Awkward Figures

Figures of speech are words used less for their literal meaning than for their capacity to clarify or intensify feelings or ideas. For the writer of exposition the most common and important figures are the simile and metaphor.

A simile is a comparison, generally introduced by like or as. The essayist Robert Lynd describes the bleak houses of a nineteenth-century city as looking "like seminaries for the production of killjoys." A metaphor is more complicated. For now let us say only that it expresses an implicit comparison, not a literal one (as a simile does):

When 1 walked to the mailbox, a song sparrow placed his incomparable seal on the outgoing letters. E. B. white

White does not literally say that the bird's song is like a bright stamp or seal, but the comparison is there.

In Chapter 27 we look at figures at greater length and in a more positive light (see page 213 ff.). Here we are concerned with their misuse. A metaphor or simile can be faulty in any of three ways: it can be inappropriate, mixed, or overwhelming.

Mixed metaphors ask us to perceive simultaneously two things that simply cannot go together:

He put his foot in his mouth and jumped off the deep end. We must feel with the fingertips of our eyeballs.

Inappropriate figures contain implications that do not fit the context and are likely to imply meanings the writer does not intend:

A green lawn spread invitingly from the road to the house, with a driveway winding up to the entrance like a snake in the grass.

Since the writer intended no sinister implications, comparing the driveway to a snake is misleading. Moreover, the simile, aside from being misleading and trite, is ridiculous. A snake in the grass is a kinetic involving a wriggling driveway is silly.

Overwhelming figures ride roughshod over the main idea, as in the following sentence (about the considerable girth of the comedian Jackie Gleason):

Out of that flesh grew benign tumors of driving energy and unsatisfied appetite that stuck to his psyche and swelled into a galloping disease that at once blights and regenerates him.

False Hyperbole

Hyperbole (often shortened to hype in modern usage) is deliberate exaggeration intended to intensify importance or emotional force. Though no hyperbole is ever intended to be taken literally, we may properly call it false only when the exaggeration far outdistances the real value of the idea or feeling:

Football is the most magnificent sport ever developed by the mind of man. It tests physical skill, stamina, courage, and intelligence more thoroughly than any other human activity.

One shudders to think of what the world would have been like if Shakespeare had never written The Tempest.

Although these are silly exaggerations, hyperbole can be used legitimately. It is an old and useful figure of speech (though not as fashionable today as it once was). In the nineteenth century politicians delighted in spread-eagle oratory, and historians cultivated a hyperbolical style. In the following passage, for example, the American historian William H. Prescott writes about the ill effects of the gold which Spain had expropriated from the New World in the 1500s:

The golden tide, which, permitted a free vent, would have fertilized the region, through which it poured, now buried the land under a deluge which blighted every green and living thing.

Mark Twain was a master of hyperbole, as he reveals in this description of a tree after an ice storm:

... it stands there the acme, the climax, the supremest possibility in art or nature, of bewildering, intoxicating, intolerable magnificence. One cannot make the words strong enough.

Twain is at his least to modern he uses hyperbole for comic effect:

[On the New England weather] In the spring I have counted one hundred and thirty-six different kinds of weather inside of four-and-twenty hours.

[On the music of Richard Wagner] Another time we went to Mannheim and attended a shivaree—otherwise an opera—called "Lohengrin." The banging and slamming and booming and crashing were beyond belief, the racking and pitiless pain of it remains stored up in my memory alongside the memory of the time I had my teeth fixed.


A word, unless it is important, will sound awkward if it is repeated too closely. It ought to be replaced by a synonym or a pronoun:

The auto industry used to produce cars that lasted, but they didn't make enough profit so planned obsolescence came into use. BETTER: .. . came into fashion.

This narrative is narrated by a narrator whom we cannot completely trust.

BETTER: This story is told by a narrator whom we cannot completely trust.

However, repetitiousness must be distinguished from legitimate restatement, in which words are repeated for emphasis or clarity:

He [a lax governor] took things easy, and his fellow freebooters took everything easily. Hodding Carter

[Oliver Goldsmith's "The Deserted Village" is] a poem written not in ink but in tears, a rich suffusion of emotion rising up in a grubby room in Grub street for a grubby little Irish village.

Sean O'Faolain

The line between awkward repetition and effective restatement is not easy to draw. As a general rule, a repeated word should be important, able to stand the attention readers will give it.

Project Management Made Easy

Project Management Made Easy

What you need to know about… Project Management Made Easy! Project management consists of more than just a large building project and can encompass small projects as well. No matter what the size of your project, you need to have some sort of project management. How you manage your project has everything to do with its outcome.

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