November 18, 2010

Weekly Language Usage Tips: in order to & figurative language–similes and metaphors

Posted in figurative language/similes/metaphors, in order to at 4:43 pm by dlseltzer

Tip 1: In order to

I was asked to write about ‘in order to.’ We’ve touched upon it now and then, but a review is always in order.

“In order to’: You see it everywhere.

Wikipedia would like $16 million in order to stay free.

In order to save biodiversity, society’s behavior must change, leading conservationists warn.

FCC to re-regulate internet in order to enforce net neutrality.

2010  NBA Finals,  Game three: In order to win, Lakers must contain Rajon Rondo.

Robot punches humans in order to learn Asimov’s rules.

These are just some of the headlines I found when I googled ‘in order to.’

So, what is the matter with ‘in order to’? It’s not wrong-it is just unnecessary.

‘To’ is all we need to convey the sense of ‘in order to.’ The other words are superfluous and do not add anything to the meaning or the presentation.

The only reason for using ‘in order to’ would be to add emphasis in certain contexts, and while we may want to do that in some headlines, it generally detracts from clear and concise writing.

I think Bryson said it best when he wrote:

In nearly every instance, removing in order tightens the sentence without altering the sense.


Tip 2: Figurative language: similes and metaphors

A reader wrote:

You are like a guardian angel.  Thank you.

When I saw this email, I thought to myself, now I know how to introduce this tip.

Writers use figurative language to help readers visualize what they are reading. Figurative language can be used in all kinds of writing; however, it is most commonly found in creative writing (e.g., fiction, poetry). We should probably avoid figurative language in our formal academic writing (e.g., the experiment started simply but grew into such a huge monster that I dared not end it until it gave me safe passage and allowed me to empty the  Petri dish).

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t know what figurative language is and how it should be used.

By using figurative language, we create images or sense perceptions that allow us to better imagine the events we are reading about. Common forms of figurative language include the simile and metaphor that form the basis of this tip as well as alliteration (the silly sailor sailed sideways), onomatopoeia (screech, buzz, cluck), idiom (a piece of cake), irony, (they call Oakland the Paris of Pennsylvania) oxymoron (jumbo shrimp), hyperbole (you could have knocked me over with a feather), pun (the calendar’s days are numbered), and many, many more figures of speech.

But I was asked to write about metaphors and similes, so here goes. A simile is created when two things that are different are likened to one another using words of comparison such as ‘like’ or ‘as.’

My love is like a red, red rose.

They are as alike as two peas in a pod.

Her heart is as cold as ice.

They fought like cats and dogs.

That guy is as nutty as a fruitcake.

I’m sure that many, if not all of the similes I used as example sound familiar as they are used fairly often. This is something you have to watch out for when using figurative language. It can become old and worn and will lose its effectiveness. At that point, the simile becomes another figure of speech–the cliché which should be avoided at all cost.

How do metaphors differ from similes? Metaphors, like similes, are statements of comparison, but while similes use words of comparison (e.g., like, as), in metaphors, the words of comparison are missing and the image is made by saying that X is Z.

He showered his friends with gifts.

We rejected his idea as being half-baked.

Every July, we welcome a new crop of students.

Time is a thief.

The heart is a lonely hunter.

Your words were a dagger in my heart.

Because the signal words of comparison are missing, it may be harder to discern the metaphor, but you will know them because they are figurative, not literal. (He didn’t really shower his friends; the idea wasn’t really cooked; we don’t actually grow a new group of students; time isn’t really into thievery…but, you get the idea.)

One thing you have to be careful about is mixing your metaphors. What are mixed metaphors? Well, sometimes, we mix up the imagery; for example we talked about the heart being a lonely hunter-we wouldn’t want to mix that image with an image that refers to music:

The heart is a lonely hunter and marches to the beat of a different drummer.

While they can be fun to read, mixed metaphors do anything but lead to clarity.

This experiment is a dollar late and a day short.

There’s this about the recent electoral trouncing:

“We’ll have a lot of new blood holding gavels in Washington.”
(Senator Jack Kingston, quoted in the Savannah Morning News, Nov. 3, 2010)

And a classic from a few centuries past:

“Sir, I smell a rat; I see him forming in the air and darkening the sky; but I’ll nip him in the bud.”
(attributed to Sir Boyle Roche, 1736-1807)



  1. Leonard said,

    For informal expressions and in speech ‘to’ is enough, but I think ‘in order to’ flows much better in writing.

    • dlseltzer said,

      I’l approve your comment, but you are wrong. To is much stronger

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