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… which singled out mixed metaphors in prose. Mixed metaphors tend to mix up your reader. Here’s an example, taken from a review of The Hunting Ground, a film about sexual assault on American college campuses.


Given that the film levels a withering j’accuse against a complex skein of heterogeneous institutions and organizations, it will have a harder road ahead inspiring organizational reform in the same way The Invisible War did, but there’s no doubt it will get audiences debating and talking when it goes on release via RADiUS in March and when it is broadcast later this year on CNN.

Let’s highlight some of the figurative language in here.

‘Given that the film levels a withering j’accuse against a complex skein of heterogeneous institutions and organizations, it will have a harder road ahead inspiring organizational reform in the same way [the film] The Invisible War did, but there’s no doubt it will get audiences debating and talking when it goes on release via RADiUS in March and when it is broadcast later this year on CNN.’

*********************

The j’accuse bit is a rather overheated cliche, but let that go. The real problems in this sentence begin with skein. When we see skein, we see literal lengths of knotted yarn and figurative knotty complexities. Do we need “complex” in front of skein? Scathing Online Schoolmarm thinks not. It mucks up a sentence that already has too many words. And skein itself is maybe not the right word for what she means. She means to describe the network of universities in this country – and they are a network, not a skein. Skein suggests a somewhat fragile, random unit of things, whereas universities are more sturdy, meaningful, interconnected phenomena.

Now the writer puts the skein on the road. The skein “will have a harder road ahead.” I suppose we could at this point imagine something like tumbleweed… But really, the writer does our efforts to figure out her meaning no favors when she jams all of this at-odds figurative language into her sentence. Write simply, and don’t unspool too many skeins.

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5 Responses to ““Block That Metaphor!” was the title of a long-running New Yorker feature…”

  1. Greg Says:

    Go figure.

  2. adam Says:

    My sense of it was that the skein of institutions will obstruct, entangle, and otherwise delay the movie on its road to achieving the goal of organizational reform.

    J’accuse the skein of dithering
    While predators go slithering,
    Especially in fraternities
    Where they deny paternities.

  3. Greg Says:

    “Now the writer puts the skein on the road.”

    It sounded to me like a very bad case of what, in basketball, is called floor burn — a skinned knee on stilts. This must be common in mishaps with motorcycles.

    Or perhaps, to continue the theme of bad figuration, can one’s knee burn with a “gem-like flame?”

  4. Alan Allport Says:

    Not enough skein in the game, that’s the trouble.

  5. Polish Peter Says:

    The father of Polish Peter would have referred to this as “sentence stuffing”. He regarded it as a particular habit of native Polish speakers writing in English, although I doubt this author fits that description.

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