M-W has the following definition for mixed metaphor:

a figure of speech combining inconsistent or incongruous metaphors

Hence a requirement is that a 'mixed metaphor' contains more than one metaphor.

Eric Lippert comments in another thread:

"mixed metaphor" is more commonly used to describe the result of accidentally combining two metaphors in a way that does not make sense as a whole. "For me it was stormy in the great sea of life, but then I came to a crossroads."

He does not claim that this is a necessary condition, and I'd agree.

I've just written in another thread:

' "John is a real tiger" works, but "That lion is a real tiger" is best avoided.' Each of these two statements contains a single metaphor.

Does any definition of 'mixed metaphor' apply to the inappropriate (incongruous juxtaposing of tenor and obviously related vehicle) metaphor in the second sentence?

  • 2
    It's probably more of a poorly chosen metaphor rather than a mixed one,as you're not mixing anything.
    – Ronan
    Apr 3, 2014 at 9:18
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    As long as "that lion" is an actual individual of the species Felis Leo, and not a Homo Sapiens that you liken to a lion, it is not a mixed metaphor, but badly chose. If you do mean "that man (who's a lion!) is a real tiger, I would call it a stacked, rather than a mixed, metaphor.
    – oerkelens
    Apr 3, 2014 at 9:20
  • 1
    Some combinations work well. E.g Aunt Agatha, the creation of Norfolk humourist Sidney grapes, used to be fond of saying 'that earnt no use you putten yar fut down, when y'hearnt got a leg t'stand on', translated 'it's no use putting your foot down if you haven't got a leg to stand on'. Works better than the stormy sea and the crossroads.
    – WS2
    Apr 3, 2014 at 9:27
  • The first two comments are logic-based, which fact, this being English, doesn't guarantee a definitive answer (so are appropriately given as comments). Apr 3, 2014 at 12:11
  • 1
    @medica Triply, if we're using a logical argument, but I'm glad it's you who's the doctor. Apr 3, 2014 at 16:18

2 Answers 2


The short answer to your title question is, 'No.'

A single metaphor cannot be a mixed metaphor.

If you take the form of a metaphor to be (a = not a), mixing two unrelated concepts, eg 'He's a snake' referencing a human being, is part of the process.

If you say, in the context of introducing a new joiner to the personalities in an organisation, 'Watch out for that snake in the grass', where a person is a snake and the workplace is either a jungle, or an arcadian vale, depending on your chosen context, then you are grouping related metaphors.

If you say, 'We were sailing on fine until we hit some roadworks', then you're mixing metaphors - the process was a journey by ship, and suddenly (this is where the mixing referred to in the phrase 'mixed metaphors' happens) your process becomes a road trip - when exactly did the ocean change into Route 64?

So the M-W definition is correct.

As for your second question, which references a 'second sentence' (understood as 'man is lion and tiger', as 'lion is tiger' is a single metaphor, therefore would not fit the mixed model), you're raising a new distinction.

If I continued my introductory tour and said, 'At work, he's a snake, but in a battle, he's a lion', the shift is deliberate, and would not be classed as a mixed metaphor.

So, the differentiator here seems to be linked to whether the juxtaposition of ideas is conscious or unconscious, and if conscious, for what effect.

In most cases, a mixed metaphor will arise through an unconscious process. That, however, can be replicated consciously, as we are doing here, for educational and informational purposes.

I think it's safe to say that in its natural habitat, a mixed metaphor is a kitten playing with a ball of wool unaware it's in a saucepan of boiling water. In a laboratory, it is definitely aware, and wants out!


In 'The Language of Metaphors', Andrew Goatly talks about a vehicle or V-term as being part of a metaphoric construction.

He uses the following sentence as an example:

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

the Vehicle-term or V-term is “a foreign country”, the Topic-term or T-term is “the past”, the Ground or G-term is “they do things differently”. (p 8)

He looks at the link between syntax and metaphor, pointing out that:

Lakoff and Johnson (1980) fail to take [syntax] into account when discussing metaphorical mixing. They claim that what makes the following examples of mixing permissible and impermissible respectively is that the two metaphorical schemata involved do or do not share entailments.

(1) At this point our argument doesn’t have much content. (Lakoff and Johnson 1980:92)
(2) The content of the argument proceeds as follows, (ibid.: 95)

It seems equally likely that it is the intimacy of the syntactic bond between subject and verb in (2) which makes for a sense of mixing, whereas (1) only has a distant bond between prepositional complement and object of the same clause (see also Low 1988:132).

Both examples involve 2 distinct metaphors: (1) an argument is a container; an argument is situated on a 'continumm'. (2) an argument is a container; the contents are capable of movement (the dissonance, for me, is that it is the argument, as container, which is more likely to move, rather than the contents).

In his analysis of diversification, Goaty notes:

Diversification rules out any syntactic relation between the two different V-terms, which > would amount to Mixing.

(p 262). Again, note the 'two different V-terms' requirement. He goes on to define mixing as follows:

Mixing occurs when two V-terms are put into a syntactic relationship with each other, while their conventional referents, the Vehicles, can contract no such corresponding relationship to each other in the world...

(p 263). Under 'Mixing', he notes:

There are two factors, therefore, which are relevant to the perception of metaphorical Mixing. One is the strength of syntactic bonding and syntactic proximity between the two V-terms. The other is the degree of activity of the metaphor.

(p 277 f). He analyses the following sentence:

the sky was teeming and tearing along, a vast disorder of flying shapes and darkness and ragged fumes of light

as follows:

In the phrase “ragged fumes of light” two incompatible V-terms have close syntactic bonds, i.e. the relation of noun head and premodifier. “Ragged” should be applied to a flexible solid substance of some kind, typically cloth. “Fumes” must apply to a gaseous substance.

Again, you have more than one metaphor combining to create a mixed metaphor:

Sky is cloth - Sky is gas.

Goaty goes on to point out that in the larger passage, which I've only quoted the relevant part of here:

... the Mixing and the bombarding with disparate Vehicles is extreme. However, we sense that the disorder being described by Lawrence here is the very motivation for this metaphorical Mixing—to mirror a rapid succession of physical impressions and their accompanying emotions.

All this simply confirms what I've said - but as you asked for a second opinion, it is hereby provided.

  • But you give no authority for your assertions. And I'm asking for evidence here, not opinion. I would defend 'a baker's dozen isn't a dozen'. What some call 'verbless sentences' I would say aren't sentences. English isn't guaranteed to work by logic. If a dictionary defines 'mixed metaphor' to include incongruous single metaphors, then like it or not, the term applies. As for my two examples, they were merely to show an appropriate use of metaphor ("John is a real tiger"), and an inappropriate one, with "incongruous juxtaposing of tenor and obviously related vehicle". Apr 4, 2014 at 16:42
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    @EdwinAshworth I'm unclear what you find lacking in my answer as regards the nature of mixed metaphors. You seem to be wanting to include a single metaphor - ill-chosen, as by definition, metaphors work best when the two things being juxtaposed as as starkly contrasted as possible - in the general definition of mixed metaphor which, again, by definition, has to involve at least three things. I don't understand why. Apr 4, 2014 at 21:46
  • I was hoping for a rather better and better attested answer to 'Does any definition of 'mixed metaphor' apply to the inappropriate (incongruous juxtaposing of tenor and obviously related vehicle) metaphor in the second sentence?' than something like 'No, because "mixed" implies more than one.' Mixed concrete doesn't imply more than one type of concrete. Apr 5, 2014 at 8:12
  • @EdwinAshworth Your analogy is confusing - for me, mixed concrete is the equivalent of a single metaphor. You've got powder, you've got water. Mix them together, you get liquid concrete that solidifies over time. A mixed metaphor is more like adding lemon juice to milk - it will curdle. Check out Goatly's Language of Metaphor - pp 262 ff, esp p 277, section 9.7 on mixing. I've added a short reference to the answer above. Apr 5, 2014 at 9:43
  • Thank you: you've provided some more convincing material, and driven me back to the hunt (!?) Apr 5, 2014 at 13:46

Leon's answer, now backed by Goatly's work, says that a mixed metaphor must contain two or more metaphors.

However, this results from forcing a narrow definition onto 'mixing' that may well be an assumed rather than a justifiable stance. Things mixed do not need to be of the same type.

I've found this definition at changingwinds (bolding mine, to show multiple metaphors are considered to constitute one type)–

'Mixed metaphor: A mixed metaphor is one where the metaphor is internally inconsistent, for example where multiple metaphors are used which do not align with one another.'

wiseGEEK also posts:

A mixed metaphor is a type of metaphor in which the metaphoric image includes either two different metaphors together, which do not function well together, or several concepts that ultimately make the metaphor confusing.

I have no difficulty in applying the word 'mixing' to an inappropriate tenor-vehicle pair, such as lion and tiger. It seems that some commentators do, others don't. The usual situation. However, I'm tempted by the classification here which would label 'that lion's a real tiger' an inappropriate metaphor rather than a mixed metaphor. This uses the stricter sense of 'mix', and is thus a matter of choice rather than being axiomatic (until we get a semantics czar).

  • 1
    Sometimes two metaphors can work well together - such of that of the sage who said "It's no good putting your foot down if you haven't a leg to stand on".
    – WS2
    Oct 11, 2021 at 19:28

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