Good metaphors focus attention on important aspects of a topic, improve understanding and allow readers to see a subject in a new light.
Bad metaphors, on the other hand, cheapen writing. They draw on stereotypes and hackneyed phrasing, forcing an unwanted, unhelpful image upon you.
Take, for instance, the lead sports story in Saturday’s New York Times:
Merion is an old-fashioned beauty, with shapely fairways and greens and a lineage that can be traced to Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan, peerless names in golf’s Social Register. She reached maturity in a more genteel time, when decorum prevented any gentleman from insinuating that she was an easy conquest.
On its own, that lead wasn’t so bad. The writer couldn’t let it go, though.
Merion did not take kindly to the idea, put forth in the weeks leading to the start of the 113th United States Open, that she was a golf course past her prime, unable to hold off today’s macho players who think that they can shoot any score they please.
With an assist from the United States Golf Association, which took a proprietary interest in one of its grande dames, Merion has defended her reputation with the fury of a woman scorned. In response to those who predicted scores in the low 60s, she has delivered 22 scores in the 80s in the first two rounds.
It gets better:
Posting identical scores was Woods’s playing competitor and the world’s No. 2, Rory McIlroy, who had a hard time accepting the pars that Merion doled out like so many chaste kisses.
Merion has done her part to make this week miserable for the men who came to conquer her. The winner will be someone who shows her the proper respect, which Woods knows from his experience with other grande dames like St. Andrews and Pebble Beach.
“Just keep grinding,” Woods said. “You just don’t ever know what the winning score is going to be.
Really? A drawn-out metaphor of sexual conquest concludes with Tiger Woods, who has been sidetracked by sex scandals, saying, “Just keep grinding”?
Yes, sports journalism all too often falls into breathless, clichéd plotlines and vapid “battles” and “duels” and “conquests.” It doesn’t have to, though. Really, it doesn’t have to.