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THINK BEFORE YOU MIX

I met a wondrous mixed metaphor in an article on Chinese politics the other day: has the horse-trading that always precedes these five-yearly meetings run aground? I wondered uneasily whether the piece would go on to tell me that Chinaís leaders were on a sticky wicket and risked hitting a brick wall.

Horse-trading, on its own, as a synonym for hard bargaining, fair enough. Ditto run aground, on its own, for get held up by some difficulty. Each of these in itself is an entirely acceptable metaphor. But not, please, both together. Horse-trading happens to horses, running aground to ships.

As any elementary book of grammar will tell you, a metaphor is one thing, a simile, its kissing cousin but not its twin, is another. He ran off like the wind is a simile: youíre overtly likening his speed to that of the wind. Metaphors are more subtle. Indeed often you wonít know that you are using one, when the metaphor has become simply part of the natural language.

Kissing cousin up there is obviously a metaphor, an idiomatic American one, for two things ó rather than people óthat are closely alike. But twin? Iím not sure as I write it that Iím even half-thinking of a pair of children whom you canít tell apart. Iím really using it just as another way of saying identical.

With many words, the once-metaphor is by now just another meaning of the word. Take Hitler dreamed of defeating Bolshevism, but he soon ran into trouble ó Russian patriotism. We donít mean that he literally dreamed (though he may have done); he had rational and well-worked-out, if ultimately unsuccessful, plans for victory. Nor did he actually run. To go a step further, take when bad news came from the front, he stormed at his generals: did you even notice that storm there is, by origin, a metaphor?

Yet often itís plain that some phrase is indeed metaphorical. And, as any elementary textbook of style will advise you, it is unwise to mix the metaphors from one field with those from another. Yet, as rather fewer textbooks will tell you, thereís another error even worse: to start with some metaphor and then go plonking on with it.

You might, for instance, start by saying that the Chinese ship of state is drifting ó a slightly old-fashioned metaphor, but so be it. You might go on with and risks running aground. But donít thump on and on and on with, say, short of a captain on the quarter-deck, or even a pilot at the prow to help the helmsman steer through the shallows and reefs of the turbulent world economy.... That really is plonking (a nice slang word ó a metaphor itself ó for putting something heavily down). Itís not just unwise, itís absurd.

The way, and an elegant one, to carry on with a metaphor is to return to it much later in the piece you are writing. If you began Chinaís ship of state is drifting, you could nicely end 500 words later with without a pilot, China risks running aground. And if you care to use a brief metaphor or two from horse-trading or sport somewhere in the middle, no-one can object.