A visit with your writing coach: Avoiding mangled metaphors

Mixed, mangled, or overdone metaphor is a leading contender for the Silly Little Mistake That Stops Readers Dead in Their Tracks.  Consider this from a newspaper story:  “She realized she had been walking blindly through life, mired in a void.” 

It’s “mired in a void” that stops you.  You can be mired in, well, a mire.  But a void is an empty space.  Can you be mired in an empty space?  And if so, what is it that’s miring you, exactly?  Not much, in this case.  Listen to the sentence again:  “She realized she had been walking blindly through life, mired in a void.”  The passage says she was walking—not mired, but walking.  You can’t be both mobile and immobile, even in a metaphor.

News writing is littered with such failed attempts at colorful expression—expression that makes readers marvel or, worse, laugh.  On the one hand, you want to say at least they’re trying.  And on the other, you want to say oh dear!

Take this metaphor (please!):  “Pus still oozed from the unhealed wounds of the Black Hawk Indian War as young James entered boyhood.”  Why not stop with the image of unhealed wounds?  Do we need pus, too?

Here are more manglephors from newspapers:

  • “Perhaps because of labor’s weakened condition, managements with iron fists are lifting the sword for the final kill.”  This sentence shows why successful metaphor sticks with a single governing image.  First, iron fists might make it hard to lift that sword.  Second, why do you need iron fists if you have a sword? 
  • “The conductor navigated Verdi’s Requiem with the touch of a surgeon.”  Navigate is a seafaring term, so related expression must likewise be seafaring—for example: navigated the shoals of Verdi’s Requiem with the skill of a sea captain.  Surgeon, however, is a medical term, so it mixes the metaphor.  Are we at sea or in the operating room?  Again, coherent metaphor sticks with a single governing image.
  • “The dirty trick is a scenario that some Republicans hope they can pull out of the mothballs yet again.”  This metaphor goes a couple steps too far by mixing a figurative scenario with figurative mothballs.  First, a dirty trick is not a “scenario,” even figuratively speaking.  A scenario is a synopsis of a play, a libretto of an opera, or a shooting script of a screenplay, etcetera.  So it’s not a successful metaphor for a dirty trick.  And it’s probably too much of a stretch to pull a dirty trick from the mothballs, let alone a scenario.
  • “Mazursky could have woven an enchanting fable from the fabric of Shakespeare’s Tempest.”  This sentence lacks metaphorical logic.  You don’t weave something from a fabric, you weave something into a fabric.  More logical:  “Mazursky could have woven an enchanting fable from the threads of Shakespeare’s Tempest.”
  • “All these factors have combined to transform the company, a high-flying success story just a few months ago, into a large question mark whose future is cloudy.”  A success story is a question mark with a cloudy future.  Imagine that.
  • “We hump snail-like to our end, leaving in our wake no trace of having been here.”  Another problem in logic.  The difficulty is twofold:  We’re not snail-like if we leave “no trace”—snails leave a trail of slime.  Further, a wake (which is a track left in water by a vessel or other body) also is a “trace,” so this incomprehensible metaphor says we’ve left no trace in our trace.
  • “His writing slides into your head like a fine oyster.”  Well, gag us with a simile.  To work, this metaphor must at least be complete:  His writing slides into your head like an oyster slides down your gullet.  Uncompleted, it’s understood to mean: His writing slides into your head like a fine oyster slides into your head.  But, completed, it’s all too much, isn’t it, this talk of oysters in your head, fine or otherwise.
  • “There are plenty of close-ups of the slimy lizard . . . a sinister little armored tank of a reptile.”  The tank metaphor is great, but lizards are scaly, not slimy.  (Snails and oysters are slimy.)

Mixed and overheated metaphors in the media are so common that The New Yorker often features them in an item called “Block That Metaphor!”  Here’s one such from the Chicago Tribune:  “So now what we are dealing with is the rubber meeting the road, and instead of biting the bullet on these issues, we just want to punt.”

That sentence makes us laugh because of its plethora of imagery.  We have the rubber-meeting-the-road image from drag racing, plus the image of resisting pain by biting the bullet, plus the football image of the punt.  Good metaphor helps speed the message along—it deepens and intensifies content.  But bad metaphor keeps us so busy with its mechanics that we lose sight of its meaning.