Common Usage Dilemmas

Mixed Metaphors: A Dollar Late and a Day Short

Figures of speech use words for more than their literal meaning. There are a number of different kinds of figures of speech, including hyperbole, understatement, personification, analogies, similes, and metaphors. Today, class, our focus is on the metaphor.

A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two unlike things. The more familiar thing helps describe the less familiar one. Unlike their first cousins, similes, metaphors do not use the words like or as to make the comparison. “My heart is a singing bird” is an example of a metaphor.

As you can tell from the preceding definition, metaphors are innocent creatures that never did harm to anyone. That being the case, how can we explain this abomination:

You Could Look It Up

A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two unlike things. The more familiar thing helps describe the less familiar one.

Like the title of this section, this passage is a mixed metaphor, a combination of images that do not work well together. It's like that old joke: “Keep your eye on the ball, your ear to the ground, your nose to the grindstone, your shoulder to the wheel: Now try to work in that position.” Here are some other mixed metaphors:

You Could Look It Up

A mixed metaphor is a combination of images that do not work well together.

Strictly Speaking

Mixed metaphors occur when writers string together clichés. Don't string together clichés and you won't get mixed metaphors.

Like all comparisons, metaphors must contain elements that can be compared logically—even if not explicitly. The comparison must be consistent as well. Like my sister zooming to the sweaters at a department store super sale, stay focused on a single element when you create metaphors. Otherwise, you risk creating the dreaded mixed metaphor. Don't mix your drinks or your metaphors and you'll go far.

Here are two more suggestions to help you keep your metaphors straight:

book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Grammar and Style © 2003 by Laurie E. Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website or call 1-800-253-6476. You can also purchase this book at and Barnes & Noble.


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