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I like using figurative language to lighten up my writing. However, I'm not sure how far you can take some stylistic devices, such as personification.

Please take a look at this example:

“XYZ is a fantastic writing app that also majored in code editing.”

(Saying that it is good at handling writing and code editing.)

As a reader of tech publications, I'm used to this kind of writing style. But my editor pointed out that only people can major in subjects, and, therefore, nobody would be able to understand what I mean.

I argue that this is the nature of personification and that people are smart enough to grasp way more complex examples.

What do you think? Is there a way to tell when stylistic devices go too far?

  • In asking "What do you think?", you are inviting closure as "Opinion-based". – Chenmunka Aug 6 at 17:43
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    So was this a double major? Because my instinct is that it should say 'minored in code editing' :P Then again, I'm not American and don't understand all the nuances of the system... – DM_with_secrets Aug 6 at 22:32
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Metaphors and personifications are wonderful figures, adding beauty and interest to writing, and often (especially in the case of metaphors) helping to explain the unknown in terms of the known. But as your editor points out here, it is possible to come up with a novel ('creative') metaphor or personification that detracts from rather than adds clarity. And some creative metaphors sound pretentious.

And I'd suggest (strongly) that this is a personification that is difficult to construe. My first guess at the meaning of 'majored' here was 'played a major part', not 'was an excellent method'. And in fact 'majoring in Russian literature' doesn't demand that the student is excelling.

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    Excellent point. Personally, I would say it works well in an informal, non-technical review aimed specifically at U.S. college students, but doesn't export well. It would also work better with slightly different phrasing, e.g. : "XYZ is a fantastic writing app, with dual majors in document and code editing" – Gwyn Aug 6 at 23:15
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It's all based on context.

If you suddenly introduce figurative language to a passage that is otherwise literal, then it can be jarring. But if the passage already contains figurative language, then using more of the same would be entirely appropriate.

I find it difficult to believe that the editor would object to figurative language in its own right. Figurative language is often employed, and often used even more figuratively than in the example passage.

Instead, I'd say that the editor was objecting to the use of figurative language in the particular context of the description of an application where figurative language wasn't used anywhere else. In most technical writing, figurative language goes against the guidance of style guides that would normally apply.

I'm sure that people would be able to understand what was meant, but what is actually being said is that it would cause some initial perplexity as a reader encountered the figurative phrase and had to pause to parse what was actually being said.

In short, it's a clever turn of phrase, and one that likely would make sense after some thought—especially to anybody who speaks English natively, but it's probably not the right stylistic context to be using figurative language in the first place.

On the other hand, if the entire passage that described the application already did use humorous and figurative language, then its presence would fit right in.

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