Fraser: Um. "Cries of ecstasy burst from me as the fire had branded the depths of my soul with a love that could never be quenched. I gifted him with a treasure of gold and time; he gifted me with his love.
Vecchio: I'm no English major, but that stuff is so purple I'm getting diabetes.
Fraser: You just mixed a metaphor, Ray.
Vecchio: Yeah, well I said I was no English major.
(Due South, "Some Like It Red")
As usual, Fraser is correct. Of course his grandparents were librarians, and one imagines that long winter nights in the remote Northwest Territories he swallowed grammar books whole.
Did you see what I did there? Books are generally consumed with eyes—it's food that is consumed by swallowing; but by using an eating metaphor for reading, I've painted a picture of young Fraser "hungry" for knowledge. Oh, look, I've done it again! I didn't actually take a paintbrush and create a graphic representation to show you; I represented Fraser in words instead.
According to the Oxford American Dictionary, a metaphor is:
- a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable
- a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else, esp. something abstract
A metaphor includes a ground, which is the thing you are trying to describe, and the figure, the nonliteral image you are using for the description. Fraser reading avidly is the ground, and Fraser swallowing books like a python is the figure.
Some metaphors are so commonly used that they enter into the realm of cliche, like the painting with words one. It is these that most commonly become mixed, because we rarely think closely about them anymore.
A mixed metaphor is one in which you've changed horses in the middle of the stream and you're out in the weeds. That is to say, you've begun with one metaphor and ended up with another, and the final result doesn't work.
Ray Vecchio, above, wants to describe the diary entry, the ground, as purple prose—not literally written in purple ink, but overly florid. (The metaphor traces back to Ancient Rome, when elaborate jewelry and garments were the province of the wealthy, including expensively dyed purple fabrics.) However Ray finishes halfway through an entirely different metaphor, and since "purple" is not something that could give him diabetes, his figure is nonsensical. His critique, correctly expressed, would be:
I'm no English major, but that is some purple prose. It's so sweet I'm getting diabetes.He could be faulted for resorting to cliches, but at least his two metaphors would each retain their internal logic.
Using a mixed metaphor when writing a character like Ray, who tends to be more colorful than accurate with his English usage, enriches his portrayal.
"No way is Luigi informing on the Gambino family. That leopard can't change his tune."In your writing in general, though, a mixed metaphor will give the impression you are careless or uneducated. So keep an eye on your metaphors. Do they make sense? It's a good idea to avoid cliches in general, but if you do end up using a common metaphor, make sure the logic of your imagery holds all the way through.