Beware of Detonating Cliffs

I haven’t posted any humorous nonsense in some time, so today just a very quick post (more coming soon, including a couple good ones requested by readers).

This week’s winner of the worst mixed metaphor award (or is it really the “best” mixed metaphor award?) goes to Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at BMO Private Bank. In a Reuters article on the “fiscal cliff” in the US, Mr. Ablin was quoted as saying:

“While there’s little that the president and vice president could do, we still believe a legislative compromise will be reached before ‘fiscal cliff’ detonates.”

Yeah. You’ve got to watch out for those fiscal cliffs. Just when you think you’re going to fall over one, it goes and explodes all over you instead.

To review (or to enlighten, if you’re not familiar with the concept of metaphor and mixed metaphor): a metaphor is when you describe one thing in terms of something else. For example in this case, what is actually a spending and taxation issue (or a budget and a debt issue, if you like) is being described as a physical cliff, a real and dangerous precipice. While metaphors can describe one physical object in terms of another (“her hair was a mass of red flame”), they’re also very effective in describing abstract ideas (a financial crisis) using physical terms.

If you’re wondering how a metaphor differs from a simile, it’s the use of direct language instead of like or as. The fiscal crisis is a cliff, not the fiscal crisis is like a cliff; her hair was crimson fire, not her hair blew as if tongues of fire danced across her scalp.

A mixed metaphor happens when the metaphor breaks down, typically because an object or idea is described as too many (often contradictory) things at once, frequently because multiple metaphors are applied at the same time. In our examples, the fiscal cliff (we’ve started out using the ‘cliff’ metaphor) is going to detonate (‘hey, what?: now it’s a powder keg? a volcano? how did our cliff transform in mid sentence? are we falling over something or being blown up?’). If I wrote that “her hair was red flame, smothering her head,” that would also be a problematic mixed metaphor. An alert reader is going to say ‘wait a minute, flames burn and flare – smothering is the opposite; I’m confused: what does this writer want to say, and want me to take from this sentence? fiery energy or something being smothered out?’

Both examples show how mixed metaphors undermine clarity. Most anything that breaks the flow and makes the reader stop to ponder exactly what an author is trying to say is a bad idea. It’s careless writing.

While the detonating cliff doesn’t rise to the level of some of the truly comical mixed metaphors in English (“it’s not rocket surgery,” “it was a virgin field, pregnant with possibilities”), it’s still pretty awful. This is definitely the kind of thing you need to check your writing for.

We should be very forgiving of Mr. Ablin, and mean no offense by using the quote as an example. It’s the kind of thing most any of us could slip up on and say aloud. But if he’d written that in a press release, we should show no mercy.

Now — where was that post I was writing about “pretty awful” oxymorons? We’ve really got to talk about the concepts of “in-person absentee voting” and “permanent temporary workers” soon…


About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
This entry was posted in Culture, Language, Things you should know, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Beware of Detonating Cliffs

  1. atarunomiko says:

    Without taking cheap shots at anyone named Paris Hilton or Kardashian (ahem), someone or something certainly can be pretty and awful at the same time. ;P

    Now, pretty ugly, on the other hand, is a question for another day. 🙂

  2. Pingback: If your eyes are on the ground, where did you put your boots? | thebettereditor

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