Sunday, 10 May 2015

Mixed Metaphors

You know what a mixed metaphor is. The example my school English teacher used — taken I think from a text-book by Ridout — was ‘I smell a rat: I see it floating in the air; I shall nip it in the bud.’ The simple point is that, having chosen a more or less fanciful but one hopes illuminating thing to identify with what you’re really talking about, you should stick with your choice at least until the end of the sentence, perhaps longer, to avoid ludicrous absurdities such as balloon-like rats. The ‘conceits’ of the metaphysical poets such as John Donne or George Herbert in which, say, religious faith is identified with the actual stones of a church, or the poet and his girlfriend with the legs of a pair of dividers, are extreme examples of the extended but consistent metaphor, and some readers find these poets difficult: King James, a cultured man, said ‘Mr Donne’s poetry is like the Peace of God: it passeth all understanding.’ Mixed metaphors, on the other hand, are easy to avoid, and fun to spot in the speech and writings of the self-important but not very bright, such as politicians. It’s O-level stuff really; no-one who actually cares about language mixes metaphors.

So how about this:

Adonis and Blunkett saw academies as a way of kick-starting the regeneration of struggling schools, usually in economically depressed areas, which had become so overwhelmed by so many problems, that the best thing seemed to be to hoover out their innards and transplant them with what Adonis called private-enterprise ‘DNA’.

And then, just a few lines later,

Gove arrived in government eager to ‘put rocket boosters’ under the academies programme, with funding carrots for successful schools…

Those examples are taken from a long article in the London Review of Books on – er – education. The whole article is rather poorly written; I found myself continually going back to re-read whole paragraphs because I couldn’t quite see what the writer was on about. This was a pity because in fact, once one had puzzled it out, she had interesting and important things to say. The piece would have benefited from skilled and knowledgeable editing, indeed I thought it odd that a periodical of such high reputation had allowed it to appear in the form in which it did. I looked up the author in the list of contributors:

‘Jenny Turner is on the editorial board of the LRB.’

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