Category Archives: mixed metaphor

A summer gift for all those who correct English papers…

I just revisited a site recommended by a friend awhile ago. The first time I read this post I was reduced to tears. This time I was successfully brought to that state of euphoria that follows true hysteria. So today, a reblog of a piece by Debby Thompson published on the blog “Timothy McSweeney’s.” Enjoy!


“Every night she would tell the king a story and…”

My student was writing on the great Middle Eastern framed collection of tales One Thousand and One Nights (commonly in English “The Arabian Nights”). Drawn from many cultures over centuries, and still accruing additions (“Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” “The Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor,” and “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp,” probably authentic Middle Eastern tales, were added to the Nights by European translators in the 19th century), it is a wonderful work.

You know the frame: the Persian king Shahryar, sickened by his wives’ infidelity, vows to marry a new wife every day, bed her, and kill her the next morning before she has the chance to cheat on him. Scheherazade, the daughter of his vizier, insists on becoming the next wife; the vizier reluctantly consents. (She hopes to teach the king the error of his ways and, incidentally, save all the other women in the kingdom.) She asks to bring her sister with her to the bridal chamber, and after the king has consummated his marriage the sister asks Scheherazade to tell a story. The rest is, as they say, history: dawn breaks before the story can be finished; and the king, like all of us needing to know how it comes out, lets her live. But the next night, the story’s ending slips into the beginning of another story…

My students love this work. But something besides the sister slipped into this one particular student’s summary:

“Every night she would tell the king a story and leave off on a cliff note.”

Those of us old enough, or addicted enough to “old movies,” to have seen The Perils of Pauline and its ilk know the expression is “cliff-hanger.” Even some children’s cartoons and Wild West tales and the occasional spy movie have benefited from the suspense of that lone figure hanging from his or her fingertips over some abyss or other, the potential rescuer galloping/driving/flying frantically, the audience wondering “will he be in time?”

The breaks in One Thousand and One Nights can’t really be called cliff-hangers. Yes, sometimes there’s peril. But peril isn’t the constant here: it’s fascination. The stories have many complications, and the reader can’t wait to see how those complications can possibly be resolved.

But my student didn’t say “cliff-hanger.” He said “cliff note.”

And most of us know what’s lodged in that mind, don’t we? Cliff’s Notes! I will offer a link to the Wikipedia page for Cliff’s Notes, conscious that this time Wikipedia IS an appropriate source.

The iconic cover. Perhaps the Catcher can rescue the story stuck on a cliff note?

The iconic cover. Perhaps the Catcher can rescue the story stuck on a cliff note?

Today’s student is more likely, I’m told, to turn to Spark Notes, the rival “study guides” initiated by four Harvard undergrads to tap the market created by that one Nebraska publisher’s employee. But Cliff’s is still around. What’s more, “Cliff’s Notes” has entered our lexicon as a way of saying “simplistic short form” of something more complicated and lengthy, or simply “cheat sheet.” Every teacher knows that these publications, whether or not serious about being “supplementary” to reading the original works, are for many students the substitute for being actually prepared, or actually familiar with the experience of a text.

My student should have written “and stop midway, leaving the king hanging” or “leaving the story hanging.” “Hanging” was evidently linked with “cliff” somewhere in the recesses of his mind, but once he came up with “cliff” the word that followed naturally was “notes.” That was the much more strongly imprinted phrase. Alas.

The great irony, the second level of delight in this error, is that if Scheherazade had actually used Cliff’s Notes her first story would have been done in a trice, and she would have been a goner at sunrise.

Verbum sap.

P.S. I’ll be away from the computer for a few days. Read something!


“Poe had his readers’ sweaty hearts racing with his famous words, ‘Nevermore.'”

I’m not sure whether my student is trying to convey genuine enthusiasm or imitating that hearty voice that used to be the voice-over for the opening of The Lone Ranger. Either way, she is doing her best to ramp up the passion of the sentence. Those racing hearts, those famous words, the sonorousness of the final word as the emotion drops to despair….

Actually Edgar Allen Poe sometimes does have my heart racing. All the exclamation marks and dashes as the narrator insists on his sanity to the accelerating heartbeat under the sentences in “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The blind groping in the perilous darkness as the scythe-blade  swings closer and the walls push inexorably toward the fetid abyss in “The Pit and the Pendulum.” My startled realization that the “you” in “The Cask of Amontillado” is not a narrative convention, but an actual inclusion of me as a character, the aging murderer’s confessor, in the story.

Certainly the speaker’s heart has its racing moments, too, in Poe’s poetic triumph of rhythm, sound, and sensibility, “The Raven.” I’m not sure the reader’s heart follows suit, though: the refrain “Nevermore” is a long hollow fall rather than a shrilly climbing scream.

Nevertheless, a racing heart is what my student wants to point out. I hope her heart did race. And that must have been quite a race, too, to leave the heart all sweaty. Or perhaps the heart is always sweaty: the sentence is unclear as to that.

Did I miss something back there in Anatomy class?

The image is really almost too much. The reader of this sentence must, I think, take a moment to quell the rising laughter that accompanies the vision of a sweaty heart.

And the quelling is only momentary. Why in the sweet world did she put that “s” on “word”? Yes, the worD is famous. Poe’s own essay “The Philosophy of Composition” traces the intellectual process by which he crafted this poem, and puts special emphasis on his reasons for choosing the worD “Nevermore.” I’m glad my student responded to it. But she herself typed the worD correctly: “Nevermore.” Had she mistaken the line and transcribed it as ending “Never more,” she would have been talking about more than one word. She makes no such error, though.

Perhaps her sweaty heart dripped onto her typing fingers and caused them to slip onto the “s” unbeknownst to her.

Language is conceptual and often pictorial. Many of my students are blind to the pictures. A heart completing its first 10K race, flushed with pride and heat, dripping with sweat, its little undershirt soaked…didn’t she see the picture she evoked in her sentence?

Probably not. A student who actually capitalizes on the pictorial quality of language is a rare bird indeed nowadays, rarer than a talking raven sitting on a bust of Pallas.

For instance, on quite a fundamental level: If you read a lot of writing by younger people, you will wonder where the phrase “based on” has disappeared to. My students say, and write, “based around” and “based off of.” I bring in a little statue and a block of wood, identify the wood as a “base” for the statue, and then put the statue next to the block. They know that’s wrong. Presumably they know that a runner who is “off of” the base in a game of baseball is vulnerable to being tagged out, and they have not seen many base-runners run rings around the bases rather than actually step on them either. Yet even after my little object lesson (yes, I tried it this year, in frustration), my students continued to “base” interpretations, conclusions, and plans “off of” or “around” observations and data. This supposedly visually-oriented generation has no mind’s eye.

And I’m afraid they’re not going to develop one.

“Villain!” cried I, “thoughtless student, can you not be wise and prudent,

Standing things upon their bases as they stood in days of yore?”

Quoth the student, “Nevermore.”

(In a word.)

Ah, well. After all, she seems to have liked the poem. It seems to have stirred enthusiasm in her. So I have to say this: Bless her sweaty heart.

“Parents always stretch an extra limb for their children.”

I know already that when I check the “categories” boxes for this I’ll be checking “Your guess is as good as mine.”

I can imagine parents stretching out a helping hand for their children. I can see them going the extra mile. I know they will risk life and limb.

My student’s bizarre image may be an amalgam of these: the stretch, the extra, the limb…

But what I see is a tree-like parent sprouting a new branch that then grows and grows, out in the direction of the children, eventually reaching them. Perhaps then they clamber up onto the branch to swing, or climb, or read a book. I don’t know if I find this idea sweet or creepy. Certainly it’s a creepy picture. And if the parents always do this, they must develop quite a thick and tangled maze of branches before the kids finally move out of the house in search of other, younger limbs.

This picture is less bizarre than the other one I get, parents producing extra arms and legs, those limbs elongating themselves…. Would this stretching be done “for” the children’s assistance, “for” their comfort, or “for” their amusement? My student does not say. For their sakes, I guess.

I believe that if my niece needed some extraordinary kind of help, my sister and brother-in-law would find a way to generate an extra limb if that’s what it took. This is parental love.

And I know my student meant to describe just that kind of love.

However creepy (or just bizarre) the picture she created, it certainly beats the hell out of what most of my students say their parents will do for them: “be there for them.” Cold-hearted, I always write “where?” in the margin. I know what this expression is meant to mean, too; I’m just sick of it. Talk about wishy-washy sentimentality. I can’t steel myself to be so cruel as to write that in the margin; I’ll have to let the writers live long enough to read the phrase a thousand times or two, at which point they’ll realize that its meaning resides only in the writer’s mind (or soul), doesn’t make the trip onto the page where the reader can see it. And then they’ll stop writing it.

Meanwhile, I’ll prefer the image of that extra parental limb, stretching, endlessly stretching….

“The reigns of society fence Hedda in.”

Is it because so few people, at least in the Northeast, ride horses? Or do students picture monarchs controlling their kingdoms as coachmen control their teams? Or are “reins” and “reigns” both so uncommon in daily usage that all readers actually retain about either of them is “weird spelling!”?

I know there’s reading involved, because I never get “rain” for “rein” or “reign.” But it’s inattentive reading, certainly, or I would see the correct spelling choice more often. The fact is, Queen Elizabeth reins and the rider pulls back on the reigns almost every time.

Arguably my student meant that society is a kind of ruler, customs and mores reigning over us humble creatures, governing our impulses, taxing our happiness, punishing our deviations from the acceptable norm. If he had meant that, though, I’d think, he’d have written about society’s “reign,” not “reigns.”

But if he had meant “reins,” surely he wouldn’t have tried to build a fence out of them. I’m told that some animals will treat a single wire or cord strung between fence posts as if it were an impenetrable barrier, but I don’t think Hedda Gabler—high-spirited Hedda, willful Hedda—was one such creature.

And I’m not a rider but I’d guess that conventional reins are much too short to fence anybody in, string them as you will.

Nevertheless, by means of a bad vocabulary/spelling choice and a mixed metaphor, there she sits, trapped in a kind of cat’s-cradle suspended between the domineering fingers of society. You can’t really blame her for blowing her brains out.

Picture Hedda in the middle! Do these reins reign?
Image from

“It left my blood boiled in cold water.”

Another student trying to express extreme emotion.

It’s a hard thing to do. I’ve been reading and listening today as people try to put their reactions to the latest senseless slaughter into words; I’ve been trying to express my own reactions too. Our vocabulary of horror and outrage is too small, and our culture has exploited it too often to hype fairly trivial things; language is less adequate than ever. (When we hear this kind of exchange every day—”Is there any ketchup?” “Yeah, here.” “Awesome”—how to describe the Grand Canyon, a major tornado, or God? When passing a healthcare bill is equated with the Holocaust, how can we think about the real Holocaust? When someone beholds a redecorated rec room and says “Oh My GOD!” how will she react to something worthy of such a powerful invocation?)

I don’t remember what event or literary situation or vision occasioned this student’s effort at strong language, but for a reader like me he achieved exactly the opposite of what he was trying for: he got helpless laughter.

Of course I knew what he meant. He was reaching into his brain for a figure of speech and accidentally grabbed parts of two, rather than one intact one. “It made my blood boil”—I was filled with rage.  “It made my blood run cold”—I was filled with a chilling horror.  He jams those two opposite figures of speech into one impossibility: a boiling coldness. The discordia concors, or paradox, so popular with Renaissance poets (“That is hot ice and wondrous strange snow. How shall we find the concord of this discord?” asks Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) that the lover simultaneously freezes and burns with passion is seemingly invoked here. “I freeze, I burn,” indeed.

But that isn’t actually what he’s saying. He’s saying that his blood was boiled in cold water. Sort of the opposite of the frozen dinners that come in pouches, ready for immersion in boiling water to become a delectable treat: here perhaps the blood is in a bag and, by some miracle, immersed in cold water in order to boil. Maybe the water has some dry ice in it and will bubble and steam?

No, this would not have worked in my physics lab when I was a student, and it really doesn’t work on my student’s paper now.

I can certainly sympathize with his effort to express, his inability to express, an emotion—rage, most likely, not love!—that has filled him and shaken him. I celebrate his ability to feel emotion so strongly.

And I also sympathize that his teacher was ultimately unable to approve the wording as well as the emotion. Still, there it is.

“The death of her husband is what is hanging over her head…”

Poor woman, death hanging over her head. My student doesn’t reveal whether it’s hanging over her in the form of guilt or grief, but there it is.

But wait, as a beginning violin student once said during his performance at a junior high concert as he turned the page: there’s more!

“The death of her husband is what is hanging over her head and dragging behind her.”

The sentence begins as wordy and awkward, with that “is what is” vitiating its energy and its point by needlessly complicating its structure, injecting two verbs of being and a relative pronoun, not generally considered sources of interest.

And then we come to the complete image-blindness of the writer. I can see that death hanging over her head, like the black cloud that hovered over good old Joe Btfsplk in Al Capp’s glory days (if you want to see Joe, click the link and it will take you to his entry in Wikipedia). Actually, if someone were to draw my student’s whole image, I’d prefer James Thurber over Al Capp; those vague giant forms he sometimes created would exactly do the trick for me. (See, for example, “House and Woman,” which a  New York Times blogger has used effectively albeit out of context here.)

Thurber’s ghosts and monstrous women and other ha’nts are also amoebic enough to accomplish both images at once: hanging over her head and dragging behind her (like Marley’s chains, or like Polonius once Hamlet has made “guts” of him?). Is the death of her husband darkening the air, threatening to fall and crush her or rain all over her, or holding her back at every step and leaving a viscous trail behind?

By guilt or grief, this husband’s death is making life pretty hard for his widow. “Beset” wouldn’t begin to describe her.…

“Mixed metaphor” is the name of this game. It doesn’t do much for the reader who seeks to comprehend the writer’s actual thought, but it does a lot for the one who’s looking for a good laugh in a swamp of murky prose.


“Our government uses these situations to get their foot in the door…”

Is “government” singular or plural? If we lived in Great Britain we might have more flexibility, since there are nouns that look singular but are grammatically plural because of their meaning; in the U.S. we can cavort a bit, having some nouns that are singular in form but are singular or plural for the verbs’ sake depending on the unity or disunity of their component parts, “jury” being one of note. But in the U.S., “government” can’t be plural—not even the government we’ve got now, regardless of appearances. And my student intended “government” to be singular: note the singular verb. Well, maybe “intended” isn’t what I mean; perhaps I should say my student had readily internalized the -s form of the verb to follow “government”: government is, government has, government says, government wants, etc.

But then we come to the crisis of the pronoun. In this case my student cannot use the explanation, or excuse, that she couldn’t say “he” without excluding the women: no one I know has ever substituted “he” OR “she” for “government.” “It,” the proper choice here, carries no gender issues. But maybe my student was rightly uneasy about picturing a “thing” in the place of government—surely government is a human institution, not a thing. The only other explanation, of course, is that the student didn’t think about the pronoun at all, but just wrote “their” because, to many in the rising generations, “they” is the ONLY pronoun. For people, don’t use pronouns at all: just use their names, over and over. “Jane is worried because Jane can’t convince Robert that Robert shouldn’t quit Robert’s job, and if Robert quit, that would mean that Jane and Robert would have to live on Jane’s salary.” Okay, I just made that one up. But truly, I do get whole paragraphs that use maybe two personal pronouns, the writers obsessively repeating and repeating and repeating the noun instead.

Meanwhile, of course, this plural entity hops around on only one foot, which it inserts in doorways like the Fuller Brush Man.

Not much of a blooper to devote a blog post to, eh? Okay, here’s the whole thing, and you’ll see that the government is NOT the Fuller Brush Man, having a more challenging use for that foot:

“Our government uses these situations to get their foot in the door and open Pandora’s box.”

Love it?

When I was in junior high, the grammar textbook was called “Warriner’s.” I’m sure the title was longer, but everyone including the teacher referred to it as Warriner’s. That was back in the days when textbook designers spent very little time making the pages look inviting, or “fun.” Most of the illustrations in Warriner’s were diagrams of sentences. But on one page of the arid desert of print was a sudden cartoon—refreshingly, set in the ocean. A raft floated on the waves, and on that raft stood a boy scratching his head (question mark in the air above) and looking at a signpost on the raft, one of those intersection signs with arrows pointing in different directions. The caption: “He came to a crossroads in the sea of life.” The lesson? Mixed metaphors. I loved that boy. I loved the fact that he had somehow found himself floating on a raft in the middle of the sea. I loved that the raft had a road sign. I loved his quizzical expression. Most of all, of course, I loved finding a cartoon in my textbook—the same delight I experienced in my college physics class when I saw the Cousin Itt cartoon among the formulae and diagrams in my text.

And my student here is mixing her metaphors. As a result, I long for the kindly cartoonist—if only Chas Addams were still alive!—who would draw for me a government-type guy (census-taker is probably the right image, but Uncle Sam might be a cute choice too) standing at a door, a housewifely Pandora (“call me Dory, dearie” she might tell her friends) leaning on the inside of the door trying to shut it. Mr. Government has inserted his right foot (okay, I’ll grant him two feet; and the choice of right foot is determined only by the design of most front doors, not politics!), the leg of which is preternaturally long and flexible, through the small gap. Behind Dory on the floor sits a box, and Mr. Government is using his foot (shod? bare, toes eagerly flexing?) to pry open that box. Mwah-ha-hah!

I can’t quite figure out why the government would want to open Pandora’s Box. We do hear politicians warn from time to time that various proposed legislative acts might, or would, open Pandora’s Box, but such warnings are meant to deter, not encourage. That box was full of all the ills of the world. Lurking at the bottom, we’re told, was Hope (can’t be totally negative here!), but I’d hate to think that the only way to acquire hope was to let all hell break loose first.

My student clearly is critical of such tactics, as should we all be. I wish I could remember what kinds of situations she believed the government “uses” to set up the door/box scenario, but the image so completely filled my mind that there was no room left for contexts.