Anyone who has children – or has spent time with the little bl… I mean angels – will have uttered or heard that deathless phrase, “Stop showing off”. Usually as said offspring is disrupting a family lunch.
Little angel then sticks tongue out, hunches shoulders or pouts, before sulking for the next 20 minutes.
It turns out, children aren’t the only ones who need to stop showing off. Copywriters are good candidates too. Here’s what I mean.
Copywriter X is writing a corporate brochure, or a website, or a press release, and shimmering into view on the horizon she sees a delicious figure of speech coming her way. It’s a metaphor, no, it’s a simile, or is it a saying? Maybe it’s an epigram.
In truth, she has no idea, but she is definitely going to use it in her next sentence.
She writes, “The prospect of a comfortable retirement is the proverbial carrot dangling in front of us.”
She has made a common mistake – assuming that any figure of speech is a “proverbial” one.
In fact, only things derived from proverbs are proverbial (Er, no sh*t, Sherlock!). So you might, just, be forgiven for saying, “It’s like shutting the proverbial stable door after the horse has bolted”. This is still clumsy, but now, at least, accurate.
Our copywriter should have written, “The prospect of a comfortable retirement is the metaphorical carrot dangling in front of us.”
But given that her readers know it’s a metaphor (unless they are particularly dim), it would be better as, “The prospect of a comfortable retirement is a carrot dangling in front of us”.
For the same reason, we should avoid using “literally”. Partly because it is often misused as a synonym for its direct opposite – “figuratively” – as in, “I was literally sweating blood”. Or because it’s redundant, “The Acme Widget is literally unique”.
Another example of this writerly anxiety to be noticed is when “interesting” words or phrases are enclosed in speech marks. For example…
On Your Hind Legs is the speechwriter’s “Bible”. [subtext: On Your Hind Legs is not the speechwriter’s Bible. We just wish it was.]
On Your Hind Legs is the speechwriter’s Bible. [subtext: On Your Hind Legs is as important to speechwriters as the Bible is to Christians.]
And I’m telling you this because
Drawing your reader’s attention to the fact you’re using a figure of speech is never a good idea.
Either it’s a strong enough image to stand on its own two feet or you knock it down and come up with something better.