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.]