The Language Perfectionist: Don’t Mix Your Metaphors

A mixed metaphor is a combination of figures of speech that creates an incongruous or absurd image. The results are often amusing, although the humor is usually unintentional.

Consider these classics: “He’s out of the frying pan and into hot water.” “The sacred cows have come home to roost.” “His victory is a springboard to rekindle his campaign.” “It’s on the back burner in a holding pattern.”

Even Shakespeare occasionally mixed his metaphors: “Or to take arms against a sea of troubles.” But writers who aren’t as skilled can’t pull it off quite so elegantly. Here are a few choice samples I spotted in the media:

  • “It does not push the envelope over the edge.”
  • “If the shoe was on the other foot, I’d be peeling you off the ceiling.”
  • “It is his job to nail me down, but we are on the same page.”
  • “We operate close to the bone by the skin of our teeth.”
  • “It’s just ham-fisted salami-slicing by the bean counters.”

In your writing, be careful to avoid mixing metaphors – and creating consequences like those above. Here’s how: When you review or proofread your work, visualize any metaphors it contains. See them as if they were literal. If the images are contradictory or ludicrous, rewrite or delete.

This procedure will help you iron out all the bugs. And that’s the whole kettle of fish in a nutshell!

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was a direct-response copywriter. He is author of the wordplay books Cruel and Unusual Puns and Acronymania, and is now writing a book that also blends language and humor.]

Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant for more than 30 years. He may be best known for his headline “Speak Spanish [French, German, etc.] Like a Diplomat!” This familiar series of ads sold spectacular numbers of recorded foreign language lessons for Audio-Forum, generating revenues that total in the tens of millions of dollars. In the process, the ad achieved the status of an industry classic. Don’s work is mentioned in three major college advertising textbooks, and examples of his promotions are cited in the books Million Dollar Mailings (1992) and World's Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters (1996). In a column in Advertising Age, his name was included in a short list of direct-marketing “superstars.” He has a parallel career as a writer on language and wordplay. His celebration of spoonerisms, Cruel and Unusual Puns (Dell, 1991), received rave reviews and quickly went into a second printing. His second book was Acronymania (Dell, 1993). Recently, Don retired from full-time copywriting in order to focus on other interests, including his passion for “recreational linguistics.” He is at work on a new book in that genre. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Word Ways and writes “The Language Perfectionist,” a weekly column on grammar and usage, for Early to Rise. Don is author of The Versatile Freelancer,an e-book from American Writers and Artists, Inc. (AWAI) that shows copywriters – and almost anyone – how to diversify their careers into consulting, training, critiquing, and speaking.