Avoid mangling your metaphors

Don’t let these pesky figures of speech become the Achilles heel of your prose. Instead, use this guide to help keep your copy as fresh as morning rain.


I’ve previously written about figures of speech and rhetorical devices. When used correctly, these phrases help us paint word pictures, adding depth to our messages. When used incorrectly, the results can be confusing and unintentionally humorous.

“I conclude that the city’s proposal to skim the frosting, pocket the cake, and avoid paying the fair, reasonable, and affordable value of the meal is a hound that will not hunt.” (a quote from a Boston Globe article, May 8, 2010)

Here’s a closer look at two figures of speech that end up mangled quite frequently—similes and metaphors.

Metaphors and similes are often confused. A metaphor is a figure of speech that describes an object by comparing it to another unrelated object.

I am awash in a sea of disbelief that someone given her responsibilities would write so poorly.

A simile is a figure of speech that compares two unlike objects using “like” or “as.”

Under her leadership, our workplace had become like “Animal Farm.”

Here are a few ways metaphors become mangled:

A mixed metaphor makes completely unrelated comparisons and is generally considered bad form.

It’s time to step up to the plate and lay your cards on the table.
I can read him like the back of my book.

Inappropriate analogies—watch out for comparisons that give the wrong mental image.

It sticks out like a sore throat.
People are dying like hotcakes.

Clichés—these metaphors are so commonplace that they’ve lost their power completely. Avoid clichés like the plague.

I failed to read between the lines and fell head over heels resulting in gut-wrenching pain and useless advice from friends about time healing all wounds.

Of course, playful tweaking of metaphors and clichés can enliven your copy. You just have to be clever about it.

Let’s jump off that bridge when we come to it.
He’s a wolf in cheap clothing.
We’re laughing with you and at you.

PR Daily readers—care to share any examples of mangled metaphors?

Laura Hale Brockway is an Austin-based writer and editor. She writes about writing at www.impertinentremarks.com.

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