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In Praise of Mixed Metaphors

We're taught not to use them, but are they really so bad?

Key points

  • Mixed metaphors create comparisons between unrelated domains.
  • Such comparisons can be bizarre or unintentionally humorous.
  • When used with care, mixed metaphors can be eloquent and memorable.
Source: iStock; Matthew Barra/Pexels
Can ships and street signs ever mix?
Source: iStock; Matthew Barra/Pexels

English composition instructors tend to have strong opinions about how the language should be written. You may have been taught, for example, not to end a sentence with a preposition. Or that you shouldn’t write “nauseous” when you mean “nauseated.” Or that you should make use of “fewer” instead of “less” in certain contexts.

Some of the more pointless prohibitions appear to have been vanquished. A good example is the rule about not splitting infinitives. Only pedants seem to care about this anymore, and Captains Kirk and Picard should feel free “to boldly go” instead of going boldly where no one has gone before.

But other admonitions seem to have real staying power. One is that a careful writer should avoid using mixed metaphors. But what does that even mean?

Metaphors map attributes from one domain onto another. Consider the metaphor “The sermon was a sleeping pill.” Attributes of sleeping pills, such as causing drowsiness, spring readily to mind. And these can be easily mapped onto the subject of the sentence. In this case, the result is a less-than-flattering critique of someone’s oration.

Mixing Metaphors

Mixed metaphors go a step further than this by involving two (or more) such mappings. The danger is that the domains in question may not play well together. A good example is attributed to Craig Bellamy, a rugby coach who was grumbling about an acquaintance (Sullivan): He’s gone behind my back, right in front of my face!

Clearly, the coach’s nemesis can’t be behind and in front of him at the same time, and these are the sorts of constructions that give mixed metaphors a bad name.

One doesn’t have to look far to find examples of mixed metaphor prejudice. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage describes the use of mixed metaphors as “always inviting derision." Strunk and White’s venerable Elements of Style warns that “When you use metaphor, do not mix it up. That is, don’t start by calling something a swordfish and end by calling it an hourglass." And Bryan Garner opines that “If jarringly disparate images appear together, the audience is left confused, or sometimes laughing, at the writer’s expense."

Mixed Metaphors and Political Speech

On the other hand, politicians seem to be fond of the form and are happy to mix metaphors in their stump speeches. During one of his campaigns, candidate Ronald Reagan is said to have uttered the following warning: The ship of state is sailing the wrong way down a one-way street. The image generated by his admonition is attention-grabbing and arresting. It certainly conjures a mental picture that involves “jarringly disparate images,” as Garner put it. Reagan could simply have said that the U.S. government was dysfunctional. But the mixed metaphor he employed instead made the observation both striking and memorable.

Cognitive scientist Michael Kimmel has shown that mixed metaphors account for the majority of metaphoric clusters found in a large sample drawn from British newspapers. In stark contrast to claims appearing in style guides, “almost all of these [mixed metaphors] were straightforwardly comprehensible” (Kimmel, 2010). And in a book published last month, Othman Khalid Al-Shboul reported that U.S. politicians tend to make use of mixed metaphors when talking about climate change—apparently because such constructions are both powerful and effective (Al-Shboul, 2023).

Mixed Metaphors, Good and Bad

William Shakespeare was fond of mixed metaphors. They can be found in several of his most famous soliloquies, as in Hamlet (Act 3, Scene 1): Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them.

But it would be a mistake to conclude that such clashes always work out. At the other extreme, we have 18th-century politician Richard Boyle, in a memorable address to the Irish Parliament: Mr. Speaker, I smell a rat. I see him floating in the air. But mark me, sir, I will nip him in the bud (Garner, pp. 590-591).

Few of us can write like Shakespeare, but it seems reasonable to hope that we can mix our metaphors better than Sir Richard did.


Al-Shboul, O. K. (2023). The politics of climate change metaphors in the U.S. discourse. Palgrave Macmillan.

Butterfield, J. (Ed.). (2015). Fowler's dictionary of modern English usage. Oxford University Press.

Garner, B. (2016). Garner's modern English usage. Oxford University Press.

Kimmel, M. (2010). Why we mix metaphors (and mix them well): Discourse coherence, conceptual metaphor, and beyond. Journal of Pragmatics, 42 (1), 97-115.

Strunk, W., & White, E. B. (2000). The elements of style (4th edition). New York: Longman.

Sullivan, K. (2018). Mixed metaphors: Their use and abuse. Bloomsbury Publishing.

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