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Block that metaphor

Writers are not necessarily the best judges of their own work.

Nowhere do lapses in judgment become more apparent than in the use of metaphor. Everyone prefers vivid writing, and everyone knows that literary tropes can be wielded effectively to sharpen a point or illuminate a concept. But it is very easy to go awry.

Dead metaphors, for example, can be particularly treacherous. The language is full of expressions that were originally metaphoric but have been worn so smooth by repetition that they go unrecognized as such. That is why free rein, a metaphor from horseback riding, often turns up as free reign.

Failure to associate a stock expression with its original sense can lead to jarring incongruities, such as this one:

They’ll be shaking and rattling, rocking and rolling, but it will all be for a good cause as the annual [Placename] radiothon for cerebral palsy kicks into high gear.

Excessive enthusiasm for metaphor, combined with inattention, yields mixed metaphors, as in this opening paragraph to a business story:

The world’s largest spice producer, insulated by an armor of takeover safeguards adopted this summer, is sitting comfortably on the sidelines awaiting the fallout from the takeover free-for-all embroiling the nation’s food industry.

Let’s do a metaphor census. The world’s largest spice producer:

1. Wears armor.

2. Sits down.

3. At an athletic competition (sidelines).

4. Exposed to nuclear radiation (fallout).

5. During a street brawl (free-for-all).

If you are a typical reader, you are so distracted by this piling-up of inconsistent images that you have no idea what the meaning of the sentence is. If you as a writer want to use a metaphor, hit it once, briefly, and move on.

Finally, there is the metaphor that is grotesquely inappropriate:

If [Firstname Lastname] wanted to walk from the chocolate shop where she works to grab coffee at a McDonald’s in [Placename], she would have to cross a 10-foot-wide drainage ditch, four lanes of traffic, a median strip, then four more lanes of cars. So she drives instead.

But like well-fed thighs stuffed into too-tight pants, the road needs room to spread.

The author stubbornly insisted on retaining the simile when the copy editor questioned it. After all, it was a product of the writer’s imagination and originality; the copy desk was once again trying to drain the life from the story. And the assigning editor sided with the author. (Too often the assigning editor, rather than serving as an editor for the writer, acts as a lobbyist for the writer.)

In this case, I jumped a couple of layers of authority and went straight to the editor of the newspaper, who, after uttering a sentence even more offensive than the one in the article, ordered the passage excised.

Two pieces of advice:

1. Visualize what a depiction of your metaphor would look like. Is that what you want?

2. Get yourself an editor — or someone you trust to be both knowledgeable and honest — to tell you what works and what doesn’t. Follow the advice.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:51 AM | | Comments (8)
        

Comments

"That is why free rein, a metaphor from horseback riding, often turns up as free reign."

If you have not seen it already, there is an entertaining website devoted to this type of malapropism. The folks at Language Log call these confusions "eggcorns," after a word that some people seem to use instead of "acorns."

See http://eggcorns.lascribe.net

I tend to attribute the free rein/free reign thing to the general decline in spelling ability in the populace (or at least on the internet).

Don't miss "First, Kill All the Editors!" in today's NY Times book blog "Paper Cuts." It includes a great quote from Kingsley Amis. He didn't make mistakes with metaphor, but said that the editor " prowls through your copy like an overzealous gardener with a pruning hook," etc. And of course this supports your feeling about the gap between writers and their editors...

Hal,


In what universe does the rein/reign distinction indicate the decline of spelling (and civilization, etc.)? Presumably the writer means to write "reign" and is not merely misspelling "rein"--as with a few other lucky eggcorns, both terms make sense (more than, say, "free rain"). Even if they were misspelling "rein," come on. Is this sort of mistake a modern phenomenon?

Also, John: I agree with you, but switch the placement of "necessarily" and "not" in your first sentence, and I think you've summed up the whole conflict.

In what universe does the rein/reign distinction indicate the decline of spelling (and civilization, etc.)?

The universe where so many "writers" on the internet are loosing things that they meant to lose.

Presumably the writer means to write "reign" and is not merely misspelling "rein"--as with a few other lucky eggcorns, both terms make sense

I don't claim to be an expert, but I fail to see how free reign would make sense. At best it seems redundant.

I think that as most people nowadays are unfamiliar with horses, horse riding, and all the tackle involved, "free reign" seems more immediately sensible than "free rein". It's the idea of someone being given "freedom to reign as they wish". Unless you are familiar with horses (or research the idiom), it would never occur to you to associate the kind of lack of restriction being described with horses.

But someone soon will come up with a justification for "free rain".

"The world’s largest spice producer, insulated by an armor of takeover safeguards adopted this summer, is sitting comfortably on the sidelines awaiting the fallout from the takeover free-for-all embroiling the nation’s food industry."

You missed a couple of metaphors in your census: "insulated" and "embroiling" -- both of which only add to the chaos, of course.

Well, but ... Maryland roadway sprawl is exactly like big fat thighs in skinny-legged pants.

It's seemingly unstoppable; it's ugly; it's a consequence of bad decisions; it's symptomatic of ill health (in our planning endeavors in the state).

Many of the eateries along the roads have menus that lead directly to large-osity (a word I just coined in order to avoid being reprimanded for using the more correct term "morbidly obese"), so there's a connection there.

It's that ugly and unpleasant, but so many people have looked at it so long they've tuned it out. At the risk of sounding dopey, I'm with the writer on this one.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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