Drifting Across the Pond Exactly How a Bowling Ball Wouldn't

The writing on this blackboard is something to avoid – a mixed metaphor.(The following is part of a random series of rants about writing.)

“Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.”

The above statement is more than an amusing, contemporary example demonstrating abuse of the English language; it’s a great example of a mixed, or mangled, metaphor.

Professional communicators often mix their imagery, accidentally creating mixed metaphors. The rule on mixing metaphors is simple. Don’t do it, unless it’s intentional.

“A metaphor is a figure of speech that is used to paint one concept with the attributes normally associated with another,” says the Museum of Mangled Metaphors on its website.

It offers an example: "He has the wild stag's foot." This phrase suggests grace and speed as well as daring.

A mixed metaphor, The Museum says, is one that leaps to a second identification inconsistent with the first one. Example: "Now we can just kiss that program right down the drain."

The Museum offers a few more examples:

Suddenly, the smoldering seductive starlet was pinned by the spotlight, a floundering fish caught in the depths of a spider's web.

Or this, from Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities": "All at once he was alone in this noisy hive with no place to roost."

A longer list may be found on the website for Joslin Hall Rare Books. These are from student essays: 

  1. His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a tumble dryer.
  2. The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn't.
  3. McMurphy fell 12 stories, hitting the pavement like a paper bag filled with vegetable soup.
  4. Her hair glistened in the rain like nose hair after a sneeze.
  5. The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry them in hot grease.
  6. Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left York at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Peterborough at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.
  7. John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.
  8. Even in his last years, Granddad had a mind like a steel trap, only one that had been left out so long it had rusted shut.
  9. She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up.
  10. It was a working class tradition, like fathers chasing kids around with their power tools.

These examples may be drawn from students, but how often do you hear mixed metaphors on TV or the radio? Learn how to avoid metaphor mixing by reading good writing, such as the New York Times or the New Yorker. Don’t just rely on a web-only diet.

So watch out. If you butcher too many sentences, your editor may cry out in despair: “From now on, I’m watching everything you do with a fine-tuned comb!”