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The Language Perfectionist: Mixed and Mashed Metaphors

It’s been a while since I wrote about mixed metaphors in this column. So let’s review.

A mixed metaphor is a combination of figures of speech that unintentionally results in an incongruous or impossible image. This anecdote supplies a perfect example of the error:

A sportswriter interviewing a basketball player asked how his team was doing. “The ship be sinking,” he replied. How far could it sink? “Sky’s the limit.”

Here are a few other mixed metaphors, culled from my routine reading:

  • “I’m going to milk the gold rush as long as I can.”
  • “This will take the edge off the nail biting.”
  • “Flying under the radar, we don’t do everything with a splash.”
  • “By 2011, Mr. Robinov plans for DC Comics to supply the material for up to two of the six or eight tent-pole films he hopes Warner Bros. will have in the pipeline by then.”

Another sort of mistake is equally common, although it can’t literally be described as a mixed metaphor. Consider these quotations:

  • “I’m the last of the Mohicans and I’m hanging on by a thread.”
  • “We saved for a rainy day, but… the depth of this emergency means there are no longer any sacred cows.”
  • “I had issues with the DNA of the project… there were so many chefs in the kitchen.”
  • “Just before the ax fell, lightning struck and my life changed….”

See the difference? The specimens in the latter group don’t display blatant incongruities. But they’re still problematic. They sound awkward; they use cliches that collide; they create ludicrous mental images. So perhaps examples in this genre should be dubbed clashing metaphors – or, to preserve the alliteration, mashed metaphors.

In your writing and speaking, be sure to avoid mixing or mashing your metaphors, lest you produce embarrassing results like those above. Aside from that caution, feel free to “push the envelope out of the box”!

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]

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.