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You may have a vague memory of learning about metaphor and tautology in high school English and know that tautologies and mixed metaphors are to be avoided. But what are metaphors and tautologies? And are there times when they can enhance written communication?

Enhancing our understanding

A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two unlike things. The more familiar thing helps describe the less familiar one. When we are writing about an unfamiliar concept, a metaphor can help create clarity for a reader. For example, as lay people we may not be familiar with the science of genes, but most of us are familiar with maps. Genetic mapping is a term to describe a tool scientists use to identify new genes and understand their function. Using the term ‘mapping’ makes the concept more familiar to us.

A metaphor may also enhance the meaning of a word or give it more impact. For example, US President Joe Biden is tackling the issue of ghost guns. Ghost guns are self-assembled firearms with no serial number. No background check is required meaning that they can essentially be bought by anyone and are therefore ‘invisible’ like a ghost. Ghosts are associated with death and guns are used to cause death or injury. The term ghost guns is a concise way to describe these weapons.

Creating a muddled picture

Metaphors can become a problem, however, when we mix them. A mixed metaphor combines two or more incompatible metaphors or figures of speech. Mixed metaphors are frowned on because they can cause confusion. Here are some examples:

Mixed metaphorMetaphor
leave a sour taste in your eyeleave a sour taste in your mouth
dancing around in the bushbeating around the bush
a watched clock never boilsa watched kettle never boils
march to your own trumpetblow your own trumpet
march to the beat of your own drum
waiting for the pin to dropwaiting for the penny to drop
you could hear a pin drop
burn that bridge when we come to itwe’ll cross that bridge when we come to it
don’t burn all your bridges

The Style Manual for Authors Editors and Printers recommends avoiding metaphors in government and business writing because they can exclude certain readers. Metaphors and figures of speech like those listed in this blog are not plain language and would also be difficult to translate into another language. If you fall into the trap of mixing metaphors, your credibility may be damaged and others might come to the conclusion you are less intelligent than you are. 

Saying the same thing twice

A tautology is a statement in which you say the same thing twice in different words, when this is unnecessary. It is a repetition of ideas rather than a repetition of the exact word. Although tautologies may not cause as much confusion as mixed metaphors or quirky figures of speech, we avoid them in business communications as they add unnecessary clutter to our writing.

filled to capacityfullat capacityfull house
join togetherjoin
general publicpublic
new initiativeinitiative
attach togetherattach
evolve in timeevolve
past experienceexperience
unintentional mistakemistake
repeat againrepeat

Our goal in business writing is to make our message as clear and concise as possible. To reduce the risk of being misunderstood, our word choice must always be focused on the needs of our reader. Tautologies and confusing figures of speech, including mixed metaphors, unnecessarily complicate our message and could alienate our readers. 

Image: Sydney Opera House concert hall

For all your written communication needs contact Concise Writing Consultancy on 02 9238 6638 or email patricia.hoyle@concisewriting.com.au


Oxford English Dictionary