there cold turkey with egg on your face.
  • We have to get all our ducks on the same page.
  • I’m sweating like a bullet.

Other than making you chuckle, what do you see wrong with the above statements? What is making you giggle at them? It’s simple. They are all mixed metaphors and practically scream out to the educated reader that the author is not professional, or dare I say it, “is dim as a burned-out light bulb”! They make the reader chuckle, but not in a good way.

So What Exactly is a Metaphor?

Before we discuss why a “mixed” metaphor is bad, we need to define what a metaphor is. A metaphor is different from a simile and a cliché.  Using metaphors is all great and good if done correctly, but often metaphors get so absorbed into our culture that it becomes easy to mix them.  However, a good, well written and thought out metaphor can enhance your writing exponentially.

A metaphor is a way of comparing two unrelated things to make your writing more vivid and memorable. It is a figure of speech containing an implied comparison in which a word or phrase usually used for one thing is applied to another. Using metaphors is all great and wonderful if done correctly, but often metaphors get so absorbed into our culture that it becomes easy to mix them.  all the world's a stageShakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage,” is a great metaphor making the point that the world we are all actors in the plays of our lives.

Other good examples of metaphors are:

  • He drowned in a sea of grief. This makes sense because “drowned” and “sea” go together, and your mind can understand the comparison of the emotion of grief to how a sea can be all encompassing. However, if you had mixed metaphors and stated, “He stumbled along on a sea of grief,” that makes no sense, even though you can understand someone stumbling along in sorrow; but the comparison to the “sea” makes no sense.
  • She is fishing in troubled waters. Again, (another water metaphor), this makes sense. If you stated, “she was shopping in troubled waters,” it would mean the same thing, but it wouldn’t make sense.

And you may have noticed in the first paragraph of this article, I used a metaphor referring to a writer as being “dim as a burned out light bulb.”

 

A Metaphor is NOT a Simile.

The big difference between a metaphor and simile is that a metaphor does not use the word “like.”  Shakespeare did not say, the “world is like a stage.” If he had that would have been a simile, not a metaphor.

Using the examples above, you could say, “he is like a man drowning in a sea of grief,” or “she is like a fish in troubled waters.” You have to be careful with similes, however, in the same manner as you have to be careful with mixed metaphors. “he is like a man singing in a sea of grief,” really doesn’t make sense.

A Metaphor is Not a Cliché Either / Or Is It?.

Also, keep in mind, a metaphor is not a cliche either, or is it? A reliance on cliches can easily lead to mixed metaphors.

Some common cliche’s:

  • A diamond in the rough / Brave as a lion
  • Every cloud has a silver lining / Everything that glitters is not gold.
  • Sent a shiver down my spine / Heart-stopping fear.

Below are some examples of just how easy it is to make a mixed metaphor using everyday cliches.

  • Brave as a lion in the rough.
  • Every cloud is not gold.
  • Sent heart-stopping fear down my spine.

Why is it So Bad to Mix Metaphors?

A mixed metaphor is quite simply bad form. When you combine two unrelated items together, especially when mixing up cliches, it can look forced at best, and at worst it appears silly and ridiculous. It SHOUTS poor writing.

Metaphors are extremely image-driven, and if those images don’t make sense, they confuse and jar the reader. One really great piece of advice I received when I was first starting out as a writer was “if you can’t draw it, don’t write it.”

We all remember when President Obama referred to himself as a “green behind the ears senator.” The correct usage would have been “wet behind the ears.” No one is green behind the ears! The correct metaphor is “wet behind the ears” which refers to a new born baby. You would refer to a baby seedling just growing out of the ground as “green,” but you would never refer to a plant as having ears. That comment caused guffaws throughout the nation!

Another example is, “wake up and smell the coffee.” That makes complete sense, and the imagery leads you to know what the writer means. However, if someone written, “Open your eyes and smell the coffee on the wall” you’d be wondering what on earth they were talking about! This is a mixed metaphor of “Wake up and smell the coffee” and “Open your eyes and see the writing on the wall.” Both metaphors mean the same thing, but when mixed, it is just nonsensical.

Can You Ever Mix Metaphors Intentionally?

Of course you can. If you are writing dialogue for a character and the mixed metaphor fits the language that character would use, then by all means do it. You can also use mixed metaphors to inject a bit of humor or clarity in your writing, if it is clear to your reader that it is what you are doing. One example might be to say, “We will burn that bridge when we come to it,” mixing the metaphors of “We will cross that bridge when we come to it,” and “Don’t burn your bridges.” In this instance, the metaphor would indicate the desire to push through and destroy any opposition. So, in this case, mixing the metaphor makes sense, but it has to be done with thought. Most mixed metaphors are the result of not thinking.

Metaphors in and of themselves are very effective writing tools. They are a way to use language to liven up your writing and provide strong imagery, but you must be careful and think about them when you use them. And use them sparingly. And be careful and cognizant when mixing them.

You don’t want people laughing at your writing because of poorly placed mixed metaphors. Let the professionals at Awen Books and More help. We are great at spotting these things!

 

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