Friday, May 18, 2012

Some Figurative Language Needs a Reboot!

Cliché:     A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
Translation:     We eat bird tonight!

Cliché:     Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.
Translation:     Be discerning as you glean the wheat from the chaff.

Cliché:     When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.
Translation:     Make the best of awful situations.

Cliché:        We reap what we sow.
Translation:    You’ll get back what you give so give wisely.

Cliché:     When one door closes, another opens.
Translation:     Things may not work out  so look for another opportunity.

Cliché:        The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Translation:    You are just like your parents.

Cliché:        You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet.
Translation:    Everyone makes mistakes on his way to making something good.

Cliché:        I got spanked.
Translation:    I lost, didn’t get my way, and may have learned a lesson.

Clichés begin life as figurative language, but due to overuse, they become meaningless, no longer sparking a vivid picture in the reader or listener’s mind.  Nevertheless, vivid analogies and comparisons are essential to clear communication so writers and speakers continue to invent them.

Inventing vivid analogies and comparisons is excellent practice for writers trying to develop or hone their style. For example:

Original:    A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
Invention:    Super-sized fast-food equals three sweaty hours pounding round the track.

Original:    Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.
Invention:    Don’t pluck the lowly milkweed for soon, Monarch butterflies will grace its tough stalk.

Original:    When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.
Invention:    Step away from the mirror so blemishes become invisible to your critical eye.

Original:    We reap what we sow.
Invention:    If your seeds are lies, your harvest will be toxic.

Continue inventing new ways of saying old, but good ideas. Challenge yourself to write fresh expressions at least once daily. You will find that priming the pump of new, vivid expressions will produce an overflow of imaginative comparisons and analogies that come more easily and unbidden as you write.

Reading Challenge:

For hundreds more, visit where you will find the cliché and a translation. Choose at least ten clichés, then translate each, shifting from the figurative to the literal levels of understanding before you click on the cliché to see the online translation.

Writing Challenge:

For each cliché at the beginning of this post, invent a new, fresh and figurative way of communicating the same idea. Do the same for the ten additional clichés that you selected from

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

You may have missed the announcement in April, 2012 that Usage Gurus now believe it is acceptable to begin a sentence with the word “hopefully” in spite of what your English teacher may have told you. This may surprise those of you who have often used “hopefully” as the first word in a sentence. Allow me to explain.

For many years, “hopefully,” as good adverbs do, modified verbs. For example, “I tasted the new cupcake frosting hopefully.” This use of “hopefully” informs readers that the person tasted the frosting in a hopeful manner, that he hoped for a good outcome for this particular batch of frosting.

But adverbs can and often do modify whole sentences as it does in the sentence that follows: “Hopefully, the team will win.” A literal reading of this sentence reveals that the team is not yet winning or even playing in a hopeful manner so the word, “hopefully,” does not modify the verb. Nevertheless, we understand that someone has hope that the team he follows and favors will win a game; “hopefully” modifies the whole statement, not just the verb.

Whether “hopefully” should modify whole sentences was the source of contention until language users settled the contest. Users simply liked to modify whole sentences with the word “hopefully.” I know I did and still do.