Figurative language can create beauty, enhance meaning, and clarify a difficult or unique view on the world. It can be so much fun, in fact, that you can easily get carried away. Mixed metaphors are a common slip up in figurative language, and they’re a sure mark of the writer losing control of the language.
A metaphor takes two seemingly unrelated subjects and draws a comparison between the two, treating them as equal: “The moon was a sickle.” (This is different than a simile, which usually uses “like” or “as” to compare the subjects. You also have to watch for mixing similes.) A mixed metaphor is one that gets confused, using two competing comparisons:
At first she was a weighted barge, then a sunflower tracking the light.
The metaphor starts out on water with a boat and ends up on land with a flower, leaving the reader with a confused and scattered image. This could be revised to unify the imagery and create an extended metaphor:
At first she was a reluctant bud, then a sunflower tracking the light.
Some mixed metaphors can be particularly tricky to identify because they contain “dead” metaphors, ones that have been so overused they’ve lost their figurative qualities, such as the phrase “tie up loose ends.” This metaphor was once fresh, but has become so common that listeners hear its meaning—to finish what’s left undone—rather than picture the action. Here’s an example of this kind of mixed metaphor:
Even though no one was supportive of his choice, he stepped up to the plate and dove right in. It starts off with a baseball metaphor and ends with diving. You’ve got to invent a pretty nifty suit and an elaborate set of rules to participate in a sport that combines both. Until then, they don’t belong in the same comparison.