Project #85215 - ..

  I'm going to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee." (Muhammad Ali)

This is one of the most famous quotes in the world, and with it Muhammad Ali set the stage for a career as a heavyweight champion that might never be eclipsed.  When Ali uttered these words in response to a question about how he would try to defeat the seemingly invincible Sonny Liston, Ali proved himself as adept with figurative language as he would soon prove he was as a boxer.

Compare Ali's famous quote to the sentence below;

   Jim's mother aggressively protected her children from harm.

The sentence above is fairly clear and effective, but it could be better, couldn't it? It doesn't "pop" like Ali's sentence.  This is where figures of speech might be helpful. (And remember that you are asked to use at least one figure of speech in your Module Two essay assignment.)

There are dozens of different kinds of figures of speech (which you can look up on the Internet if you wish), and they can serve many purposes in writing, but for our purposes, figures of speech can be thought of as non-literal uses of words, particularly those that create imaginative comparisons. The two main types of figures of speech are probably similes and metaphors.  Here is one example of a figure of speech:

     Jim's mother was as fierce as a lioness when protecting her kids from harm. (Simile)

Notice that this figure of speech uses the word "as" to make the imaginative comparison explicit (obvious).  (Figures of speech that use "like" or "as" are similes.)  It is a figure of speech because it is an imaginative comparison, meaning that Jim's mother wasn't really a large African lion; she was only being compared to one.  The reason for using a figure of speech is to emphasize traits and to make them loom large in our imaginations.  Good figures of speech create powerful images in our minds, often bringing descriptive sensory impressions into our minds.  That can be very important in personal essays like the one you are assigned to write in Module 2.

This same figure of speech used above (as a simile) could also be phrased as a metaphor:

     Jim's mother was a fierce lioness when anyone threatened to harm her children. (Metaphor)

This is also a imaginative comparison, but because it doesn't use "as" or "like" in the sentence, it is classified as a metaphor.  Which do you find more effective?  Well, that might be a matter of taste, but because the metaphor figuratively transforms something into something else (Jim's mother becomes a lioness), rather than just suggesting something or someone was "like" something or someone else, most people would say that it was more emphatic and, therefore, more effective.

A really good figure of speech walks the line between uniqueness and appropriateness.

For example, this probably wouldn't be quite as effective:

      Jim's mother was as dangerous as a paper cut that had become infected.


    Jim's mother was as dangerous as driving on four bald tires on 19th Street in a snow storm.

These examples don't get that idea of intentional danger across, so that Jim's mom might seem more like an accident rather than a truly fierce, passionate, but dangerous, protector of her children. For that reason, these are fairly creative, unique figures of speech, but they aren't very effective or appropriate.

One of the most common problems with figures of speech is that they sometimes are rather bland and not very unique.  These overused, commonplace figures of speech are called cliches.  (The word "cliche" comes from the French, and it refers to a stereotype plate, that is, the printing press plate that creates the images on a page when the plate has been covered with ink and pressed against the page. Literally, then, a cliche means to make a copy of something, as in printing. Therefore, a cliche is "copied.")  As you might guess, these cliches are ones that you have heard before, and because they are commonplace, they aren't very effective in emphasizing ideas or images in readers' minds because a good figure of speech should be arresting, new, even surprising.

     Geraldine was as pretty as a picture. (Cliche)

     Geraldine was a pretty as a crocus on a cool spring morning. (not a Cliche)

     Bill felt that he stuck out like a sore thumb at his ex-girlfriend's wedding. (Cliche)

     At his ex-girlfriend's wedding, Bill felt as out of place as a steaming pile of dog manure sitting on a cake. (not a Cliche)

     The Kansas landscape was as flat as a pancake. (Cliche)

     The Kansas landscape was a flat as a football field. (not a Cliche)

Another danger of figures of speech is the mixed metaphor.  A mixed metaphor tends to be a figure of speech that combines ideas that don't really fit together.  Some might even make the reader laugh but not in a good way.

    The class was a smorgasbord of dangerous mental tools that didn't come with directions for safe use. (Mixed Metaphor)

There is nothing wrong with comparing the class to dangerous tools, but combining it with a smorgasbord, a buffet of different foods, is confusing and just a bit odd. 

An even more common kind of mixed metaphor is a combination of two or more cliches, which can be a double problem.

      The mayor stepped up to the plate and laid his cards on the table.  (Mixed Metaphor) 

      He was a little green behind the ears. (Mixed Metaphor)

The first example is a mixed metaphor and a cliche because it combines a trite baseball figure of speech with figurative language based on poker.  The second combines the metaphorical idea of being "green" (a novice at something, referring to unripe produce) with the saying "wet behind the ears," meaning that he was not quite ready, like someone who hadn't quite dried off after a bath.  (This mixed metaphor is attributed to President Obama, so even skilled users of language like the president can make these mistakes.)

This doesn't mean that figures of speech can't be fun or a bit odd.  Just make sure that your readers are laughing with you. 

For example, these are fun and effective figures of speech:

     The fog came on little cat feet. (Carl Sandburg)

     Bill's jokes were as flat as a tomato backed over by a garbage truck.

     Bill's jokes were as flat as a can of beer left open for a week and half.

     Mack was as eager to please as a Labrador retriever.

     My daughter flit about the backyard from one activity to another like a hummingbird sipping nectar from flower after flower.

Okay, here are 5 exercises to work on.  

In this first one, pick one of the 3 options to fill in the blank with similes, brainstorming at least 10 possibilities, and then create a sentence with the one or two that you like best.

     Example: As smooth as _____________. 

an iced over lake, a baby's bottom, a used car salesman, the perfect martini, the ride of a Cadillac, a magazine cover, a gymnasium floor, Duke Ellington's reed section, a leather sofa, Lake Louise on a quiet morning. a paper plate, a billiard ball.

Sentence: Bill's face was as smooth and nondescript as a paper plate.

Okay, now you try it.  Choose one of the three below to brainstorm and create a sentence out of.

1.  As confusing as______________.  As cold as______________. As wrinkled as______________.

In the next two, identify the problem with the sentence, and replace it with a more effective figure of speech. 

2.  Ben and Margo were as American as apple pie.

3.  Freda was as capable at her advertising job as a brain surgeon engineering a new moon rocket.

In these last two, there is no figure of speech in each sentence, so add an effective one.

4.  Nate moved across the dance floor with amazing style and grace.

5.  As evening came on, shadows moved across the surface of the cliff.

Subject English
Due By (Pacific Time) 10/09/2015 01:00 pm
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