Wordnerdery Sue Horner’s monthly tips on words and ways to reach readers (and sometimes other diversions) – February 2024

Issue 132 – February 2024

A ‘turtle fitbit’ and more marvellous metaphors

“A metaphor gives people a shortcut to understanding new, complex or conceptual info.” – Ann Wylie

Do you want to explain something, make a point or spark that “aha” moment? Reach for a metaphor, which shows how two things are alike without using the words “like” or “as.”

A metaphor gives people a shortcut to understanding new, complex or conceptual info, says writing trainer Ann Wylie – and notice her own use of metaphors. “It’s tempting to call metaphor the magic spell in a writer’s repertoire, the Penn and Teller of the page,” she says. “It lets you say in five words what would otherwise take five paragraphs to explain.”

Writing coach Roy Peter Clark is also a metaphor fan. His piece on writing tough topics includes such gems as “clickbait for nerds,” “lifts the heavy cargo of data” and “pixie dust on the cow pie.”

Here are some examples of marvellous metaphors I've found:

Image by Yisa Guo on Unsplash.

“They recently fit 40 northern map turtles in eastern Ontario with tri-axial accelerometers (essentially a turtle Fitbit) and logged the data. The devices recorded the movement, depth and temperature of the turtles for the seven months they remained under the ice.” – Thomas Lundy and Sarah Brown in National Geographic

"For every story Singer kills or gets taken down, there's another he's delayed, or defanged, or pushed off the front page, or had corrected or retracted. Singer is a kind of legal termite, eating away at foundations.” - Vanity Fair (reported by Forbes)

“When Bobby McIlvaine died on September 11, 2001, his desk at home was a study in plate tectonics, coated in shifting piles of leather-bound diaries and yellow legal pads.” – Jennifer Senior in The Atlantic

“We got cheese cloth when we needed duct tape. It still leaks. It may make a bit of difference, but at the same time it doesn’t deal with the issue at hand.” – Andy Yan, director of Simon Fraser University, on help needed to ease housing prices falling short

“Structures build on softer, sedimentary soils – like those found in southern Turkey – are going to experience more shaking than those anchored in firmer ground. ‘It’s basically tofu versus rock,’ said An Yin, a professor of geology at UCLA.’” – Corinne Purtill, Los Angeles Times

“At times, to a southern resident [orca] trying to find prey and communicate with its pod, Puget Sound can resemble a rock concert with the band’s amplifiers cranked up to 11.” – John Stang, Crosscut.com

Beware of trying too hard with metaphors, though. Former Guardian science editor Tim Radford warns,

“Just don't choose loopy metaphors, and never, never mix them. Subs on the Guardian used to have a special Muzzled Piranha Award, a kind of Oscar of incompetence, handed to an industrial relations reporter who warned the world that the Trades Union Congress wildcats were lurking in the undergrowth, ready to dart out like piranhas, unless they were muzzled.”

Have you seen any marvellous metaphors? Please hit “reply” and share. I’m always looking for good examples.

FEEDBACK: Anne responded to the January issue with a trick she’s learned for cutting sentence length: break a long sentence into a question and answer. Her example:

Original (26 words): By contributing to an RRSP and effectively reducing your income, you may end up having paid more tax than necessary and so qualify for a refund. Edited (14 and 17 words): But what if you contributed to an RRSP and so effectively reduced your income? Then, you may have paid more tax than necessary, and you could get some of it back.

“The end result has more words in total, but it's easier to read,” Anne said. I agree! Thanks for sharing, Anne.

Related reading:

Ann Wylie’s links about why, when and how to use metaphors

Anne Miller uses an infographic to explain the steps to a great metaphor

More in the Red Jacket Diaries:

It’s plain: You don’t need ‘stripes’ to show different ‘kinds’

Helpful tips for plain language in links you might have missed

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