Mixed metaphors

in-nuce.com mixed metaphors

When metaphors from different subjects are combined incongruously, the result is a “mixed metaphor”.

Mixed metaphors

From English Composition and Rhetoric, by Alexander Bain, and The King's English, by Henry Fowler:

I. A metaphor should be consistent throughout.

It requires more thought and imagination to understand a metaphor than a simile in which the comparison is expressed more clearly.
A. to kindle a seed
We may sow a seed or kindle a flame, but cannot “kindle a seed.”
B. to take arms against a sea of troubles
We may take arms against a foe, or find ourselves in a sea of troubles, but the mental image of taking arms against a sea is confusing.
C. I bridle in my struggling muse with pain,
   That longs to launch into a bolder strain.
The above has often been quoted from Addison’s poem on the victories of Marlborough as an example of a mixed metaphor. In it, the muse is first likened to a horse, and then to a ship.


II. A mixture of the metaphorical and the literal is also objectionable.

Boyle was the father of chemistry (metaphorical)
and brother to the Earl of Cork. (literal)


III. When words have lost their metaphorical meaning, the incongruity is no longer felt.

The original meaning of most words can be traced back to something physical.
A. There are, therefore, many words that have ceased to be metaphors, but still so far suggest their original meaning as to give the sense of harmony when the figure is attended to.
We say use means, and take steps, but not use steps.
B. One may acquire knowledge, take degrees, contract habits, lay up treasure, obtain rewards, win prizes, gain celebrity, arrive at honors, conduct affairs, espouse a side, interpose authority, pursue a course, turn to account, serve for a warning, bear no malice, profess principles, cultivate acquaintance, pass over in silence. All these expressions owe their suitability not to the original sense of the words, but to the established usages of the language.


IV. Confusion can only exist between metaphors that are grammatically inseparable.

A. No amount of punctuation can save the following:
I smell a rat
I see him hovering in the air,
and I will nip him in the bud.
Him is inseparable from the later metaphors and refers to the rat.
B. But there is no confusion in the following passages:
This happy breed of men, this little world...

This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings...

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England...
Any one of the metaphors may be removed without affecting the grammar.

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