Academic writing Uncategorized

Academic Writing Issues #6 — Mangling Metaphors

Metaphor is an indispensable tool for the writer.  It carries out an essential function by connecting what you’re talking about with other related issues that the reader already recognizes.  This provides a comparative perspective, which gives a richer context for the issue at hand.  Metaphor also introduces a playful characterization of the issue by making figurative comparisons that are counter-intuitive, finding similarities in things that are apparently opposite.  The result is to provoke the reader’s thinking in ways that straightforward exposition cannot.

Metaphors can — and often do — go disastrously wrong.  Here’s Bryan Garner on the subject:  “Skillful use of metaphor is one of the highest attainments of writing; graceless and even aesthetically offensive use of metaphors is one of the commonest scourges of writing.”  A particular problem, especially for academics, is using a shopworn metaphor that has become a cliché, which has lost all value through overuse.  Cases in point: lens; interrogate; path; bottom line; no stone unturned; weighing the evidence.

In this post, I provide two pieces that speak to the issue of metaphors.  One is a section on the subject from Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage, which provides some great examples of metaphor gone bad.  A second is an extended excerpt from Matt Taibbi’s delightfully vicious takedown of Thomas Friedman’s best-seller, The World Is Flat.


Bryan Garner on Metaphor

METAPHORS. A. Generally. A metaphor is a figure of speech in which one thing is called by the name of something else, or is said to be that other thing. Unlike similes, which use like or as, metaphorical comparisons are implicit—not explicit. Skillful use of metaphor is one of the highest attainments of writing; graceless and even aesthetically offensive use of metaphors is one of the commonest scourges of writing.

Although a graphic phrase often lends both force and compactness to writing, it must seem contextually agreeable. That is, speaking technically, the vehicle of the metaphor (i.e., the literal sense of the metaphorical language) must accord with the tenor of the metaphor (i.e., the ultimate, metaphorical sense), which is to say that the means must fit the end. To illustrate the distinction between the vehicle and the tenor of a metaphor, in the statement that essay is a patchwork quilt without discernible design, the makeup of the essay is the tenor, and the quilt is the vehicle. It is the comparison of the tenor with the vehicle that makes or breaks a metaphor.

A writer would be ill advised, for example, to use rustic metaphors in a discussion of the problems of air pollution, which is essentially a problem of the bigger cities and outlying areas. Doing that mismatches the vehicle with the tenor.

  1. Mixed Metaphors. The most embarrassing problem with metaphors occurs when one metaphor crowds another. It can happen with CLICHÉS—e.g.:
  • “It’s on a day like this that the cream really rises to the crop.” (This mingles the cream rises to the top with the cream of the crop.)
  • “He’s really got his hands cut out for him.” (This mingles he’s got his hands full with he’s got his work cut out for him.)
  • “This will separate the men from the chaff.” (This mingles separate the men from the boys with separate the wheat from the chaff.)
  • “It will take someone willing to pick up the gauntlet and run with it.” (This mingles pick up the gauntlet with pick up the ball and run with it.)
  • “From now on, I am watching everything you do with a fine-toothed comb.” (Watching everything you do isn’t something that can occur with a fine-toothed comb.)

The purpose of an image is to fix the idea in the reader’s or hearer’s mind. If jarringly disparate images appear together, the audience is left confused or sometimes laughing, at the writer’s expense.

The following classic example comes from a speech by Boyle Roche in the Irish Parliament, delivered in about 1790: “Mr. Speaker, I smell a rat. I see him floating in the air. But mark me, sir, I will nip him in the bud.” Perhaps the supreme example of the comic misuse of metaphor occurred in the speech of a scientist who referred to “a virgin field pregnant with possibilities.”

  1. Dormant Metaphors. Dormant metaphors sometimes come alive in contexts in which the user had no intention of reviving them. In the following examples, progeny, outpouring, and behind their backs are dormant metaphors that, in most contexts, don’t suggest their literal meanings. But when they’re used with certain concrete terms, the results can be jarring—e.g.:
  • “This Note examines the doctrine set forth in Roe v. Wade and its progeny.” “Potential Fathers and Abortion,” 55 Brooklyn L. Rev. 1359, 1363 (1990). (Roe v. Wade, of course, legalized abortion.)
  • “The slayings also have generated an outpouring of hand wringing from Canada’s commentators.” Anne Swardson, “In Canada, It Takes Only Two Deaths,” Wash. Post (Nat’l Weekly ed.), 18–24 Apr. 1994, at 17. (Hand-wringing can’t be poured.)
  • “But managers at Hyland Hills have found that, for whatever reasons, more and more young skiers are smoking behind their backs. And they are worried that others are setting a bad example.” Barbara Lloyd, “Ski Area Cracks Down on Smoking,” N.Y. Times, 25 Jan. 1996, at B13. (It’s a fire hazard to smoke behind your back.)

Yet another pitfall for the unwary is the CLICHÉ-metaphor that the writer renders incorrectly, as by writing taxed to the breaking point instead of stretched to the breaking point.

Garner, Bryan. Garner’s Modern American Usage (pp. 534-535). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.


Matt Taibbi on The World Is Flat

Start with the title.

The book’s genesis is a conversation Friedman has with Nandan Nilekani, the CEO of Infosys. Nilekani caually mutters to Friedman: “Tom, the playing field is being leveled.” To you and me, an innocent throwaway phrase–the level playing field being, after all, one of the most oft-repeated stock ideas in the history of human interaction. Not to Friedman. Ten minutes after his talk with Nilekani, he is pitching a tent in his company van on the road back from the Infosys campus in Bangalore:

As I left the Infosys campus that evening along the road back to Bangalore, I kept chewing on that phrase: “The playing field is being leveled.”  What Nandan is saying, I thought, is that the playing field is being flattened… Flattened? Flattened? My God, he’s telling me the world is flat!

This is like three pages into the book, and already the premise is totally fucked. Nilekani said level, not flat. The two concepts are completely different. Level is a qualitative idea that implies equality and competitive balance; flat is a physical, geographic concept that Friedman, remember, is openly contrasting–ironically, as it were–with Columbus’s discovery that the world is round.

Except for one thing. The significance of Columbus’s discovery was that on a round earth, humanity is more interconnected than on a flat one. On a round earth, the two most distant points are closer together than they are on a flat earth. But Friedman is going to spend the next 470 pages turning the “flat world” into a metaphor for global interconnectedness. Furthermore, he is specifically going to use the word round to describe the old, geographically isolated, unconnected world.

“Let me… share with you some of the encounters that led me to conclude that the world is no longer round,” he says. He will literally travel backward in time, against the current of human knowledge.

To recap: Friedman, imagining himself Columbus, journeys toward India. Columbus, he notes, traveled in three ships; Friedman “had Lufthansa business class.” When he reaches India–Bangalore to be specific–he immediately plays golf. His caddy, he notes with interest, wears a cap with the 3M logo. Surrounding the golf course are billboards for Texas Instruments and Pizza Hut. The Pizza Hut billboard reads: “Gigabites of Taste.” Because he sees a Pizza Hut ad on the way to a golf course, something that could never happen in America, Friedman concludes: “No, this definitely wasn’t Kansas.”
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After golf, he meets Nilekani, who casually mentions that the playing field is level. A nothing phrase, but Friedman has traveled all the way around the world to hear it. Man travels to India, plays golf, sees Pizza Hut billboard, listens to Indian CEO mutter small talk, writes 470-page book reversing the course of 2000 years of human thought. That he misattributes his thesis to Nilekani is perfect: Friedman is a person who not only speaks in malapropisms, he also hears malapropisms. Told level; heard flat. This is the intellectual version of Far Out Space Nuts, when NASA repairman Bob Denver sets a whole sitcom in motion by pressing “launch” instead of “lunch” in a space capsule. And once he hits that button, the rocket takes off.

And boy, does it take off. Predictably, Friedman spends the rest of his huge book piling one insane image on top of the other, so that by the end–and I’m not joking here–we are meant to understand that the flat world is a giant ice-cream sundae that is more beef than sizzle, in which everyone can fit his hose into his fire hydrant, and in which most but not all of us are covered with a mostly good special sauce. Moreover, Friedman’s book is the first I have encountered, anywhere, in which the reader needs a calculator to figure the value of the author’s metaphors.

God strike me dead if I’m joking about this. Judge for yourself. After the initial passages of the book, after Nilekani has forgotten Friedman and gone back to interacting with the sane, Friedman begins constructing a monstrous mathematical model of flatness. The baseline argument begins with a lengthy description of the “ten great flatteners,” which is basically a highlight reel of globalization tomahawk dunks from the past two decades: the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the Netscape IPO, the pre-Y2K outsourcing craze, and so on. Everything that would give an IBM human resources director a boner, that’s a flattener. The catch here is that Flattener #10 is new communications technology: “Digital, Mobile, Personal, and Virtual.” These technologies Friedman calls “steroids,” because they are “amplifying and turbocharging all the other flatteners.”

According to the mathematics of the book, if you add an IPac to your offshoring, you go from running to sprinting with gazelles and from eating with lions to devouring with them. Although these 10 flatteners existed already by the time Friedman wrote “The Lexus and the Olive Tree”–a period of time referred to in the book as Globalization 2.0, with Globalization 1.0 beginning with Columbus–they did not come together to bring about Globalization 3.0, the flat world, until the 10 flatteners had, with the help of the steroids, gone through their “Triple Convergence.” The first convergence is the merging of software and hardware to the degree that makes, say, the Konica Minolta Bizhub (the product featured in Friedman’s favorite television commercial) possible. The second convergence came when new technologies combined with new ways of doing business. The third convergence came when the people of certain low-wage industrial countries–India, Russia, China, among others–walked onto the playing field. Thanks to steroids, incidentally, they occasionally are “not just walking” but “jogging and even sprinting” onto the playing field.
Now let’s say that the steroids speed things up by a factor of two. It could be any number, but let’s be conservative and say two. The whole point of the book is to describe the journey from Globalization 2.0 (Friedman’s first bestselling book) to Globalization 3.0 (his current bestselling book). To get from 2.0 to 3.0, you take 10 flatteners, and you have them converge–let’s say this means squaring them, because that seems to be the idea–three times. By now, the flattening factor is about a thousand. Add a few steroids in there, and we’re dealing with a flattening factor somewhere in the several thousands at any given page of the book. We’re talking about a metaphor that mathematically adds up to a four-digit number. If you’re like me, you’re already lost by the time Friedman starts adding to this numerical jumble his very special qualitative descriptive imagery. For instance:

And now the icing on the cake, the ubersteroid that makes it all mobile: wireless. Wireless is what allows you to take everything that has been digitized, made virtual and personal, and do it from anywhere.  Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you a Thomas Friedman metaphor, a set of upside-down antlers with four thousand points: the icing on your uber-steroid-flattener-cake!

Let’s speak Friedmanese for a moment and examine just a few of the notches on these antlers (Friedman, incidentally, measures the flattening of the world in notches, i.e. “The flattening process had to go another notch”; I’m not sure where the notches go in the flat plane, but there they are.) Flattener #1 is actually two flatteners, the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the spread of the Windows operating system. In a Friedman book, the reader naturally seizes up in dread the instant a suggestive word like “Windows” is introduced; you wince, knowing what’s coming, the same way you do when Leslie Nielsen orders a Black Russian. And Friedman doesn’t disappoint. His description of the early 90s:

The walls had fallen down and the Windows had opened, making the world much flatter than it had ever been–but the age of seamless global communication had not yet dawned.
How the fuck do you open a window in a fallen wall? More to the point, why would you open a window in a fallen wall? Or did the walls somehow fall in such a way that they left the windows floating in place to be opened?

Four hundred and 73 pages of this, folks. Is there no God?

© 2012 New York Press All rights reserved.
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