Using Metaphors


Former US President George W. Bush was famous for scrambling his metaphors. He once said, “Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream.”

We might laugh at his gaffe, but metaphors are easily misused. The truth is that language contains countless metaphors, and when we forget their literal meaning the results are often embarrassing.

In this lesson, we’ll teach you how to avoid two common errors: dead and mixed metaphors.

Mixed Metaphors

A mixed metaphor occurs when you’ve used two or more metaphors in a sentence or passage. If the metaphors clash then you’ve got a problem:

On our journey we came to a fork, where the road branched out in multiple directions.

I’m taking a history course. I’m looking forward to digging into some meaty subjects from the past.

Notice that in the second example looking forward contrasts with the study of the past (where we look back in time).

It’s easy to mix metaphors, especially when we forget  the literal meaning of a word:

She’s such a night owl. She stays up late reading and ruminating.

In this sentence, ruminating means thinking, but literally it also means to chew the cud, which is an action associated less with owls than with ruminants such as cows.

A mixed metaphor is not necessarily wrong, but if the metaphors are incompatible then you’re better sticking to a single set of images.

Dead Metaphors

When we use a metaphor with no regard for its literal meaning, then it can easily become a dead metaphor:

When our water-polo team plays, we’re all on the same page.

In this sentence we’ve used the expression on the same page figuratively to mean all together. Literally, however, water-polo is played in a pool, and not on a page.

A dead metaphor, then, is when the literal meaning of a figurative expression clashes with the rest of the sentence. Here are some more examples:

My broken toe is a pain in the neck.

Your talk on fasting has given me food for thought.

Dead metaphors are a symptom of a lazy attitude to language. If we care about making our prose come alive, then we’ll want to avoid killing off the literal meanings of words.