Plain Sailing on a Bumpy Road

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In a recent speech about Brexit, Theresa May claimed that the process wouldn’t be “plain sailing” and there would be “bumps in the road”. Politics and Brexit opinions apart, the comment did leave me wondering why anyone would attempt to sail on a road — with or without bumps.

This isn’t May-bashing — she was just the nearest politician to hand. They all come out with speeches which, whatever the quality of the ideas, leave a lot to be desired in terms of phrasing. Mixed metaphors can be among the most cringe-worthy.

Not always, of course. A well-chosen mixed metaphor can be amusing and apt, like the classic “opening your mouth and putting your foot in it”. Or, if you have the language command of Churchill, it can be effective to line up unrelated metaphors for an expression like “The honourable gentleman has sat on the fence for so long that the iron has entered into his soul.”

As with almost anything to do with using language, though, mixed metaphors work best if they’re done deliberately, for a calculated effect. Accidental mixed metaphors are unlikely to work.

So why should it matter if your use of English isn’t ideal? The point is that, whether you’re a politician making a speech or a business person selling products or services, the moment your listener starts noticing irrelevancies about the language you’re using, you can give up trying to get your point across.

Most language should be invisible. We all know that language content makes up a tiny proportion of face-to-face communication, behind body language and tone of voice. If your body language is successfully persuading a customer that they should buy from you, you don’t want to distract them with how you’re expressing yourself verbally — that should slip in with the body language as a fact, not as words

There are exceptions, but they’re special cases. At the opposite end of the language spectrum, for instance, poetry certainly draws attention to its language, but this is precisely to encourage readers or listeners to look beyond the obvious meaning.

In the same way, be sure you make your memorable phrases the ones that you actually want the hearer to remember — the slogans, the catch-phrases, the one-sentence mission statements or, if you have the skill, the Churchillian apt phrase that leaves the hearer dazzled. These are the things you want them to go away remembering, not that you said “We’re marching forward to the future, and we refuse to be moved from that spot.”

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