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Tuesday, February 3, 2015
Words & Language Toolbox

Avoid mixed metaphors like the plague

By Paula LaRocque

Once, while chatting over lunch with a friend who also happens to be a highly skilled writer, I used a simile. I mentioned I’d had dinner with a woman whose false lashes were so profuse and so precariously attached that they looked like caterpillars clinging to her eyelids.

A few days later, my friend phoned, and we had this conversation:

“That figure of speech you used at lunch the other day — you were talking about a woman whose false lashes resembled caterpillars. Remember?”

I did.

“Was that somebody else’s simile, or was it yours?”

It was mine.

“Great. May I have it?”

I love that story because it illustrates in part how good writers value fresh language and images.

I’m guessing that figurative language has been with us as long as language itself. Aristotle, born 384 B.C., said mastery of metaphor was a sign of genius, because good metaphor “implies an intuitive perception of similarity among dissimilars.”

Good figurative language — language such as metaphor or simile that departs from literal meaning and yet still deepens and broadens meaning — remains a universally admired literary device. Newswriters may think figurative expression is the province of fiction or feature writers. But it’s actually the province of good writers, period; and when apt and accurate, it’s welcome in all genres.

It’s true that good figurative expression is naturally suited to feature writing, but it can also brighten and clarify newswriting or informational writing in general:

“The university’s top award goes to an instructor who gave up his dream of acting only to discover that Shakespeare was right: All the world’s a stage.”

That news story could have been a dry, bare-bones rendering of faculty awards but instead was a nice little collection of brief but interesting mini-stories. The sentence presents an appropriate metaphor from a master that offers readers not only a richer meaning but also a touch of irony.

Below, the incomparable Roger Angell creates a simile to describe baseball player Barry Bonds:

“Bonds — with his shortened-up black bat twitching behind his ear and that short-arc slash at the ball ticking within — stands in the middle of the Giants' batting order like an aneurysm.”

Readers appreciate the descriptive power of fresh, appropriate and restrained metaphor whatever the genre. But notice that when lauding figurative language, we always stipulate only good figurative language. There’s no place in good writing for stale, overheated or mixed metaphor. Unfortunately, although overwrought and mixed metaphors can be especially ridiculous, they nevertheless abound in media writing:

“Because he’d rather wait in the wings than step up to the plate, he typically tosses in his cards too soon.”

That’s a mixed metaphor. It combines unrelated images from stage, baseball and card game. How might we unmix it? Any number of ways, but the best way to make metaphorical sense is to pick one governing image and play it to its logical conclusions. The following rewritten passage keeps the stage images and loses the others:

“Because he’d rather wait in the wings than appear front and center, he typically settles for a bit role.”

Another mixed metaphor:

Stretching the canvas across the Western and Near Eastern Muslim lands, more than a dozen countries can be seen, in snapshots, at widely differing stages of fermentation.”

Below, a governing metaphor of courtship is destroyed by a bolt of lightning:

“Caucusgoers are inclined to reward such persistent courting — but they seemed unsure the candidate would make it to the church, let alone the altar. Suddenly, lightning struck, in the form of a CNN poll ...”

The following mixed metaphor is from an end-of-year review of the economy:

“There were a couple of false dawns when it seemed the sun was rising on the economy, but things started to tank again and fell back into the morass.

More mangled economic metaphors:

“He’s the captain weathering the storm, and not only is the pyramid shaking, but the ship has drawn some water.”

And still more:

“Like 401(k) plans, the investments made by public-sector pension plans are increasingly on firmer footing as the rising tide on Wall Street lifts all boats.”

Finally, here’s a mélange of images to which we can only say: ay yi yi!

“In terms of quarterback movement, the carousel of change has operated at warp-speed, spinning out of control at times, and the volume on the calliope has been cranked to the max. Most of the past several off-seasons have included a high-stakes game of quarterback musical chairs. But there might not be enough overstuffed recliners in a La-Z-Boy warehouse to handle what has transpired since the end of the 2005 season.”

Paula LaRocque is author of “The Book on Writing” and a mystery novel, “Chalk Line,” among other works. Email: plarocque@sbcglobal.net. Blog and website: paulalarocque.com

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