In my reading today, I came across this phrase:

Pardon the mixed metaphor, but you’ve brought a knife to a gun fight. [Link]

The (longtime) columnist was saying the person was outmatched. I understand that "gunfight" for a conflict is a metaphor, but I don't understand why the entirety is a mixed metaphor.

A mixed metaphor is mixing parts of two metaphors to make a, well, not a known metaphor or one that's ridiculous, e.g. to talk a very long time without significant results can be expressed by saying,

talk until you're blue in the face/until your face turns blue


until the cows come home

Both are common metaphors. Mixing them would produce, say,

Talk until the cows turn blue.

I tried Googling variants of the supposedly mixed metaphor to see if there was a more established version. I could not find one.

There were references to the origin of the above idiom, my favorite (supported here as well) being from the movie, The Untouchables, wherein Sean Connery utters with contempt, "Isn't that just like a [racist for Italian]... brings a knife to a gun fight." (There were others but none earlier.)

The following, first appearing in print in 2008, might be considered a mixed metaphor:

Those who live by the sword get shot by those that don't.

But I can't understand the idiom in question as a mixed metaphor. Can someone tell me what I am missing?

Edited to add an example, and in case I was unclear: if it is a mixed metaphor, which are the two metaphors it's mixing?


7 Answers 7


To understand the mixed metaphor in this case, I believe you need to expand the scope of the article you are interested in (emphasis mine):

If anything, you are underthinking this, perhaps dangerously so.

You’re uncomfortable with the communication; you don’t want it; you don’t buy his rationale for it; you have indicated by typical “polite” means — asserting your commitment to your marriage then ignoring his texts and calls — that you aren’t receptive to his attention; and he is running through these red lights as if they aren’t even there.

Even in the rosiest of interpretations, his actions point to a person who is operating outside the norms of healthy behavior.

You, however, are trying your best to stay within them — and flustered that it hasn’t worked. Pardon the mixed metaphor, but you’ve brought a knife to a gunfight.

The author has used two unrelated metaphors to describe the same situation: one to describe the man's behavior, and another to describe the woman's. Though this doesn't produce "a ridiculous effect" as required by the definition of "mixed metaphors", and the author's use does make this confusing, since the metaphors are two paragraphs apart, I do believe this is the author's intent.

  • 14
    Yes. A mixed metaphor usually refers to two metaphors in the same sentence that create competing mental images. In this case, the nearest metaphor is three sentences away (spanning three paragraphs) so there's little risk of the metaphors conflicting, but it seems the most likely explanation of the author's intent.
    – Kylos
    Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 13:53
  • 3
    The original text would make more sense if it were "Pardon the mixed metaphors ...". Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 15:37
  • 16
    Wouldn't it be more correct to say that the author is switching metaphors? Neither one of them is a mixed metaphor.
    – David42
    Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 16:19
  • 5
    I suspect the author thought of it as "mixing" because the metaphor of barriers and red lights is not only in that single earlier paragraph, but is used as an extended metaphor throughout the column—in the third paragraph and first part of the fourth paragraph quoted above, "healthy" behavior is seen as being within certain bounds, and towards the end of the column the author returns to the red-light-running theme.
    – 1006a
    Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 18:21
  • 4
    Indeed, a single metaphor can help you lead your argument to the water, but in a sufficiently long string of arguments, you might ride it to death and it becomes inevitable to change metaphors midstream. Commented Jun 24, 2017 at 9:15

It's not a 'mixed-metaphor'. The knife/gun example doesn't fit the definition. I believe the author is simply mistaken.

A mixed metaphor, as defined by the Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Curent English (2009) is:

n. a combination of two or more incompatible metaphors, which produces a ridiculous effect (e.g., this tower of strength will forge ahead).

There are not two metaphors in your example. That is why I think the author you quoted is mistaken.

  • 30
    I don't believe there ARE two metaphors in your example. That's why i think the author you quoted is just wrong Commented Jun 21, 2017 at 19:39
  • 6
    To mix metaphors you need at least two metaphors. This is one metaphor with two nouns. Many nouns may appear in metaphors. But nouns and metaphors aren't the same thing. Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 1:03
  • 43
    I don't know how a professional writer got this wrong - it's not rocket surgery.
    – cloudfeet
    Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 11:14
  • 13
    @cloudfeet - Maybe he's not the sharpest crayon in the box?
    – AndyT
    Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 11:21
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    I think the author is referring to mixing the metaphor with an earlier metaphor, "running through red lights". See @wasabi's answer below.
    – Kylos
    Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 13:47

It's not a mixed metaphor, but the intent is to proclaim it as a possibly inappropriate or exaggerated one.

The speaker is responding to claims of inappropriate interactions and failure to take hints in terms of a gunfight. A better phrase might have been something like, "(This is a bit exaggerated)/(The metaphor is perhaps overdone) , but you're bringing a knife to a gunfight", but the speaker chose to take the metaphor bit and go off on a tangent.


Assuming you're referring to the Washington Post article referenced in the comment, I believe what the writer meant to say (but didn't get across) is that only a part of the metaphor she was about to use applied to the situation at hand.

"Bringing a knife to a gunfight" has at least two separate connotations: (1) confrontation and (2) inappropriate response (e.g. lack of preparation). But the woman the columnist was talking to wasn't trying to confront her friend's husband but was trying to avoid conflict; the confrontation aspect implied by the metaphor didn't apply to the situation. It was the inappropriateness (in her view) of the woman's response that the columnist was trying to highlight, which is evidenced by her later advice to the woman.

I tried to think of how to reword what the columnist said to concisely match the meaning of what she probably meant, but couldn't do so. She probably should not have used the metaphor if she had to put a confusing qualifier on it.

  • 2
    I think you are reading too much into the author's mistake.
    – jwg
    Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 11:22
  • 1
    Possible it's a typo of mince.
    – Mazura
    Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 18:26

"Those who live by the sword get shot by those that don't". Is funny. It is meant to be funny. Those who know the remainder of the sentence get a good laugh. It is not a mixed metaphor. "She is a big as a dog in the manger" is a mixed metaphor because it mixes two metaphors and is incongruous. She may act like a dog in the manger and be as big as a house but that is not clearly stated.


It isn't at all a mixed metaphor… just - hopefully - not at all the best example of Carolyn Hax's writing talent.

What she seems to have meant wasn't in any way "mixed" but simply something like "inappropriate" or "unsuitable".

If she did mean "mixed" then she was simply wrong.

  • I like Carolyn Hax! :) Thanks for the answer. Commented Aug 30, 2021 at 6:22

You are using a limited definition of a mixed metaphor. The full definition is

a combination of two or more different metaphors, often producing a silly or humorous effect: "The new job has allowed her to spread her wings and really blossom," is a mixed metaphor.

In this case, two metaphors are used, correctly. They have combined two separate metaphors into one sentence, rather than combining two parts of metaphors into one incorrect metaphor.

We cannot know if the sentence is a mixed metaphor unless you tell us what the author thinks it has been mixed with.

So a potential set up that would make the sentence a mixed metaphor could be somethign along the lines of

"Country X has been rattling sabers since the commissioning of their new battleship"

to which the response could be

"Country Y has 3 battleships already, so pardon the mixed metaphor, they are bringing a knife to a gunfight"

The gunfight being the act of using military might to scare your opponents, and the kknife being the metaphorical sabre that they have been rattling.

  • One could argue that a saber is a form of knife...
    – barbecue
    Commented Jun 24, 2017 at 17:19
  • I've seen another definition which includes single metaphors with an incongruous tenor ... vehicle pairing such as 'That Jack Russell is a real tiger.' Commented Mar 14, 2018 at 14:29
  • 1
    @Scott Why not look at your own citation? In this case two metaphors are not used, making both mixing and correctness impossible. One - count 'em, one - metaphor is used, perhaps incorrectly but incorrect use is nothing like "mixing". Two metaphors are not used at all. Nothing is combined. We clearly do know the sentence is not a mixed metaphor because like Hax, you failed even to suggest what might have been mixed. Commented Aug 29, 2021 at 20:51

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