© Nani, 2013

39. Is This Metaphor Like a Sultry Summer's Day?

Metaphors in writing are like leaves on a tree—they're great for beauty but terrible when mucking up the groundwork. I mean to say that they have a place in prose but less so in formal argumentation. On occasion, metaphor can help clarify your point or add character to your language. But you quickly move beyond the effective use of metaphor and begin to overuse or incorrectly use it. There are words that trigger metaphorical thought but that don't actually introduce a metaphor. Coincidentally, these words are verbs that often accompany nouns that can't possibly do the verb to which they are associated (section 36).

There are times, though, when you intend to personify an object with a verb it can't possibly do. Done intentionally, this is called metaphor. However, when these metaphors are left open to interpretation—what I will call open metaphors—they can actually distract from the point of the argument. Therefore, work to identify words that trigger open metaphors. These words ought to be avoided like the plague.


•  Example: “Flooding had a serious impact on Mesopotamian agriculture.”

  “Impact” is a metaphorical word in this context. It can be a noun—an event when one thing runs into another—but as an adjective it is less meaningful. What you mean to say is that flooding caused change of some kind in Mesopotamian agriculture, but that isn't want you actually said. Did the flooding in Mesopotamia strike the agriculture like a meteor from space? I don't know because you didn't actually tell me what your metaphor means. You actually didn't say anything because you are relying on the reader to interpret your metaphor instead of explicitly stating your point. It would be more effective to say:

“Flooding adversely affected agriculture in Mesopotamia”

  This says what you meant, and now I have no room to question where you are going with this assertion. And, I don't have to imagine some massive flood running fists into an ancient Mesopotamian farm, or a meteor made up of flood water hurtling towards Mesopotamian agriculture. When it's not up to me as the reader to determine the meaning of your language, I have no choice but to evaluate your argument instead. And that, of course, is what you actually want me to do.
  Test: when you say “impact,” you probably mean “affect” or “effect.” Try to use one of those, or a synonym of them, instead.
  Another metaphorical error borders on personification. This is when you try to ascribe an animate action onto an inanimate object. If the object obviously cannot do the action you are suggesting, you giving it a personality that it otherwise couldn't have. This can be done intentionally, but ought to be done carefully so as not create an open metaphor (a metaphor that doesn't actually have a valid comparison and so is open to interpretation by the reader).

•  Example: “The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers hit the Persian Gulf in a wide, swampy delta.”

  This is not dissimilar to “impact.” You're describing an action that an inanimate object takes in a way that is not possible. Since metaphor is one thing standing in for another equivalent thing, you must draw an explicit connection of the likeness of the replacement thing to the original. Otherwise, it becomes incredibly easy to misinterpret the analogy you are actually making. Is the river actually punching and kicking the Persian Gulf? If you are intentionally describing the action of the river in these terms, make sure the context is clear in the sentence. Perhaps you might say:

“The force of the river was like a flurry of blows from a trained ninja.”

  But that sounds more like a poetic comparison—and poetry is a more traditional place for the use of metaphor—than a description of fact from which we can draw historical conclusions. What you actually meant to say:

“The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers end in a wide, swampy delta near the Persian Gulf.”

  Not only have you avoided the personification of the subject (see section 36), you are no longer creating an open metaphor that distracts from the point of the argument.
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