Mixed Metaphors And Improbable Imagery

mixed metaphors

Metaphors add colour to language. Mixed metaphors are a mismatch of images that often create a bizarre effect.

Here is an infamous example of a mishmash of mixed metaphors. You’ve probably heard it before:

He opened the floodgates to a Pandora’s box of worms.

Whoever first said it (if anyone really did) clearly liked the idea of ‘opening the floodgates’ enough to use the same concept again in ‘opening Pandora’s box’ and, once again, in ‘opening a can of worms’.

Clichés aside, any one of them might have worked, but three? Result: a metaphor mess.

Mixed metaphors

Most mixed metaphors are mashups of two incompatible images.

No need to explain why this one is silly:

If you’ve got a bee in your bonnet, it’s best to get it off your chest.

This one seems OK at first glance, but the imagery clashes:

Hone your writing skills with a daily dose of grammar tips.

‘To hone’ means to sharpen and refine. You certainly can’t ‘hone’ skills with a ‘dose’ of anything.

A slightly better sentence would have been:

Develop finely honed skills for sharp and witty writing.

Or, to play with the other image:

Perk up your writing with a daily dose of grammar tips.

They’re not brilliant but at least they have unity (consistency) of imagery.

Confused imagery

I saw this ‘commanding’ sentence recently. It fails in a similar way.

Stay attuned to the frontier of AI innovation!

You can’t be ‘attuned’ to a frontier. It’s nonsense.

Instead, perhaps:

Follow the progress of pioneers at the frontiers of AI innovation.

Or this:

Stay attuned to the latest news and discussions about AI innovation.
(This isn’t metaphor or even figurative language but at least it makes sense)

I also read this:

Propel your professional trajectory.

Sorry. Can’t be done. You can propel an object or, metaphorically, ‘your career’ but a trajectory (in simple terms) is the path followed by a projectile. And you can’t propel it.

You could, however:

Propel your career along the path to success.

Or perhaps:

Plan the trajectory of your professional career.

I came across the final one some years ago.

Writing about the imminent release of sensitive documents in a ‘whistle-blower’ scenario, an earnest reporter announced:

More leaks in the pipeline.

Probably not the imagery he had in his mind. The story was ‘awash’ with possibilities.

The take-away: Don’t mangle your metaphors.

They are beautiful tools, blunted by misuse.

Now that’s a metaphor!

Look for more ways to Be Word Wise.

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