Mixed Metaphor

montage flowing from man's head
"Mixed metaphors are frowned on because they create a confusion instead of a fusion of effects, like the 'Irish bull' about the man who, whenever he opened his mouth, put his foot in it" (Louis Untermeyer, The Pursuit of Poetry).

Carol Del Angel/Getty Images 

A mixed metaphor is a succession of incongruous or ludicrous comparisons. Also known—playfully—as a mixaphor.

Although many style guides condemn the use of mixed metaphors, in practice most of the objectionable combinations (as in the examples below) are actually clichés or dead metaphors.

Mixed Metaphor Examples in Context

There are countless ways to combine metaphors to add emphasis and give phrases new meaning. Reading several examples can help you understand how metaphors can be mixed and for what purposes.

  • "An Apprentice contestant with a love of bizarre business lingo has left Twitter users in fits of laughter after describing a failed task as 'leaving a sour taste in the client's eye.' Contestant Gary Poulton, from Birmingham, also said his team were 'dancing around the bush' in last night's episode, which saw his stint as project manager for Versatile end in failure."(Phoebe Jackson-Edwards, "I'm Not Going to Dance Around the Bush': Apprentice Star's Bizarre Business Jargon Is Mocked on Twitter." Daily Mail [UK], November 26, 2015)
  • "We'll have a lot of new blood holding gavels in Washington."
    (Georgia Congressman Jack Kingston, quoted in the Savannah Morning News, November 3, 2010)
  • "That's awfully thin gruel for the right wing to hang their hats on."
    (MSNBC, September 3, 2009)
  • "Her saucer-eyes narrow to a gimlet stare and she lets Mr. Clarke have it with both barrels."
    (Anne McElvoy, London Evening Standard, September 9, 2009)
  • "I don’t think we should wait until the other shoe drops. History has already shown what is likely to happen. The ball has been down this court before and I can see already the light at the end of the tunnel."
    (Detroit News, quoted in The New Yorker, November 26, 2012)
  • "[Chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben] Bernanke set the standard for muddled metaphors when he parried reporters' questions that day. Certain economic data, he said, 'are guideposts that tell you how we're going to be shifting the mix of our tools as we try to land this ship on a--in a smooth way onto the aircraft carrier.'"
    (Nick Summers, "Lost in Translation." Bloomberg Businessweek, July 8-14, 2013)
  • “I conclude that the city’s proposal to skim the frosting, pocket the cake, and avoid paying the fair, reasonable, and affordable value of the meal is a hound that will not hunt."
    (a labor arbitrator, quoted by the Boston Globe, May 8, 2010)
  • "'Obviously, it's been a very difficult two days for us,' Nelson said. 'We kind of saw the writing on the wall Friday night. It's just apples versus oranges, and it's not a level playing field by any means.'"
    ("Seabury’s Football Team Done for the Season." Lawrence Journal-World, September 22, 2009)
  • "The year began with quarterback Tom Brady tarred, then unchained from a suspension on the heels of cheating allegations in the scandal known as 'Deflategate.'"
    (Associated Press, "Deflating Ending Sends Patriots Into Offseason." Savannah Morning News, January 26, 2016)
  • "Nigel said (using, to my mind, an excessive amount of metaphor), 'You've taken a rare orchid and shut her away in a dark outhouse. You haven't nourished her or paid her enough attention. Is it any wonder that her roots are struggling to survive? Daisy is a trapped bird whose wings have been broken, she is a Fabergé egg that you have boiled for four minutes and eaten for your breakfast.'
    "I stopped him just as he was embarking on a new metaphor to do with Daisy being a submerged volcano."
    (Sue Townsend, Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years. Penguin, 2010)
  • "The committee was tired of stoking public outrage with fortnightly gobbets of scandal. It decided to publish everything it had left, warts and all. Now everyone is tarred with the same ugly brush, and the myth that forever simmers in the public consciousness--that the House shelters 435 parasitic, fat-cat deadbeats--has received another shot of adrenalin."
    (Washington Post, 1992)
  • "I knew enough to realize that the alligators were in the swamp and that it was time to circle the wagons."
    (attributed to Rush Limbaugh)
  • "A lot of success early in life can be a real liability—if you buy into it. Brass rings keep getting suspended higher and higher as you grow older. And when you grab them, they have a way of turning into dust in your hands. Psychologists...have all kinds of words for this, but the women I know seem to experience it as living life with a gun pointed to their heads. Every day brings a new minefield of incipient failure: the too-tight pants, the peeling wallpaper, the unbrilliant career."
    (Judith Warner, The New York Times, April 6, 2007)
  • "There is no man so low that he has in him no spark of manhood, which, if watered by the milk of human kindness, will not burst into flames."
    (quoted by Willard R. Espy in The Game of Words. Grosset & Dunlap, 1972)
  • "Sir, I smell a rat; I see him forming in the air and darkening the sky; but I'll nip him in the bud."
    (attributed to Sir Boyle Roche, 1736-1807)

Should You Use Mixed Metaphors?

Not all scholars agree on whether mixed metaphors help or hurt your writing. Read what some have to say about this controversial literary device.

  • "I am tempted to believe that the indiscriminate condemnation of mixed metaphors arises more often from pedantry than from common sense."
    (Edward Everett Hale, Jr. Constructive Rhetoric, 1896)
  • "[T]o the fertile mind that thinks up a series of comparisons one gives admiration--and defense against those who misunderstand the ban on mixed metaphors."
    (Wilson Follett and Erik Wensberg, Modern American Usage, rev. ed. Macmillan, 1998)
  • "What is called mixed metaphor...is the coming into consciousness of a mixing that goes on all the time, a consciousness that offends our sensibilities because it 'calls attention to the device' and perhaps might reveal the inexplicable bases of our worldview."
    (Dale Pesman, "Some Expectations of Coherence in Culture Implied by the Prohibition of Mixed Metaphor." Beyond Metaphor: The Theory of Tropes in Anthropology. Stanford University Press, 1991)
  • "Mixed metaphors may be stylistically objectionable, but I cannot see that they are necessarily logically incoherent. Of course, most metaphors do occur in contexts of expressions used literally. It would be very hard to understand them if they did not. But it is not a logical necessity that every metaphorical use of an expression occurs surrounded by literal occurrences of other expressions and, indeed, many famous examples of metaphor are not."
    (Mark Johnson, Philosophical Perspectives on Metaphor. University of Minnesota Press, 1981)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Mixed Metaphor." ThoughtCo, Mar. 3, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-mixed-metaphor-1691395. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, March 3). Mixed Metaphor. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-mixed-metaphor-1691395 Nordquist, Richard. "Mixed Metaphor." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-mixed-metaphor-1691395 (accessed March 21, 2023).